Ben Simmons is a basketball Rorschach test.
For some, he's a versatile, positionless player that can run an offense like a point guard, firing passes around the court like he's getting radio signals from the stands while dribbling his way to the basket around hapless defenders. For others, he's a lazy, selfish, overrated forward that can't shoot from the perimeter and doesn't give consistent effort on defense.
LSU didn't qualify for postseason play this season, with Johnny Jones squad struggling to a 19-14 record and an embarrassing 71-38 loss in the SEC tournament to Texas A&M. Yes, they scored 38 points, the lowest points in a game by a Division I team all season, in a game they needed to win if they wanted to make the NCAA tournament.
Simmons finished that game with a double-double, scoring 10 points and grabbing 12 rebounds in a game where he and his teammates lacked any cohesiveness and will to win. He picked up a technical foul late in the game for spiking the ball, and struggled with foul trouble most of the game.
With LSU and Simmons' collapse in the second half of the season, the sterling prospect Brandon Ingram has vaulted him for the top position on many a Big Board. Ingram and his Duke teammates had a nice NCAA tournament run, and Ingram was a large part of it. The league, enthralled by the Warriors historic shooting, values Ingram's ability to score from the perimeter as a forward.
Ingram is a foil to Simmons in so many ways. Duke is a flagship basketball program, with Coach K providing leadership as one of the greatest coaches ever at the top. LSU is not a basketball school, and the program struggled to find calm with the attention that Simmons brought. Ingram was never going to be bigger than Duke, no matter how well he played. Simmons was bigger than LSU before he played his first game.
The shift of attention for the No. 1 pick from Simmons to Ingram was inevitable - chicks dig the long ball. The negatives that have surfaced in Simmons' game are real concerns, and it would be dishonest to ignore them. But focusing on what Simmons can't do shouldn't erase what Simmons can do. For me, it's like criticizing an Apache helicopter for not being a F-16. "If only the Apache could do what the F-16 does" is, pardon my language, a completely stupid statement.
Simmons is an incredible basketball player, a truly unique talent with few comparisons. He was effectively the starting center for the Tigers most of the season on defense while serving as a ballhandler on offense. His unique combination of size, quickness, vision, ballhandling, and feel for the game helps him create opportunities to score on his own and for his teammates to score.
The best place to give Simmons the ball, in my opinion, is inside the 3-point line. Once he's inside the post, he can find cutters, spot-up shooters, or get by his defender and create opportunities from there. With his speed and strength, he's going to be difficult to guard in the post, and if he's double-teamed, it's going to lead to a wide-open shot somewhere. Since he's such an elite passer, it isn't uncommon for all the players on the court to get caught looking at him, watching to see what he is going to do with the ball.
With his leaping ability, Simmons is a talented rebounder, finishing with double-digit rebounds in 25 of the 33 games he played during his one season at LSU. He can rebound his own misses thanks to his second-jump ability, but defensive rebounds are where he has an opportunity to shine. When he grabs misses on defense, he can spin and take the ball the length of the court for easy transition opportunities for himself or his teammates. He's left-handed, but can finish with either hand, and shot 75 percent at the rim this year, according to Hoop-Math.
Watch enough of Simmons play on offense, and before you know it, you'll have to pick your jaw up off the floor. Having a player like Simmons allows teams to get freaky - in a good way - with lineups. Want to go hyper-active on defense? Put Simmons out there with a defensive center and three wings and switch everything. Want to make a defensive assistant coach dump his pants? Go small with an offensive center, Simmons at power forward, and three guards.
Simmons averaged as many offensive rebounds per game at LSU as Kenneth Faried has for his career - and Simmons isn't just waiting near the rim on offense waiting for a loose ball to come his way. He doesn't have quite the powerful explosion, but he's so fast on his second jump that he can tap the ball back into the air to secure it against larger players.
Simmons finishes with both hands, and while he's strong hand is his left, he uses his right to draw contact and get to the free throw line. He averaged 11.6 field goal attempts per game, and he drew a foul 75 percent of the time, according to Basketball Reference. Think about how often Danilo Gallinari was able to get to the free throw line this season - his free throw rate is 61.7 percent, and Simmons free throw rate was 76.9 percent. That's 25 percent more often than the Nuggets best free throw threat - a truly elite skill. Shooting 67 percent at the line is a good enough rate that he's going to be a threat to score 3 points frequently without taking shots from behind the 3-point line.
One of the best stories of the season has been the Milwaukee Bucks unleashing Point Giannis on the league since they've been eliminated from postseason contention. Since the All-Star break, Giannis Antetokounmpo has made one - ONE - 3-pointer while getting four triple-doubles. He has been, in a word, unstoppable. Giannis is getting to the rim against defenses that are packing the paint, and when defenders take their eyes off their man, bam, Giannis gets the ball to them for a bucket.
With Simmons, that same 3-point threat might exist. He doesn't have Giannis' wingspan, or athleticism (who does?) but he can bring a similar level of production as a positionless ballhandler. A Mudiay-Harris-Gallinari-Simmons-Jokic lineup could be top 10 in the league on offense and defense, and would be so much fun to watch play 30 minutes a game from November all the way into May.
Simmons is the number one player on my board, and if the Nuggets somehow land a top-3 pick and he's available, I would be very excited to have Simmons playing with the Nuggets next season. I don't care about the off-court issues at LSU - his tools outweigh the red flags that came up throughout the season. Simmons can elevate the play of all the players around him - helping Gary Harris with back-door cuts and corner threes, running pick and roll with Emmanuel Mudiay, and presenting a large target that can play above the rim for Nikola Jokic when he's set up in the post.
There is a power forward that is established as a starter in Denver, and that would be a concern. But if Simmons is available, you take him and let life work itself out. If he's a bust, and I realize that he very well could be, at least Faried is there as a fall-back.
If Simmons is able to receive guidance and instruction from Michael Malone and the Nuggets coaching staff, I think he has the tools to become an amazing talent in the NBA. The odds of the Nuggets getting him are low, but I'll be over here hoping for the best.