Every few years, an exceptional talent enters the NBA draft with the grandest of expectations. Teams, fans and brands put their hopes on one player, looking for immediate impact and a change of fortune.
As he headed toward an obvious one-and-done season at LSU, versatile 6-foot-10 forward Ben Simmons was considered to be that guy. After a season filled with brilliant playmaking and episodes of indifference, doubts were raised among team and brand executives.
The Australian-born prodigy first burst onto the scene at the 2012 adidas Nations tournament in Southern California and soon after moved to the states to attend high school at Montverde Academy, a Nike-sponsored school in Florida.
After leaving Nike-sponsored LSU to turn pro, Simmons officially announced last week that he had formalized a representation agreement with agent Rich Paul, whose path to becoming an NBA player agent was forged through his longtime relationship with fellow Cleveland-area native LeBron James. In his early 20s, Paul sold throwback jerseys to the then-St. Vincent-St. Mary's phenom before James leaped directly to the NBA as a teenager. Once James turned pro, they continued their relationship, with Paul eventually representing him as a junior agent at Creative Artists Agency under Leon Rose.
In 2012, James and Paul crafted the concept of Klutch Sports, a Cleveland-based sports agency with Paul at the helm that aimed to represent pro players in both team and marketing negotiations. It's believed throughout the industry that James will ultimately receive a percentage of the agency's revenues.
Klutch Sports represents 12 active NBA players, and 10 have shoe deals with Nike. Its newest client, John Wall, is a shoe free agent who can sign a sneaker deal this summer – expected throughout the industry to be with Nike's subsidiary, Jordan Brand. The only other Klutch client not with Nike is Sacramento Kings guard Ben McLemore, whose first agent negotiated a deal with adidas.
All of this matters when it comes to Klutch Sports and the upcoming negotiations for Simmons' sneaker endorsement. Simmons was recently in Cleveland, mapping out his predraft process. He is looking to sign his shoe deal before the June 23 draft and preferably before May 17, when teams are slotted for the NBA draft lottery.
As The Vertical reported earlier this month, Simmons' older sister, Emily Bush, has been a marketing/branding employee of Klutch Sports since 2014. After Simmons attended James’ Nike Skills Camp in the summer of 2014, Klutch hired Bush to work remotely from Scottsdale, Ariz.
When James received the monstrous seven-year, $90 million endorsement deal with Nike before his rookie season in 2003, he had three brands at the table. Nike, adidas and Reebok were each aggressively pursuing a deal with Goodwin Sports, James’ agency at the time.
Multiple industry sources at each of the major brands told The Vertical there won't be a transcendent shoe deal on the table for Simmons this spring.
Baltimore-based Under Armour isn't in the running for Simmons and is instead focused on spending its resources expanding reigning MVP Stephen Curry's shoe line as it continues to establish its footwear business. Simmons also is not looking for a shoe deal with a Chinese-based company.
That leaves just two brands for Paul and Klutch Sports to create a bidding war for Simmons: Nike and adidas.
It's incredibly rare that an agent would have such overwhelming ties to one brand as Paul does with Nike. Nike sports marketing executive Lynn Merritt has an exceptionally close relationship with James and Paul. Many feel Merritt and James are looking to Simmons as a future all-around star who can carry the torch for Nike's LeBron shoe series when James’ career is over. They are trying to recreate the way Michael Jordan handpicked a roster of guards during the latter stages of his career to lead his newly formed Jordan Brand. Simmons wore the Nike LeBron 13 shoe in custom colors at LSU.
The keys to the kingdom
To find a situation like Simmons' that ended up veering away from the expected outcome, you'd have to go back to 1996, when No. 1 draft pick Allen Iverson spurned Nike for Reebok.
"I remember when I went to Coach [John] Thompson, and I told him it was between Reebok and Nike. He was on the board of directors at Nike!" recalled the former Georgetown star, laughing.
Iverson's initial agent, David Falk, represented Michael Jordan along with practically every Georgetown star and several other top Nike endorsers. But to Falk that didn't mean he would just walk Iverson to Nike, which Iverson had worn all his life.
"Typically, I call all of the companies and give them an opportunity to make a presentation," Falk said. "It came down to Nike and Reebok, and obviously Coach Thompson is a strong Nike guy, and Georgetown is one of the top Nike schools. John’s on the board at Nike and has a close relationship with [Nike chairman] Phil Knight. In that year though, in 1996, they weren’t nearly as aggressive [as Reebok]."
Iverson signed a 10-year, $60 million deal with Reebok, Falk said, which was the highest guarantee for a rookie until LeBron's deal.
"I think David looked at it, like, if he could have a star player like Jordan over at Nike, and get a star player in Iverson over at Reebok, too, it’d be better for him. He would have the keys to the kingdom," said Que Gaskins, the former Reebok vice president of marketing who managed the Iverson partnership early on.
For Paul to get the best possible shoe deal for Simmons, and to diversify his clients’ deals, he'll have to take that same open-minded approach.
Bush is said to be taking an active role in the early stages of her brother’s shoe-deal discussions, and multiple sources said Klutch Sports is looking to negotiate openly "and in good faith" with both Nike and adidas.
"It's wide open," a source said.
Questions loom about Simmons’ killer instinct, his true desire to be a franchise player and on a more fundamental level, his subpar shooting ability. Jonathan Givony of The Vertical and DraftExpress has been increasingly skeptical of Simmons' potential as the draft's No. 1 overall pick, preferring Duke's Brandon Ingram instead.
The idea that a sneaker brand will offer Simmons anywhere near $100 million is out of the question. A more realistic range is believed to be between what former top picks Andrew Wiggins (five years, $11 million with adidas) and John Wall (five years, $25 million with Reebok) each received on their rookie shoe deals. Both deals included several rollback and incentive clauses, which is the industry standard.
It's best for Simmons' sake that Klutch Sports appears to be equally pursuing an adidas shoe deal to create some leverage with Nike. While the risk of losing LeBron to either Reebok or adidas in 2003 was very real, many don't think Nike execs are as scared of losing out on Simmons despite the expectation that adidas may offer considerably more cash.
“If Nike doesn't think he'd actually go to adidas, they won't budge [on their offer]," another source said.
While Simmons' shoe deal won't reach the headline-grabbing, nine-digit plateau that some expect, Paul, with his existing relationships and loyalties, is in store for a true test of negotiation if he hopes to, like Falk before him, have the “keys to the kingdom.”
Draft coverage from The Vertical: