By CODY WORSHAM
Tiger Rag Editor
When the 76ers selected Ben Simmons with the No. 1 pick in the 2016 NBA Draft last month, Philadelphia erupted with joy. For the City of Brotherly Love, the selection of Simmons was the culmination of an infamous tanking project, spearheaded by former GM Sam Hinkie, that saw the team lose as many games as possible in order to obtain as many assets as possible.
With Simmons, Philadelphia received a long-awaited conclusion to The Process.
In Baton Rouge, however, reception of the news of Simmons’ selection – just the second Tiger taken No. 1 overall, after Shaquille O’Neal in 1992 – was mixed. Some celebrated the news. Others scoffed at it. Some simply didn’t pay attention.
Such is the case for Simmons at LSU following a brief career full of statistics but short on wins. Because his team went just 19-14, failed to make the NCAA Tournament, and finished the season by opting not to play in the postseason after a historically terrible 71-38 defeat to Texas A&M in the SEC Tournament, Simmons left Baton Rouge not a hero, but as an enigma. He arrives in Philly as the second coming of The Answer, but back in the Boot, he’s more likely to be remembered as The Question.
And while there are many questions surrounding the 2015-16 LSU Basketball season, that horse is dead, and there’s no use beating it any more.
Instead, it’s time to embrace Simmons as the star that he was at LSU and the star he could become after.
Here are just a few numbers that show how dominant Simmons was in his lone season as a Tiger.
– Simmons became the first player in SEC history to finish in the top five in points, rebounds, and assists per game.
– He averaged more points per game in his final season of college basketball than James Harden, more rebounds per game than Andre Drummond, more assists per game than Rajon Rondo, and more steals per game than Kawhi Leonard.
– He had six games with 20 points, 10 rebounds, and five assists. All other No. 1 picks in the one-and-done era combined for one such collegiate game (Blake Griffin).
– Among No. 1 picks in the one and done era, Simmons ranks first in points per game and steals per game, and second in rebounds and assists per game.
The list goes on and on. Point is, Simmons was incredibly productive in 33 games at LSU.
He was also, contrary to an increasingly popular narrative, a model teammate and player. There are scores of on-the-record quotes from his fellow Tigers and his coaches about playing with him, but I’ve discovered more from off-the-record chats with the same people, during which they say, literally, the same exact things about Simmons: he was a great teammate, he was unselfish, he worked hard in practice and played hard in games, and he never acted as if he were too good for his peers or mentors.
Meanwhile, LSU benefitted greatly from Simmons’ time at LSU, despite the season’s obvious shortcomings. If the university were to purchase, in advertising, the amount of time Simmons garnered the school on ESPN, ABC, Fox Sports, CBS, and every other network that talked about him or broadcast his games, they’d have run up a bill in the billions and billions of dollars. The season’s massive uptick in ticket sales was, mostly, because of No. 25.
All that’s not to say Simmons was perfect at LSU. There were definitely times where he looked disinterested or frustrated on the floor. He barked at teammates in a way that rubbed some the wrong way. He took possessions off on the defensive end of the court. He struggled with his jumper, and he disappeared at times, most notably the last 10 minutes of the Oklahoma game, in which he was outscored by Buddy Hield 15-0 in a Sooner comeback that really hurt LSU’s tournament resume late in the season. He could also be snarky with media, searching Twitter for mentions of his name and acting unprofessionally with writers who criticized his game.
Guess what? He wasn’t a professional yet. Simmons’ worst crime at LSU was, at times, acting like a 19-year-old college freshman, which was only exacerbated by the fact that he played, at times, like a 28-year-old pro in his prime.
Sure, Simmons shares in the blame for LSU’s disappointing season. In fact, every player who laced up his shoes and every coach who donned a suit shares in that blame. Teams win collectively, and they lose collectively, too. That Simmons wasn’t able to carry his team to the tournament says as much about the team around him as it does Simmons.
Now with the 76ers, Simmons is on the brink of NBA stardom. If he fixes his jump shot, he could be the heir to LeBron as the league’s best player. If he doesn’t, he’s at worst a 6-foot-10 Rajon Rondo who will be one of the league’s best playmakers for a decade and beyond.
More than anything, that’s why LSU fans need to embrace Simmons’ time at LSU. He took a chance by coming to LSU, and it didn’t work out like either party would’ve hoped. But he shouldn’t be punished by that same fanbase for missing the tournament when most of the factors that caused that result were beyond his control.
Simmons will be a star at the next level, and his name will always be tied to LSU. His success in the NBA is, by extension, a success for the program he played for. The season didn’t end how anyone hoped, but his legacy, both as a Tiger and as a 76er, are far from complete.