Ben Simmons’ college basketball career ended with a press release. On Sunday, a day after Louisiana State University closed out its regular season with a 71–38 loss to Texas A&M, head coach Johnny Jones announced that the Tigers would decline all invitations to postseason tournaments—including the second-tier NIT—so the team could “utilize this time to get better and start preparations for next season.” Given that 38 points was the lowest single-game output for a Division I team all year, this was akin to dropping a turd in a punch bowl, then pre-emptively declining to take a drink.
A little more than two months ago, Magic Johnson called Simmons the best prospect since LeBron James. Now, the LSU freshman—who will reportedly sign with James’ agency in advance of June’s NBA Draft—is leaving college having played in the same number of NCAA Tournament games that LeBron did.
Though LSU’s 19–14 season turned into a joyless slog some time around mid-February, it would be absurd to call Simmons himself a disappointment. Among other superlatives, he became the first power-conference player in at least 20 years to average at least 10 rebounds and four assists per game. The only guy at a major program who came close to reaching those markers: Michigan State’s Draymond Green, who is now the second-best player on the best NBA team of all time.
The 6-foot-10 guard-forward-center also produced at least one play each night that just didn’t make sense. My favorite Simmons highlight came in a December nonconference game against North Florida. Early in the first half, the Australian freshman drove into the lane, where he was surrounded by all five Ospreys defenders. With no obvious passing lanes available, Simmons flipped the ball backward and over his head to a wide-open teammate for a corner three. It was beautiful and strange, and the play-by-play announcer didn’t even notice that a 19-year-old had just done something stupidly wonderful.
In moments like that one, it was obvious that Simmons didn’t belong on a college court. That fact was just as obvious during LSU’s 33-point beatdown at the hands of Texas A&M, albeit for different reasons. Having watched almost every minute Ben Simmons played this season—this LSU fan skipped the end of that A&M game, for reasons of sanity preservation—I’m convinced that everyone would’ve been better off if he’d never shown up on campus.
On account of his status as the presumptive No. 1 pick in this year’s draft, Simmons’ brief tenure in an LSU uniform was essentially a seasonlong scouting combine. Every play he made, or didn’t make, was a referendum on his future pro career—whether he was too unselfish or tried hard enough on defense or could ever fix his jump shot.
This all made for great content for the ESPN family of networks and Internet properties, which broadcast 30 LSU games this season. It also provided ample fodder for NBA draft pundits, who flirted with moving Simmons down their boards any time he failed to look like John Havlicek and Oscar Robertson put together. This running commentary on his NBA potential revealed the true purpose of his four-month undergrad basketball internship. Ben Simmons wasn’t playing college basketball. He was creating tape for pro scouts.
Simmons went to school because the NBA made him do it. In 2005—10 years after Kevin Garnett ushered in an era of prep-to-pro players that included Kobe Bryant, Tracy McGrady, and the aforementioned LeBron James—the league and its players association agreed to bar players from going to the league straight out of high school. (Though Simmons grew up in Australia, he moved to Florida a few years ago to attend Montverde Academy, a prep school.) David Stern, who was then the NBA commissioner, had said in 2001 that “a couple of years more of seasoning would increase [players’] maturity” and would send “messages to kids who are practicing their skills who should think about getting an education rather than coming right to [the] NBA.” While the onus was placed on the players themselves to set a good example, the NBA—and its unofficial minor-league partner, the NCAA—has profited from all that extra seasoning. As Stern explained in 2012, “We would like a year to look at them … to see how the players do against first-class competition in the NCAAs and then teams have the ability to judge and make judgments, because high-ranking draft picks are very, very valuable.”
Simmons’ season was exactly this: a demonstration of value. He led LSU in points (19.2 per game), rebounds (11.8), assists (4.8), steals (2.0), and blocks (0.8). Thanks mostly to his passing skills, he made everyone around him look better. Nobody on his team did Simmons the same favor.
