Ben Simmons: LeBron 2.0

“He’s the remix, baaaaby!”

–Jalen Rose

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Ben Simmons is an NBA phenomenon.  The 2016 #1 overall draft pick has been surrounded by storms of hype and anticipation since he came to the U.S. in early 2013 from Australia to garner more attention from NBA scouts.  Simmons enrolled at Montverde Academy in Florida and then led his team to three consecutive national titles, snatching up MVP honors at just about every tournament and big game along the way.

After years of prep-school dominance, Simmons went to LSU for a season and, despite a more pedestrian outcome (LSU failed to even make the NCAA March Madness Tournament), he was still the odds-on favorite to go #1 overall in the NBA Draft.  The 76ers – made their intent to follow through on that known to Simmons two days before the draft, and then, on the night of the draft, followed through with that promise.

The awards, the championships, the hype, and the boundless potential: it’s easy to see where the LeBron comparisons come from. Most of us remember the media frenzy surrounding LeBron before he was drafted in 2003; now, 13 years later, the conversations around Simmons feel strikingly similar.

Their similarity continues on the basketball court.  Freakish athletes with abnormal levels of coordination for players their size, James and Simmons both seem to possess an uncanny blend of knowledge and feel for the game, and both are physically capable of guarding just about anyone on the floor.  Hell, Simmons’ weaknesses mirror LeBron, who, though he is one of the best few basketball players ever, has always been plagued by two shortcomings: mental fortitude (or lack thereof) and his jump shot.

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LeBron and Simmons even took similar first steps into their professional limelights.  He’s already signed with the same superstar agent as LeBron (Rich Paul) and recently did a SLAM Magazine cover shoot that mimicked LeBron’s pre-draft cover. The two wore the same jersey, with LeBron’s cover reading “Ready to Rule”, and Simmons’ echoing back, “Heir to the Throne.”  His hilarious draft-night Footlocker commercials show that he understands what it takes to shape the media’s narrative of him, and also that he has a sense of humor:

issue-71-lebronJames and Simmons recognize the value in carefully crafting a public persona: if the fans love you, they’ll give you the benefit of the doubt more often than not (Tom Brady allegedly deflating footballs became a bigger deal than Peyton Manning allegedly taking HGH: which one do you think did more clever commercials?).  

LeBron forgot the number 1 rule of public relations 6 years ago, and ‘The Decision’ will forever leave a sour taste in people’s mouths because of it.  But, with the Believeland narrative complete, even some of his biggest haters are starting to come around (myself included).

Why is the title of this piece LeBron 2.0?  If they’re so similar, then how could Simmons ever possibly live up to, never-mind surpass, the greatness of LeBron’s NBA legacy?

Despite their overwhelming similarities, Simmons’ game has some key differences.  LeBron wreaked havoc on the NBA as a point-forward that sets up others, handles the ball, and finished at the rim by slashing or posting up.  He’s averaged about 28 points, 7 rebounds and 7 assists per game, shooting 50% from the field – absurd numbers for anyone not named LeBron.  On a game-by-game basis, LeBron will get his 25-30 points, snag some rebounds, keep his teammates involved, and do it all efficiently.

img_20160511_114508Simmons, on the other hand, leans more toward the traditional big-man side of the guard/big hybrid that they both typify.  He is taller, he rebounds, and he can use his size to guard bigger guys than LeBron and his superb quickness to switch on any pick-and-roll. At LSU, Simmons averaged nearly 12 rebounds a game, including some games in which he snatched 17-20.  Those are Andre Drummond-esque rebounding numbers – except from a player who could run the point if a team was crazy enough to let him try it.

Given Philly’s guard depth, they might be crazy not to try him out at the 1.

Simmons is a nightly lock for a double-double, and still averaged 5 assists per game last year.  Early on, Simmons will carry less of a scoring burden than James because his game is less polished, but the assists will be nearly the same, and the rebounds will almost certainly be higher.

The case could be made that, with the emphasis on small-ball and position-less play in the modern NBA, Simmons might thrive in modern offensive systems to a degree that LeBron never did – though this is entirely contingent upon Simmons developing a serviceable jump-shot. That being said, any player with the size to play center and the ability to play LeBron’s role things might be more valuable to a team than a wing with the same skills.

Let’s say, for argument’s sake, that Simmons is able to shoot 35% from three once he’s in the NBA – and, judging from the video above, he should be at least capable of that – that means that any team he plays against has to find someone to defend him that is capable of guarding a poor man’s Kevin Durant and an even bigger, longer version of LeBron.

Simmons is so intriguing because he has the tools to hypothetically become a stronger KD, and a longer, taller LBJ.  Whether or not he even sniffs that level of play in the NBA remains to be seen, but the potential is hypothetically there.  If he even gets close to his hypothetical ceiling, then the matchup problems it would hypothetically create might hypothetically make him the hardest player to hypothetically guard in the league: Simmons has the size to overpower front-court players, and the quickness and skill to make back-court players look lost when trying to guard him.

Hypothetically of course.

But, that’s an awfully strong dose of hypothetically-s.  His seeming disinterest while at LSU might be an enormous warning sign that he lacks the killer instinct it will take for him to reach these heights.

Or, he could’ve just been so much better than his collegiate competition that he got bored.

Some people would call the Ben Simmons/LeBron James comparison lazy, easy, and a bit uninspired; those people are probably right, but they’re also a bit short-sighted.  It’s an easy comparison, sure, but it involves so much nuance and so many countless permutations for how it’ll play out.  We can predict how good Simmons might hypothetically be, but we’ll never know how good he will be until he actually plays at the highest level against players like LeBron.  This speculation might look like crazy-talk once he starts suiting up for the 76ers.

18586893-mmmainSimmons figured out the media, and is playing their game at the highest of levels; but can he achieve the same outcome on the court?  He could just turn out to be the next in line for Kwame Brown’s/Darko Milicic’s/Anthony Bennet’s titles of Biggest Draft Bust.  Then again, he might be the true Heir to LeBron’s throne. 

Only time will tell.

By Robert White