Ben Simmons shines in LSU's promising, relaxed debut

Ben Simmons assesses his LSU debut

LSU freshman Ben Simmons talks about the Tigers' season-opening win against McNeese State.

The play itself was simple enough, a straightforward elbow screen, but McNeese State had it all wrong.

As LSU wing Tim Quarterman curled around his screener, two Cowboys jumped at him, leaving the screener with a clear run at the rim. That screener's identity made this an especially bad decision: Almost as soon as Quarterman caught the ball, Ben Simmons was breaking at the rim, preparing to gobble up an easy lob dunk.

Only it wasn't easy. Quarterman's pass was off. Instead of landing in Simmons' hands, it caromed off that dead spot where the backboard and back rim meet, leaving the 6-foot-10 Australian stranded in the air, suspended, with nothing to dunk.

And then, somehow, it was easy again: In a wink, Simmons adjusted his body in midair, stretched his right, "weak" hand to the front of the rim and casually -- almost lazily -- slammed home the first field goal of his collegiate basketball career.

This was a tidy microcosm of the preseason All-America's collegiate debut: Low-key. Effortless. Slightly sloppy. And deeply impressive, all the same.

Simmons was not his team's leading scorer. Those honors went to Antonio Blakeney, Simmons' fellow elite freshman, who scored 22 points on 16 shots and pitched in 10 rebounds in the No. 21 Tigers' 81-70 victory. Brandon Sampson, the third LSU frosh in coach Johnny Jones' star-studded class, shot 50 percent from the field and 4-of-6 on 3-pointers en route to an 18-point effort. Both outscored the 2016 NBA draft's likely No. 1 pick. Simmons finished with 11 points on 4-of-7 shooting from the field. He only rarely glanced at the basket from outside 10 feet.

And yet Simmons' distinct talent was plain to see. His approach to the game was as generous, and his passing as incisive, as scouts have long advertised. There were five assists. Several of them were gorgeous. Yet it was the nuance in Simmons' ball movement, the vision and intelligence displayed at even mundane moments -- simple reverse passes across zone defense, little ball fakes and dump-offs to cutters, hold-ups designed to find transition finishers in perfect stride -- that were most exciting. There is a reason the Melbourne native often draws comparisons to LeBron James, and it's not because Simmons is (or ever will be) as good as James. It's because players this good and this big are almost never this willing and this able to pass.

There were more conventional displays of sheer superiority, too. Simmons often handled the ball away from the basket. He can serve as a one-man outlet pass. There are few defenders in the country for whom he will not be a bad matchup. He also grabbed 13 rebounds, good for a double-double debut -- making him just the third No. 1 overall recruit, alongside Anthony Davis and Kevin Love, to do so since 2007. No big deal.

However, there were also some sloppy errors -- a runaway offensive foul in transition, a few missed blockouts. The Tigers, as a whole, have much to tighten up. Their youth shows. And the opponents won't always be as forgiving as McNeese State.

And yet, despite the overmatched competition, it was all undeniably impressive. Simmons' collegiate debut -- like his first collegiate bucket -- was at once thrilling and casual, both serving as an immediate spark and a relaxed promise: There is so much more to come.

Home upsets rock opening night

Which is worse? Losing to William and Mary at home by 17 points? Or giving up 91 points to North Florida -- and never leading -- on your own court?

NC State was guilty of the former Friday night. Illinois was guilty of the latter. And before this two-way debate for "worst opening-night loss" could be decided, No. 17 Wisconsin laid down its trump card -- a 69-67 loss in Madison to Western Illinois.

It doesn't get much worse than that. Little was expected from Illinois this season; seemingly all of the Illini's would-be backcourt is recovering from injury. The Wolfpack played horribly, but they weren't a top-25 team to start the season, and the Tribe are a respectable Colonial Athletic Association stalwart.

Western Illinois, meanwhile, won exactly eight games a season ago. The Leathernecks scored .90 points per possession in 2014-15 -- ninth-worst in all of Division I. The Badgers lost much of their core, including 2015 player of the year Frank Kaminsky, after back-to-back Final Four runs, but coach Bo Ryan returned star forward Nigel Hayes and emerging guard Bronson Koenig, and his team was expected to compete for a Big Ten title on sheer force of habit alone.

It might yet. The season is only one day old. On the other hand, the season is only one day old and the Badgers might already have suffered the worst nonconference loss any team will take all year.

Either way, congratulations to NC State and Illinois. You're both officially off the hook.