The Killer B’s: Why LSU Basketball’s 2015 recruiting class is generating national buzz

A transcendent big man. A slashing, sweet-shooting two guard. Louisiana’s best prep player. LSU’s 2015 recruiting haul has it all, including a killer nickname.

Tiger Rag Editor

Just 48 hours remained on the clock before LSU was to tip off the third season of the Johnny Jones era, and Johnny Jones couldn’t help but talk about season number four.

Sure, Jones gave a cursory mention to Gardner-Webb, LSU’s Nov. 15, 2014 opponent, but after doing his due diligence and fulfilling the obligation of at least acknowledging the Tigers’ season-opening foe, Jones turned his attention to the future, and its bright reflection revealed a coach trying his best not to smile.

“I thought we had a big day in Tiger basketball yesterday, with the signing of…” Jones said.

And then he paused, a half-second and an eternity all at once. Could he say the name? Finally? Could Jones speak those three syllables, the name every coach in America had hoped to say into a microphone someday, a name Jones had secured a commitment from 13 months prior, but because of NCAA regulations, a name Jones could not speak publicly and so trained himself not to say publicly? Could Jones actually resist this practiced and reinforced restraint to substitute a pronoun, and instead say the name?

He could. And, after that pause, he did.

“Ben Simmons.”

And with that, Jones began writing a historic chapter in his era as LSU’s head basketball coach, a chapter which is still being written but begins with a recruiting class – headlined by Simmons, Antonio Blakeney, and Brandon Sampson – that ranks among the best in the country and in school history.

Simmons, the consensus No. 1 player in the country; Blakeney, a five-star shooting guard who scores in his sleep; and Sampson, Louisiana’s Mr. Basketball and a Top-50 wing with the length, stroke, and range of a pro-in-the-making. Ben, Brandon, and Blakeney – together, they are the killer bees.

And all of college basketball is buzzing.

Photo courtesy McDonald's All America
Photo courtesy McDonald’s All America

THE BIGGEST OF THE B’s – both literally and figuratively – is Ben, a 6-foot-9 Australian native who headlines the 2015 class nationally and projects as the top pick in the 2016 NBA Draft.

“I think he’ll make a major impact in college basketball immediately,” Kevin Boyle, Simmons’ high school coach at Monteverde Academy in Florida, told Tiger Raglast year. “He’ll be one of the best five players in college basketball as a freshman, and I think he’ll be a guy that will be one, two, three in the draft probably the following year.”

The first and foremost of Jones’ 2015 commitments, Simmons is special for a number of reasons, not the least of which is his rare combination of power forward’s frame and point guard’s skills that defines his game. ESPN’s Adam Amin, who called the McDonald’s All-American Game for ESPN, calls Simmons “a positionless player.”

“He can play anyposition,” Amin says.

Simmons will help offset the loss of Jordan Mickey and Jarell Martin, LSU’s All-SEC front court tandem, with his rebounding and defensive work inside. But unlike Mickey and Martin, when Simmons takes the ball of the glass, he doesn’t need to toss the outlet pass to a point guard.

He can handle it himself.

“I think I can run point as good as any point guard,” Simmons told 104.5/104.9 ESPN Baton Rouge’s Culotta & The Prince morning show in April. “I think I can pass the ball better than a lot of point guards. I think my IQ is different being from Australia. The way we play the game there is different, as a team-oriented player. I think if I was to run point guard a little bit during the game, it would be different for a team to guard it. You’d have to have a big guy on me, which I could go by and hit the open man for a shot or take it in for a layup.”

Simmons showcased that ability in the week at the McDonald’s game, including a televised scrimmage the day before the game. On one possession, he snagged a board like DeAndre Jordan, drove coast-to-coast like LeBron James, and spotted a shooter in the corner for a Chris Paul-ian assist.

That shooter just so happened to be Antonio Blakeney.