Sometimes, LSU looked great. The Tigers beat Kentucky by 18 back in January, and a few weeks after that they led then No. 1 Oklahoma for nearly all 40 minutes before losing by 2 on a 15-footer in the waning moments. In that game against the Sooners, Simmons shot the ball just once in the last 10 minutes. That time, the critics were right: He could’ve been more aggressive. Maybe he was afraid to shoot, due to a lack of confidence in his balky jumper. But Simmons’ coach and his teammates could also never quite figure out how to put him in a position to succeed.
LSU’s point guard, Tim Quarterman, spent the whole year dribbling sadly around the perimeter and failing to make entry passes. Simmons’ partner in the post, Craig Victor, blocked just 16 shots all season and finished third in the NCAA in personal fouls per game. Keith Hornsby, the team’s best shooter, missed 13 games with a sports hernia. LSU’s second-best player, freshman Antonio Blakeney, had a 10-game stretch in the middle of the year during which he averaged just 6 points a game. They played at times as if they were nothing more than the props in someone else’s basketball drill.
There wasn’t much coaching, in any case. Johnny Jones could not put together a credible defense—according to KenPom.com, the Tigers are a remarkably terrible 145th in the country in defensive efficiency. Simmons often failed to guard anyone, in part because his team had no chance to win if he went to the bench with foul trouble. On the other end of the floor, LSU’s half-court offense tended to devolve into the following set play: Stand around for 20 seconds. Throw the ball to Ben Simmons, who would then back up to half court before driving into the lane and passing the ball out for a contested three-pointer with one second left on the shot clock. Clang.
It all would’ve been a whole lot easier if Simmons could have just passed the ball to himself. But nothing about his season was easy, because the likely No. 1 pick in this year’s draft didn’t play the one-and-done game in the usual way.
While it deprives the world’s best young players of an NBA paycheck, the league’s prep-to-pro ban does give college basketball fans the chance to root for stars like Derrick Rose, Anthony Davis, and Karl-Anthony Towns. Those three guys all suited up for John Calipari, whose Memphis and Kentucky teams have served as the NBA’s unofficial development league—a way station where top prospects can team up with other great players and benefit from systems that deploy their talents effectively.
Simmons’ season wouldn’t have been nearly as depressing if he’d made the same decision. The Aussie transplant, who came to LSU because his godfather is an assistant coach for the Tigers, did not join a glorified pro franchise. In one sense, he had a true college basketball experience: If Simmons didn’t belong on a college court, his teammates certainly did. At the same time, he apparently didn’t take school seriously—he was benched for the first few minutes of a game for academic reasons and wasn’t eligible for the Wooden Award because he didn’t maintain a 2.0 GPA.
The age rule lives on because it works too well for everyone who isn’t the player himself. The NBA gets a prized employee a year closer to his prime. The NCAA gets a year of free but highly marketable top-level basketball. Fans get a potential star playing under the banner of old alma mater. ESPN gets several dozen two-hour blocks of television programming. No one but the athlete is truly inconvenienced, and everyone is happy so long as the internal tensions of the arrangement are never stretched to their limits.
In his one NCAA season, Ben Simmons accomplished what Derrick Rose, Anthony Davis, and Karl-Anthony Towns couldn’t: He made those internal tensions visible. He was the Great Heightened Contradiction. The NCAA got a year of unpaid labor out of someone who plainly would rather have been collecting a paycheck. Fans got a mediocre season whose scattered highlights only made the dreariness stand out more. And the NBA got its year of scouting, sure, but to what end?
For all the nitpicks and finger-wagging, LSU’s desultory season won’t affect Simmons in any material way: He’ll still probably go No. 1 in the draft, and he’ll still get an enormous shoe deal, and in all likelihood he’ll still be the star people projected him to be a year ago. Ben Simmons made some great passes, and he swooped through the air for some spectacular dunks. But in the end, nothing he did in college mattered at all. It was a worthless exercise, one whose only value lay in demonstrating the stupidity of the rule that made it necessary.