Two weeks ago, Lil Wayne tweeted what many had concluded after Ben Simmons took one shot in the final 10 minutes of LSU’s recent home loss to Oklahoma.
Ben Simmons a beast but he gotta start being more assertive...but Buddy Hield is da absolute truth.
— Lil Wayne WEEZY F (@LilTunechi) January 31, 2016
Weezy seemed to respond to the universal pleas for Simmons -- a talent college basketball has not seen since Kevin Durant came and went in 2006-07 -- to play with the assertion we demand from our stars. But as the Tigers' 94-83 loss Wednesday at South Carolina proved, even when Simmons is aggressive, he can't guarantee a win for the Tigers or a victory for fans who want to enjoy the Ben Simmons Experiment, which will end once he declares for the NBA draft in the coming months.
It’s not working. Everyone involved deserves more and better.
Sipping fine wine at a dive bar doesn’t make sense, but that’s how this season with Simmons feels. We have an incomparable 6-foot-10 athlete, but it’s so hard to appreciate his abilities when he is playing for a bubble team in the SEC.
Sure, he finished 9-for-15 (21 points, 13 rebounds, 7 assists, 2 steals) in a road win over Auburn. Then he excelled in a 7-for-11 outing (16 points, 9 rebounds, 7 assists, 3 steals, 2 blocks) Saturday in a victory over Mississippi State.
After a rough first half in Wednesday’s game -- a loss that squandered the Tigers’ chance to hold onto sole possession of first place in the SEC -- Simmons unveiled some of his unique gifts. He played point guard and helped the Tigers overcome a seven-point deficit in the second half to tie the game with just under 11 minutes to play. He slashed. He made key defensive stops -- and a few ill-advised choices on defense too. He dunked. He maneuvered however and wherever he wanted, despite South Carolina’s constant doubles.
After he picked off an inbounds pass and got fouled on the other end, Simmons slammed after the whistle and stared at the South Carolina crowd. On a dunk earlier that half, he cut through the lane and flexed after the flush.
He recorded 20 points, six rebounds, six assists and two blocks Wednesday night. Still, it was another loss for LSU, which is now in a three-way tie atop the SEC (with Kentucky and South Carolina).
At this point, it feels like a waste.
Will that change by March? It might. The Tigers could rally down the stretch, win the SEC title, crack the NCAA tourney field and surprise the naysayers.
Or they could tumble and force the likely No. 1 pick in this summer’s NBA draft to play in the NIT.
Greatness shouldn’t be this complicated.
Five reasons it is so difficult to appreciate Ben Simmons
He plays for LSU. Most elite recruits attend powerhouse programs because they like to play with other athletic marvels. Simmons took another route and picked a school based on his relationship with an assistant coach. Now he’s playing for an LSU team on the bubble in the weakest power conference in America (Texas A&M just lost its third game in a row, FYI). It’s hard to appreciate a wunderkind such as Simmons -- yes, he’s special -- when he’s putting up big numbers while playing for a squad struggling to secure an at-large spot in one of the weaker NCAA tournament fields we’ve witnessed in recent years.
He plays in the SEC. This is not a great year for the SEC. Yes, Simmons is clearly a multidimensional athlete who can handle the ball like a smaller guard. But how excited can you get when you see him bully Auburn and Mississippi State?
Buddy Hield is better (than everyone else). More folks would pay attention to Simmons and the impact he has made in his first year at LSU if Hield weren't compiling one of the most impressive seasons we’ve ever seen. He could become the third player in NCAA history (and first since Salim Stoudamire in 2004-05) to shoot 50 percent from the 3-point line, 50 percent inside the arc and 90 percent from the free throw line. Also, Hield is leading a Sooners program fighting for a No. 1 seed. That’s a large shadow for any player in America to overcome -- even one as talented as Simmons. Hield’s “I’m the man” finish in Oklahoma's victory over LSU didn’t help. Jermaine Jackson was nominated for a Grammy, and he made No. 1 hits in the 1980s. But he had a brother named Michael. That’s the situation Simmons is in right now.
He doesn’t have enough talent around him. Antonio Blakeney, a legit top-15 recruit in the 2015 class, continues to improve. He finished with 22 points Wednesday. But he’s not the constant threat that backed past freshman stars. Durant played with A.J. Abrams and Oklahoma City Thunder guard D.J. Augustin. Greg Oden had Mike Conley and Daequan Cook. Tyus Jones, Justise Winslow and Jahlil Okafor helped Duke win a national championship last season. Karl-Anthony Towns didn’t record the monster numbers he could have at a school without Kentucky’s personnel, but his ability to stand out and compete on a team with that much juice showed us how great he was and how great he would be in the future. For Simmons, however, it still feels as though, in the most difficult moments, he has to do it all to give LSU a chance to win.
He plays for Johnny Jones. We don’t know what Johnny Jones will do with Simmons on any given night. We don’t know how the Tigers coach will use his star -- if he’ll use him. We just don’t know. A player in Simmons’ league shouldn’t enter each game surrounded by unknowns. No, this is not a rant against Jones. When you recruit the best college athlete since Kevin Durant and you’re not even a lock to make the NCAA tournament, you will get criticized. That’s just the way it goes. Jones signed him, and in the final weeks of the 2015-16 season, he has to find a way to put the Australian phenom in the best position to win.