“Good basketball players know what good basketball players look like,” Simmons says. “At the end of the day, it’s about winning. The greatest players win, so that’s my goal – to be a winner.”
“That’s the greatness in him and why he’s such a high profile player,” Jones says. “He’s 6-10, 240 pounds, but he’s an excellent ball-handler, great passer, can create, and get to the rim and finish as well. There’s a lot of dimensions of his game to create opportunities for others. You just have to make sure you put people around him who can deliver.”

That assist wasn’t Simmons’s only one involving Blakeney. After committing to the Tigers in October 2013, Simmons went neck-and-neck with his godfather, LSU assistant David Patrick, for the title of LSU’s top recruiter, making his pitch to any five-star who would listen.

Blakeney listened.

“I think Ben was huge in us getting Antonio,” Jones says. “They played on the same AAU Basketball team. They’ve spent a lot of time together. I think the biggest thing is Antonio knew Ben coming in wasn’t a player that he wasn’t going to have to try to familiarize himself with. He knew, superstar that he is, how unselfish of a player Ben was. And Ben wanted Antonio to be a part what he was doing as well, because he knew Antonio’s abilities. He was a tremendous asset in and the reason we landed Antonio.”

LSU may only get Simmons for a year, but what a year it promises to be. It’s hard to know where the season will end, but it’s easy to project what it will look like. Simmons will be the rarest kind of star – the unselfish jack-of-all trades who just so happens to also be a master-of-all-trades. He passes in All-Star games, and he recruits in them, too, because he’s got more than scoring points on his mind.

“Good basketball players know what good basketball players look like,” he says. “At the end of the day, it’s about winning. The greatest players win, so that’s my goal – to be a winner.”

Photo courtesy of McDonald's All America
Photo courtesy of McDonald’s All America

ANTONIO BLAKENEY CAN’T STOMACH STAGNATION. The very thought of it makes him queasy. Improvement is a necessity. Staying the same is not an option. And don’t even talk about regression.

“In life,” Blakeney says, “everything is about making progress.”

Scored 25.2 points per game as a junior? Good, now go get 30 as a senior (Blakeney did, averaging 31.7). Post a 53-47-78 FG/3PT/FT line in 2013-14? Tough to improve on, and yet Blakeney did, to the tune of 55-48-82 last season.

More than anything, that’s what sold Blakeney, the third-ranked shooting guard in the class of 2015, on LSU. What he demands of himself, he sees in his future home.

“Every year, in my game, I make progress,” he says. “When you look at the LSU team since Coach Jones has been there, every year they have gotten better. Even though they lost the first game in the tournament last year, the year before that, they didn’t even make the tournament. That’s progress.”

“I love the freedom Coach Jones gives his players on offense,” Blakeney says. “He doesn’t put them on crutches and make them run a million plays.”
Progress wasn’t LSU’s only selling point. There’s also the matter of Jones’ system. Fans may find the freedom Jones grants his players frustrating when things bog down, but recruits like Blakeney drool at the prospect of getting up and down the floor as quickly as LSU’s offense does. When Blakeney saw the Tigers turn the ball over or miss a shot last season in Jones’ pace and space offense, he cared less about the result and more about the opportunity. When it comes to blue chips like Blakeney finding the right fit for their future, the process outweighs the product, because those blue chips know they can use the process to improve the product.

“I love the freedom Coach Jones gives his players on offense,” Blakeney says. “He doesn’t put them on crutches and make them run a million plays. He lets them push the ball in transition and get up and play. It suits my style of play very well. It’s going to make my transition to the college level easier, because that’s what I’ve been doing my whole life.”

Playing alongside Simmons will also smooth that transition. Blakeney became aware of the Australian import when he arrived from down under as a sophomore, instantly stepping into Monteverde’s 2013 National Championship squad that featured Dakari Johnson, Kasey Hill, and D’Angelo Russell.

Before they even stepped on a floor together, Blakeney envisioned himself playing with Simmons.

“Me and Ben made a relationship before we decided to play with each other,” Blakeney says. “We definitely hit it off fast. We’re able to play with each other well. Our chemistry hit it off fast because of how well he’s able to pass the ball. We took a lot of pressure off of each other.”

