The Rookie of the Year favorite according to Vegas, even if not his fellow rookies, Philadelphia 76ers first overall pick Ben Simmons is the new face of a franchise eager to wipe away years of embarrassing losses while beginning the ascent up the Eastern Conference ladder.
Blessed with preternatural court vision and the size to create passing angles most point guards could only dream about, the common refrain holds that Simmons will make everything much easier for his teammates on the offensive end. Basically, the Australian star is expected to come in and serve as a magic wand, transforming the Sixers roster from a lowly pumpkin into a carriage toward contention.
Except, that wasn’t what happened for Simmons in college, when LSU went 19-14 in his lone college season, failing to reach the NCAA tournament. There were plenty of reasons for the Tigers underachieving: injuries, transfers, poor coaching, etc. Still, it didn’t stop the questions from persisting among the shadowy corners of the NBA mediasphere that Simmons quit on the team and wasn’t a good teammate, his head already focused on the bigger stage of the NBA.
In Simmons’ corner was former teammate Tim Quarterman, who was worked out by the Sixers back in May and had this to say about Simmons, per CSN Philly:
“Ben is a great person, a great player and he’s a great competitor, so I don’t think throughout the season he ever quit on us. I think he continued to play hard. I think us losing frustrated a lot of us as competitors because we always wanted to win.”
So, dismissing those notions of a failure to step up and lead the team from an emotional standpoint, let’s take a hard look at the stats to see if Simmons was able to elevate the game of his teammates while on the court. Unfortunately, there aren’t on/off data splits publicly available at the NCAA level like there are for the NBA (where’s the basketball fan still in college with data skills and plenty of free time who wants to start NCAAwowy.com?).
Excluding the shots Simmons himself took during the 2015-16 season, LSU went 699-1604 from the field (43.6 percent) and 202-617 from three (32.7 percent). Those numbers were actually worse than the prior season, when the team shot 892-1,962 from the field (45.4 percent) and 189-558 from three (33.9 percent).
Of course, each year is a completely different cast of characters and can often be comparing apples to oranges. Following the 2014-15 season, leading scorer Jarell Martin left early and was selected in the first round of the NBA Draft by the Memphis Grizzlies, while second-leading scorer Jordan Mickey was taken by the Boston Celtics in the second round.
Given that any team might be expected to see a drop-off in production after losing its top two players, who were both NBA-caliber talents, let’s try to do a more direct comparison by looking at the players who were on the team (and attempted at least 50 field goals) during both seasons.
Those numbers are essentially the same from year to year, with a marginal increase in overall field goal percentage and a slight decrease in three-point efficiency. Overall, you’d have to conclude Simmons didn’t help his teammates significantly more than Martin, Mickey, and the rest of the 2014-15 cast. This point is especially driven home when you consider that guys generally improve as they progress throughout their college career, both by virtue of continued offseason training and by being another year older and more experienced relative to the competition.
Now, there are a number of caveats to consider here and we should by no means draw any definitive conclusions from this data. First and foremost, it’s an incredibly small sample size consisting of just four of Simmons’ teammates over a single season. We also don’t have access to important data such as how open the guys were when they took the shots (maybe they just bricked wide open looks), or how many of those shots were coming off passes from Simmons.
Also, a common criticism was that LSU head coach Johnny Jones didn’t put the ball in Simmons’ hands as much as third-party evaluators would have liked, often opting to have him hang out in the short corner instead. Perhaps if he’d unleashed Simmons as the point forward many wished to see on a full-time basis, the team’s efficiency numbers would have shot up.
Still, it’s important to at least recognize that Simmons’ arrival at Baton Rouge wasn’t a magic elixir to turn the program around. The roster wasn’t very talented and one season with a blue-chip prospect wasn’t going to change that fact. Likewise, in Philadelphia, Simmons shouldn’t be expected to arrive and turn the likes of Nik Stauskas and Jerami Grant into Splash Cousins twice-removed.
Will he help? Sure. But Simmons is just the first step in taking the Sixers where they want to go, not the last.