Next LeBron James? Ben Simmons looks ready to grow into the role

BATON ROUGE, La. – Ben Simmons has already drawn comparisons to LeBron James and Magic Johnson less than a month into his college career. So does LSU basketball coach Johnny Jones have any hope his talented freshman will wait on the NBA and return for his sophomore season?

"Absolutely not," Jones told Yahoo Sports.

With the college basketball season now in full swing, Simmons has become the latest one-and-done darling and is expected to be the top overall pick in next year's NBA draft.

A 6-foot-10 forward, Simmons has wasted little time showing off his versatility and unselfishness. He can pass, rebound and physically dominate. He had 43 points, 14 rebounds, seven assists, five steals and three blocks in a victory over North Florida on Wednesday night. He also had 16 assists against South Alabama and nearly recorded a triple-double with 21 points, 20 assists and seven rebounds versus Marquette.

And Simmons, 19, has played in only seven games.

Ben Simmons (right) often brings the ball up the floor after a rebound. (AP)
Ben Simmons (right) often brings the ball up the floor after a rebound. (AP)

"We're embracing the time we have with him," Jones told Yahoo Sports. "He's like a Shaquille O'Neal. Those guys don't come around often."

One NBA general manager who watched Simmons at the Legends Classic in New York last week described him as a franchise-altering prospect.

"He's a tremendous talent. There is so much he can do," the GM told Yahoo Sports. "He fits into the modern NBA as far as a big who can handle, pass and rebound. High basketball IQ. He has a few things he could work on, but he is a foundation player.

"He just makes everyone better. It's hard to find players who make everyone better. He is unique in that way. Growth needs to occur, but he has a lot of skills. A lot of tools."

There isn't much that Simmons can't do. But while the Australian may beg to differ, he does need to improve his jump shot. He's taken only two 3-pointers, making one. He also doesn't regret twice deferring to teammates and not taking a potentially game-winning shot in the final seconds of an 81-80 loss to Marquette.

"If I don't need to shoot the ball, I won't do it," Simmons said. "I don't think I took one three against Marquette and I had [21 points]. Once I start shooting that jumper, I feel like I will be one of those guys that is hard to stop."

Simmons and Jones laugh at talk that he might be too unselfish.

"His main concern is trying to make other people better and to create opportunities for others because his main focus is winning, whether it's him scoring, them scoring or creating an opportunity," Jones told Yahoo Sports. "He has a great balance of that."

Simmons said his father Dave has always preached playing for the benefit of the team over individual statistics. Ben Simmons doesn't plan on changing from that mentality. Dave Simmons played collegiately at Oklahoma City University and played professionally in Central America, South America and Australia.

"They tell me to shoot the ball [outside] a little bit," Ben Simmons told Yahoo Sports. "I have guys on my team who could do that. And that's their jobs, specifically. I feel I can win the game without scoring 30 points.

"Growing up in Australia and the way I was raised, my dad told me to play as a team and to be a team player. You have five guys on the court. It's easy for five guys to defend one guy. It's hard to guard five. It's just a natural thing to do."

Simmons also has impressed NBA scouts with his passing. (Getty Images)
Simmons also has impressed NBA scouts with his passing. (Getty Images)

Simmons is LSU's most heralded player since O'Neal, who praised Simmons in a recent interview. Simmons turned down three major programs – all of whom are known for sending players straight to the NBA after one season – in Kentucky, Kansas and Duke.

LSU assistant coach David Patrick is Simmons' godfather, played in Australia with Simmons' father and has known the family for over 25 years. Jones had a strong relationship with Ben Simmons' brother Liam, an assistant coach at Southwest Baptist in Missouri, quickly connected with his parents and came through on a promise that LSU would play exhibition games in Australia.

Ben Simmons said he never considered skipping college and playing professionally in Australia or China. He also didn't take any other official college visits either.

"It would be a blessing to go [straight to] the NBA, but I couldn't do that. So the next best thing was going to LSU," Simmons told Yahoo Sports.

Jones was so ecstatic when Simmons told him he was signing with LSU that he nearly wrecked his car.

"I knew he was about to come on an official visit and he called and I answered the phone and said, 'Hey Ben.' 'Hey coach, I was calling to yet you know I was coming,' " Jones told Yahoo Sports. "I said, 'Yeah, I know, I'm looking forward to you guys coming down here.' He said, 'No, no, I'm coming to school there. I'm calling to commit.'

"I got chills over it. I crossed [four lanes] of traffic and I had to go park. People were blowing their horns. I just got to the parking lot and put my car in park and started talking to him."

In hopes of making the best of Simmons' offensive skills, Jones and his staff structured their offense around him. Simmons often takes the ball up the floor off his rebound and the Tigers utilize his pass-first mentality. He reads the offense like a point guard and if all else fails, uses his dribbling skills, quickness and athleticism to take the ball to the basket.

"We are still in the middle of tweaking things to allow him more space on the floor or space for other guys out of the things that we're running," Jones told Yahoo Sports. "It's been a learning experience. As a team, we're still developing."

Said Simmons: "I just look at the two gaps between the left side and the right side of my defender. … It just depends on how I feel and how I'm free to move. If I have a big man, if I push him one way he's not going to be quick enough to switch back to his [defensive] stance.

"It's going to be a foul automatically. That's why I usually use my right hand and go into them with the same side because I know I will get fouled."

James, Kobe Bryant, James Harden, Anthony Davis and Kevin Durant got a chance to watch Simmons during the Nike Basketball Academy in Santa Monica, Calif., in late June. There were reports that Simmons held his own playing against Harden and Davis. Simmons said the best advice he received came from Harden, who helped him with his jab step.

"That was really fun for me," Simmons told Yahoo Sports. "A new experience for me having all the vets there. Old players, new players. The best players in the world right now. James Harden, Anthony Davis, LeBron, Kobe and getting their advice and learning from the best."

Simmons said he stopped being awestruck of NBA players when he met and played against his idol, James, while participating in the All-Star's skills academy in 2014. Simmons said he and James often talk regularly on the phone.

"I just get a lot of advice from him," Simmons told Yahoo Sports. "He's like a big brother to me.

"I try to take care of my own stuff. But if I have something I really need help with I definitely talk to him. If I need him, I give him a call."

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