Long before he enrolled as a student at LSU, freshman forward Ben Simmons became the focal point of Johnny Jones’ men’s basketball program.
“It’s been great,” Jones said. “We’ve certainly had our share of exposure, because of his presence. Even from last year prior to him coming, I don’t think we went a week without being, in some form or fashion, on the news in terms of the program. It’s certainly been a huge positive for us.”
It’s not hard to figure out the hype. Simmons, who leads the Southeastern Conference in rebounding at 11.8 per game and ranks fourth in scoring at 19.6 points, is the presumptive No. 1 pick in the 2016 NBA Draft.
First, Simmons becomes Missouri’s problem to handle Tuesday when Kim Anderson’s Tigers and Jones’ Tigers meet at 8 p.m. at the Pete Maravich Assembly Center in Baton Rouge, La.
“He’s very rare,” MU point guard Terrence Phillips said. “He’s a 6-10 point-forward. You don’t really see that in college and high school. You only see that in the NBA.”
Phillips knows about Simmons’ talent from first-hand experience. His Oak Hill Academy teams played against Simmons and Montverde (Fla.) Academy three times.
Simmons scored 20 with 11 rebounds and six assists as Montverde beat Oak Hill in the Dick’s Sporting Goods High School national championship game last April at Madison Square Garden. Phillips had 15 points, nine rebounds, five assists and five steals in that game, but he also committed seven turnovers in a 70-61 loss.
“I’ve been up against Ben three years straight and he’s beaten me all three times,” Phillips said. “I guess you could say there’s a little motivation going in there, especially from last year losing the national championship at my high school. … Ben’s my guy, but it’s just going to be another two competing on Tuesday.”
Phillips’ best advice for defending Simmons?
“You’ve just got to try to keep in front of him,” Phillips said. “That’s the best I can tell you.”
Of course, that’s easier said than done. More than half of his shots this season come at the rim, where he’s connecting at a 75.3-percent clip, according to hoop-math.com.
Simmons only shoots 34.2 percent on jumpers, so keeping him off the block is critical. It also doesn’t guarantee success.
“The thing that impresses me … is what a great passer Simmons is,” Anderson said. “He’s had games where he hasn’t scored very much and they’ve still won. He’s guy that really makes everybody else better. … He sees the floor extremely well and he’s a tough guard on the inside for us too, because he’s so big and he’s so physical and he posts up so hard.”
Senior forward Ryan Rosburg knows he’s in for a challenge in the post, but there’s a twinge of excitement, too.
“He’s a great player and someday I think it will cool to tell my kids I played against him, and hopefully beat him, but we’ll see,” Rosburg said. “We’ve played a lot of great players, so we don’t take it any differently and we’ll just try to win.”