Before he ever stepped foot on LSU’s campus, Ben Simmons was surrounded by hype as the consensus No. 1 pick for the 2016 NBA draft.
Now two months into his freshman season with the Tigers, little has changed. If anything, the hype has expanded even more.
Simmons is averaging 20.1 points, 12.9 rebounds, 5.2 assists, 2.1 steals and 1.4 blocks while shooting 58.7 percent from the field and 74.3 percent from the free throw line.
His multifaceted game has already conjured up comparisons to LeBron James and Magic Johnson. And lofty as those comps are, they’re not out of the question in terms of ceiling.
However, Simmons isn’t a carbon copy of either of those players. In fact, no one NBA prospect plays exactly like someone who’s already in the pros. For that reason, catch-all player comparisons often fall short.
In this piece, we’ll still compare Simmons to current or former NBA players, but we’ll look at multiple aspects of his game: scoring, playmaking, rebounding and defense.
SCORING – LeBron James
The biggest question regarding Simmons’ scoring ability revolves around his shooting. Specifically, can he? So far this season, he hasn’t really had the need to show off his stroke. After all, he’s averaging 20 points and shooting nearly 60 percent from the field while relying on his ability to get to the rim.
When LeBron James first entered the league, he faced similar questions, though he was able to develop a jump shot over time. It wasn’t until his stint with the Miami Heat that James was truly reliable outside the paint.
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James was still able to dominate as he developed because of his ability to get to the rim at will, an ability Simmons also possesses. LSU’s big man gets to the paint whenever he wants, showing great touch inside when the dunk isn’t available.
In the NBA, Simmons can score as a slasher as his jump shot develops. Despite not showing much range in college, high school highlights prove his shot isn’t broken.
Over time, he’ll become reliable as a shooter, as long as it’s something he focuses on.
PLAYMAKING – Toni Kukoc
Simmons is currently eighth in the SEC in assist percentage and the tallest player in the top 20 by four inches. His combination of size and playmaking ability makes him one of the most unique players in the country and reminiscent of a young Toni Kukoc.
Among players who appeared in at least 100 NBA games and are 6’10” (Simmons’ height) or taller, Kukoc has the highest assist percentage ever.
And the Croatian Sensation showed a flair for the dramatic on many of his dimes.
Simmons has shown a similar dynamism as a creator. He’s extremely quick off the bounce and creative in how he finds open teammates, particularly on the break.
He’ll likely need to get more comfortable as the ball-handler in pick-and-rolls (something he hasn’t done a lot of at LSU), but he’s already among the best playmakers in this draft class.
REBOUNDING – Blake Griffin
When he was in college, Blake Griffin was a more prolific rebounder than Simmons is now, but the comparison can still work for a couple of reasons.
Griffin’s rebounding has a lot to do with his athleticism. You don’t think of him as a guy who’s carving out a ton of space with a fundamentally sound box-out like Kevin Love. Simmons is similar in that sense. Many of his rebounds at LSU come by virtue of the fact that he’s the best athlete under the rim.
And once either one of these guys gets a rebound, it’s off to the races. Both are capable of leading a break, thus eliminating the outlet pass. That doesn’t necessarily relate to rebounding ability directly, but it’s a part of their mindset as they grab boards.
DEFENSE – Lamar Odom
Simmons’ defense has been questioned at times this season, which may not be fair. He currently leads his team and is seventh in the SEC (among players with at least 100 minutes) in Defensive Box Plus-Minus (DBPM). And he’s one of only two players in the entire NCAA averaging at least two steals and one block.
His combination of size, versatility and smoothness on that end is a lot like Lamar Odom’s. Like Simmons, Odom didn’t get much credit for his defense, despite never posting a negative DBPM in any season he played. He also averaged 0.9 blocks and 0.9 steals over his career, something only a handful of other 6’10”-or-taller players can claim.
Like Odom, Simmons may never make an All-Defense team, but there’s no reason to think he’ll be a liability. He does a decent job of staying in front of his man in on-ball situations and he’s generally smart about using his size all over the floor.
OVERALL – Taller Draymond Green
LeBron may have already passed the point forward torch to Draymond Green, who may, in turn, pass it to Simmons. The LSU freshman truly does a little bit of everything on the court.
He’ll likely fall short of this comparison on the defensive end, but there’s a good chance he’ll exceed it on the other. It’s not unreasonable to imagine Simmons one day averaging 20 points and 10 assists in the NBA. He’s that good a passer.
He just needs the determination to develop and a system in which his abilities will be magnified.
Andy Bailey is on Twitter @AndrewDBiley.