The traits that LSU’s Ben Simmons college basketball’s Mozart of the hardwood were on full display during the Tigers’ 85-67 win over Kentucky Tuesday night. Since he arrived in Baton Rouge, Simmons was expected to immediately catapult the squad to the top of the SEC, breaking the Wildcats’ conference dominance. But it took time for the Tigers and their 6-foot-10 freshman, who has been described as an amalgamation of Magic Johnson and LeBron James with a sprinkle of Triangle offense-era Lamar Odom, to round into form.
Even Magic himself was impressed by the precociously talented frosh:
Potentially hyperbolic comparisons aside, Simmons is very good, and in what became a lopsided win over Kentucky, Simmons was a game-changing force. Here are four Simmons-related takeaways from the LSU victory.
It’s simple: Simmons is a constant mismatch. During the few times Simmons has struggled this season, it is because the frosh has largely taken himself out of the game. When an opponent tries to take away Simmons’s speed and handle, and matches him up with a guard, Simmons immediately takes to the low post where his footwork, size and timing — Simmons never appears to rush a shot (he always waits that extra beat) — makes for an easy two points. Match him against a big, and Simmons nearly always has enough space on the perimeter to gain a full-head of steam and finish through traffic in the lane (or get to the free throw line — per Ken Pomeroy, he draws seven fouls per 40 minutes).
Tuesday night, Calipari tried first guarding Simmons with Alex Poythress, who has the necessary physical attributes for the assignment, and Simmons was able to draw a few quick fouls on the Kentucky forward. He did the same against Kentucky’s Marcus Lee, whose strength couldn’t match Simmons’s when he drove the lane. And Derek Willis had one of the worst one-minute stretches of any Kentucky forward. First this drive:
And then he forgot to box out Simmons, which resulted in an emphatic tip dunk:
Simmons doesn’t have any semblance of a jump shot. According to Synergy Sports, he has only attempted eight field goals this season 17 feet (or further) from the basket — but Simmons knows what he is capable of and then surgically executes to those strengths. He was a perfect 5-for-5 from the field Tuesday, all within a few feet of the rim, and attempted six free throws for a nearly flawless 14-point performance.
Simmons only recorded three assists against Kentucky, but the defense, like others before Tuesday’s game, constantly watches him. Four sets of eyes are trained on Simmons whenever the ball is in his hand. They have to watch Simmons because he is such a facilitator in the halfcourt (30 percent assist rate, per Ken Pom).
Simmons knows how to bait a defense into committing to a feint before delivering a pinpoint, feathery pass that seems to always hit a Tiger teammate in position to score. Since Keith Hornsby’s return from injury — which coincides with the team’s ascendance from what had been a very mediocre non-conference performance — he has been a prime recipient of those gorgeous Simmons looks.
Tyler Ulis often defended the 6-foot-4 Hornsby, but because Ulis, who regularly is one of Division I’s top on-ball defenders, was so preoccupied ball-watching Simmons, he was beaten badly on two back-court cuts (one each half).
Because teams have to pay so much attention to the Tigers’ big, it spreads the defensive halfcourt and helps create spacing that otherwise wouldn’t exist. And now that Hornsby and Craig Victor are finally healthy/eligible, the squad’s offense is benefitting. Since the Dec. 16 game versus Gardner-Webb, when both Tigers were back in the lineup, the team has gone 5-1 and posted an offensive efficiency rating of 1.18 points per possession.
During halftime, LSU coach Johnny Jones likely lit into his team. Kentucky’s bread-and-butter play-call during the first half was a simple pick and roll, which allowed star freshman Jamal Murray the space needed to gain an extra first step and thread the lane or step into a very comfortable mid-range attempt.
What followed was a change in how LSU guarded those plays: the team would blitz the screen, and then hard hedge the ball-handler, whether it was Murray or Ulis. That shift caused Kentucky’s backcourt undue defensive pressure, and led to either a stilted offensive possession or a steal. Simmons was one of the best Tigers during that change in approach. His length clogs passing lanes, and his quick hands often tip the ball to start LSU’s transition game — several times versus Kentucky, Simmons was able to deflect either a pass or a get a strip off a ball-fake.
Simmons’s defense was arguably one of the weakest aspects of his game when he arrived at college, and while he is still learning various defensive intricacies, all of the elements that make his offense so efficiently explosive — his quickness, length and timing — have helped advance his defensive game.
He has only fouled out of two games this season, and is so far committing roughly three fouls per game, an impressive rate for a player who uses the highest percentage of the Tigers’ minutes (83 percent).
Simmons knows he is difficult to defend — he acknowledged as much during Tuesday’s post-game press conference. LSU realized the key to defeating Kentucky was to neutralize the frontcourt, which Simmons accomplished by consistently driving at opponents to draw contact.
Simmons effectively forced Poythress and Marcus Lee into foul trouble, which had the secondary benefit of allowing the Tigers to relentlessly crash the offensive glass. Before the Kentucky tilt, LSU grabbed under a third of its misses this season, but in the win, the team posted an offensive rebounding percentage of 43 percent, with Simmons corralling three of LSU’s misses.
With a total package as tantalizing as all that, and from a freshman, it’s no wonder Simmons is the presumptive No. 1 pick of the 2016 NBA draft.