Which is good, because the increased expectations accompanying their arrivals at LSU will bring with it plenty of pressure. It should also bring progress, and that’s music to the ears of Blakeney, who has only two goals for next season. One, “be the hardest worker in the country.”

And two?

“We want to try to win a national championship,” he says. “Of course.”

Photo by Kelly Kline/Under Armour
Photo by Kelly Kline/Under Armour

BRANDON SAMPSON MAY HAVE BEEN the final piece of the 2015 recruiting class, but he was far from an afterthought.

In fact, Johnny Jones has had visions of Sampson in purple and gold since the 2013 cycle, when he saw Sampson up close and often while recruiting his high school teammate, former Tiger and NBA-bound Jarell Martin. While Martin dominated his way to the 2013 McDonald’s All-American Game, patrolling the paint for Jeff Jones’ Madison Prep Charger, Sampson peppered opponents from the perimeter, showcasing his lofty, high-arcing jumper and explosive leaping ability to Jones.

“I’ve had a great deal of interest in Brandon since I’ve been here,” Jones says. “When I was going to watch Jarell Martin play, I had a chance to see Brandon and thought he would be a really good college player – and possibly play beyond his college years, as well, as he continues to progress.”

Which is why Jones was kicking himself in January, when Sampson set his sights on Steve Lavin at St. John’s. The prospect of immediate playing time in Madison Square Garden appeared enticing enough to lure Sampson away from Baton Rouge, and he committed his future to the Red Storm.

Life in The City of Dreams never materialized for Sampson, however. St. John’s fired Lavin after the season, signaling to Sampson that it might be time to reconsider.

“The problem with the coach, I felt that it was a sign,” Sampson told reporters last month. “I just wanted to follow my heart and go where I really wanted to go.”

Meanwhile, Jones – nicknamed The Bullet during his LSU playing days for his speed and quickness – pounced on the opportunity like a defender snatching a lazy crossover. How long after Sampson’s de-commitment did Jones wait to reach out?

“That day,” he says. “Once he committed to St. John’s, we were hands off, but as soon as his recruitment became available, we were very aggressive.”

So were dozens of other coaches. Sampson’s phone was soon ringing off the hook with suitors, which, like his recruitment prior to committing to St. John’s, was as exciting as it was stressful.

“The first time around was pretty stressful, but not everybody gets a second chance to be recruited,” Sampson says. “It was pretty overwhelming at times if you let it get to you.”

Sampson and Jones made sure to narrow their range of vision. Rather than form new relationships with schools from across the country, they returned to LSU, St. John’s, and Oklahoma State, all of whom had previously pursued Sampson.

“We’ll work hard to get our spots,” Sampson says. “Coming in as highly-ranked prospects, I think we can get that – as long as we work.”
The Tigers won out. Sampson decided to stay in Baton Rouge, giving LSU a 6-foot-4 scorer who has to be guarded as soon as the bus pulls up to the arena. Jones likes to say Sampson can score “at all three levels” – at the rim, from a mid-range pull-up, and from the three point line – and beyond.

“He’s going to fit really well into our system,” says Jones.

The feeling from Sampson’s side is reciprocal.

“LSU, at the end of the day, is a good fit for him,” said Jones. “He’ll have a chance to come in and be a part of something special – a Fab Five, or something like that.”

The Killer B’s, to be precise, and Sampson embraces being part of that collection, even if it means greater competition for playing time.

“We’ll work hard to get our spots,” Sampson says. “Coming in as highly-ranked prospects, I think we can get that – as long as we work.”

The work is already in its beginning stages. Separately, each of the Killer B’s is at home, grinding away individually to prepare for the pressure and expectations that accompany a historic recruiting class. They’ll come together this summer, joining 10 returning Tigers to form a team with championship potential.

For now, however, it’s a waiting game. Tiger fans await eagerly, and opponents wait nervously, for unselfish Ben, unsatisfied Blakeney, and unassuming Brandon – Killer B’s, ready to swarm.

“With a top class coming in,” Sampson says, “we can do big things.”

LSU Killer B's

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Cody Worsham

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