Preparing for the big time: Louisiana star Universtiy star Ben Simmons is in Australia for a five-game series. Photo: Janie Barrett
While coaching youngsters in Melbourne about five years ago, Andrew Gaze stopped for a chat with Julie Simmons, the wife of Gaze’s long-time Melbourne Tigers teammate Dave Simmons.
He was amazed at the talent shown by Julie’s 13-year-old son Ben, who he hadn’t seen since the boy was a baby.
“I was talking to Julie and saying ‘Ben’s come along in leaps and bounds’,” Gaze says.
Big fan: Shaquille O’Neal. Photo: Getty Images
“I remember Julie saying that Ben really loved basketball but also Australian rules football. At the time she wasn’t sure which game he wanted to play. I just remember thinking ‘Crikey, I hope we don’t lose him to footy’.”
Thankfully, Gaze says, young Simmons decided on basketball “and the rest is history”.
It’s a good way to put it. To many, Simmons’ destiny as a basketball megastar is already written.
The 208-centimetre 19-year-old – named last year the best high school player in the US and touted as a 2016 potential NBA No.1 draft pick – says he’s “cool with” LeBron James, has Shaquille O’Neal “looking out for me” and has also met with or played on Kobe Bryant, Kevin Durant, James Harden and Anthony Davis.
When Simmons signed up to attend Louisiana State University, with whom he is touring Australia for five exhibition games this week, Shaq, the school’s most famous alumnus, wrote on Instagram: “LSU just signed the best player in the world. Check him out.” The hype could hardly be bigger.
“It was crazy when I had little kids waiting outside the locker room as a sophomore,” Simmons says with a half-American accent of his first brushes with fame.
“Then in my senior year I used to come out of the locker room and it was packed. I couldn’t leave for an hour because there were so many people just waiting.”
Now, at LSU, he says it’s hard to get around campus without being approached. “I’m kind of getting used to it,” he says. “I usually keep a hat on, head down and get what I need to get and get out.”
Yet, if Simmons is to reach the heights most believe he will, these sorts of experiences will seem like child’s play.
He says all the right things about working hard, being humble and showing respect. But no one can be truly prepared for the kind of intense pressure that comes with being arguably the hottest prospect in the game.
“He’s got a good head on his shoulders and he seems to have inherited from his dad a great competitive instinct,” Gaze says.
“But, you know, it’s pretty ruthless out there, pretty brutal when you’re in a highly competitive environment like he’s going to be. The stakes are just so high.”
Physically, there seems little in the way. Simmons’ attributes are enviable, with a rare combination of size, athleticism and skill, allowing him to play several positions.
“He has all the basic ingredients to get everyone excited and make him a superstar,” assistant Boomers coach Luc Longley says.
“And when we’ve had him in [national team] camps he’s shown interest in defence, which not a lot of prodigies do. I think the hype is warranted. He’s an incredibly exciting player.”
That’s all the “glowing, gushing stuff”, says Longley, who spent a decade in the NBA and was teammates with Michael Jordan.
“The other part of it is that, as tempting as it is to look at him as a finished product and to think that something special has arrived, there are rocky waters ahead as a superstar athlete,” he said.
“He’s still just rowing out from the shore, albeit in a very good-looking vessel. But he’s heading out on a big exciting dangerous rewarding trip. There is so much for him to learn and do, so much work to put in.
“Fortunately, he seems to have an appetite for all that and that may be what’s putting him ahead of others at the moment. He seems to enjoy the process and the work.”
Longley says he hopes to have Simmons represent Australia at the Olympics next year, joining the likes of Dante Exum on a list coming to be regarded as a golden generation. But he will have to prove himself.
“Last year Dante was was also highly touted, but as we found with him at the World Cup, the transition from playing against boys to playing against men is massive,” Longley says. “Dante handled it well but it was tough. Then he’s taken 80 games to work his way into the NBA.
“So I think Ben will need to come into camp and play against men and see how he goes before we can tell if he’ll be right to go at the Olympics. Obviously, he’s on our radar and he knows that. I’m very excited for him. All of Basketball Australia is excited for him.”
So is Chris Anstey, another of Dave Simmons’ former teammates.
“I had a few calls from people a couple of years ago, some from reasonably big NBA names, and I was trying to work out why they were here,” Anstey says.
“They were talking about Dante, but the way they were talking, it’s almost like they were using Dante as a way to get in the same room as Ben Simmons. As great as Dante is and is going to be, it seemed like these guys were trying to just introduce themselves to Ben.
“So I think [the] sporting public is starting to find out what many in the basketball community knew three or four years ago, that this is a really special player. Sometimes you sit back and think maybe you’re putting him up a little bit too high. But I think it’s become apparent now that he’s one of the best young players in the world.”