His fellow rookies might not view him as the freshman most likely to succeed at the next level, but one newly minted Hall of Famer sees Ben Simmons — the No. 1 overall pick in the 2016 NBA draft, and the new face of the Philadelphia 76ers — as a player whose gifts and approach mirror those of one of the all-time greats.
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In a chat with reporters last week ahead of his induction in the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame, legendary center and “Inside the NBA” commentator Shaquille O’Neal dropped one heck of a compliment — and an awful lot to live up to — on his fellow former LSU standout, according to Jessica Camerato of Comcast SportsNet Philadelphia:
“I don’t know all of [the incoming rookies], but I know my guy’s going to be pretty good, Ben Simmons,” O’Neal said last week in Springfield, Mass. […]
O’Neal recognized Simmons’ multidimensional skillset, from scoring to ball handling to rebounding, which sets him apart as a 6-foot-10 point-forward. Even though Simmons played just one season in college, that was enough time for O’Neal to draw comparisons between him and one of the most talented in the NBA.
“He’s a LeBron-type player,” O’Neal said. “What I mean by that, LeBron does a nice job of making everybody else around him better — passing the ball, doing the small things — and Ben is that type of player.”
“Hey, Ben, you know how you’re joining a team that’s gone 47-199 over the last three seasons, that hasn’t gotten past the second round of the playoffs in 15 years, and that hasn’t won a title since 1983, and how you’re expected to be the one to change literally all of that? Well, on top of that, here’s the burden of expectations to perform like a four-time Most Valuable Player and three-time champion who, before all’s said and done, might just have a legitimate claim to being the best player of all time. Have fun with that!” — Noted Pal and Things-Easier-Maker Shaq, basically.
While O’Neal’s remarks give the young Aussie some sizable shoes to fill before he’s even set foot on the court for his first NBA game, the comparison itself is nothing new. Plenty of hype has attended the 6-foot-10, 240-pound playmaking combo forward since his prep days, well before he arrived in Baton Rouge and began stuffing stat sheets, averaging 19.2 points, 11.8 rebounds, 4.8 assists and two steals per game en route to a consensus First-Team All-America selection. Much of the excitement surrounding Simmons’ game has come as a result of his remarkable ability to facilitate despite his stature, fueled by floor vision that marks him as a stylistic descendant of daring dime-droppers like Jason Kidd and, yes, LeBron:
Simmons’ turn at Las Vegas Summer League, which featured more than a few “holy cow”-caliber passes, left fellow 2016 first-round draft pick Denzel Valentine of the Chicago Bulls calling him “a mini-LeBron.” (This despite Simmons measuring 6-foot-10, while James is listed at 6-foot-8, albeit at a heavier and more muscular 250 lbs.) While the 76ers have added Spanish veteran Sergio Rodriguez, combo guard Jerryd Bayless and undrafted rookie Cat Barber to a point-guard rotation that also features incumbent T.J. McConnell, Philly coach Brett Brown has already said the club will experiment with running things through Simmons as a jumbo point forward, much as Paul Silas did with James during his rookie season with the Cleveland Cavaliers back.
Shaq’s far from the only one who has connected the dots between the size, vision and playmaking panache of the No. 1 picks from the 2003 and 2016 drafts:
LSU's Ben Simmons is the best all around player I've seen since LeBron James came out of high school straight to the NBA!
— Earvin Magic Johnson (@MagicJohnson) January 6, 2016
— Arash Markazi (@ArashMarkazi) May 10, 2016
Heck, James himself has discussed the similarities between the two, and it’s worth noting that LeBron raved about Simmons earlier this summer, saying he intends to serve as a mentor to his young workout partner, golf buddy and Klutch Sports stablemate, according to James Herbert of CBSSports.com:
“Well, I think he’s a great young talent,” James said. “I think the way he displays on the basketball court, we all notice. I think we all don’t know just yet how great of a kid he is and how down to earth he is with the game of basketball and life in general. I had an opportunity to spend a lot of time over the last couple years with him and his family. They’re just so very appreciative of the opportunity that they’ve been given as a family. Also, they give everything to their son. They want the best for him. And as a mentor to him and big brother to him, I also give him a lot of advice on what to expect when he makes his jump next week, how to handle it. But he also has to figure it out on his own as well because everybody’s path is different.”
“I don’t mind it,” James said Friday before the Cavs’ 114-108 overtime loss to the New Orleans Pelicans. “Someone’s going to be compared to someone all the time, and I don’t mind him being compared to me. People not only recognizing what he does on the floor, but he’s a great kid, too. He has a great family, great support system, and that’s why he’s able to do what he [does] on the floor.” […]
“I’ve watched him a lot, but I’ve watched him way before he showed up at Baton Rouge,” James said. “I’ve been on him for probably three or four years now, and he’s an unbelievable talent.”
That said, the comparison is incomplete at best and wholly unfair at worst. I mean, of course it is; James is one of the best and most decorated players in the history of the game, and Simmons hasn’t logged a single NBA second. Simmons doesn’t have to get to James’ level to be special or to make the Sixers significantly better, though; for now, he just needs to better at getting his teammates open looks and creating scoring chances than the options Philly has trotted out over the past few seasons. With all due respect to the sons of Sam Hinkie, that shouldn’t be too high a bar to clear.
While some NBA decision-makers questioned Simmons’ drive, shooting form, struggles to take over games and inability to lead LSU out of listless play and into an NCAA tournament berth in the months leading up to the draft, O’Neal doesn’t see any reason to be especially concerned about that, according to Camerato:
“He took a lot of flack, especially at LSU with not really taking over games,” O’Neal said. “But he’s young. He’ll get to that. When it comes to other aspects of the game, he’s very, very intelligent,” O’Neal said. “He plays the game very well.”
And judging by his answer to a camper’s question back in July, he plays it without fear, too. From Tom Moore of Calkins Media:
Later, when a camper at Valley Forge Military Academy wondered who he was most looking forward to facing in the NBA, Simmons responded, “LeBron.”
Simmons will get his first crack at proving he can measure up to the comparisons made by O’Neal and others on Saturday, Nov. 5, when James and the defending champion Cavs visit the Wells Fargo Center. Be careful what you wish for, rook.
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