Ben Simmons is the top-ranked freshman in the country and the most heralded recruit to land in Baton Rouge since Shaquille O’Neal. The 6'10", 225-pound Aussie arrives at LSU having lost only one game in high school during the past three years, and some observers even compare him to LeBron James due to his versatility and ability to make others better from the forward position.
Simmons talked to Athlon about why he chose LSU over Duke and Kentucky, the players to whom he compares himself and why he gave up rugby.
When did you start playing basketball in Australia?
It was always more basketball for the simple fact that my dad played professionally in Europe and Australia. I grew up playing. Everyone in my family played — my brothers and sisters. My mom was always supportive of everybody. Basketball was always the main thing.
You also played rugby growing up. Were you any good?
I think I could have played at the professional level of Australian football, but I stopped playing. It was a lot of running, and I’m not going to run the whole time unless I’m giving a lot to the team. I felt like I was running so much and wasn’t giving a lot to the team. I felt like I had to be in a position where I could score and I was playing forward. I was the tallest guy, and I had to kick the ball to the shortest guys downfield. For me, I felt I like I didn’t contribute that much because I didn’t score. I wanted to be the guy who kicked the furthest goal and celebrate, but I had to stick to my role. I stuck to basketball because I’m in love with the sport.
When I spoke to Dante Exum before he was drafted last year, he said he was fairly anonymous in Australia. What’s it like for you when you go home?
I remember going out with him after he had been drafted. I think one person came up to him. It was crazy. Last year when I went home as a junior everybody was coming up to me. I don’t think he had much media attention since he stayed in Australia and then it all hit him. For me, I’m on YouTube highlights, and there’s been more media attention on me than there was with him.
Looking back, do you feel it was it the right decision to leave Australia and play high school basketball in the U.S.?
I think it was the perfect decision for me. It helped me develop as a person. I’ve been through so much and learned so much over the past three years. As a person and a player, I’ve developed more than I would have back home.
Was it difficult to leave?
It was definitely my idea. It was more of a family decision, but I always wanted to play high school over here — and the next goal is college.
What was your personal highlight of playing at Montverde Academy?
Just winning the national championship three times. Now I go down in history as one of the top guys in national high school basketball — which is a cool thing.
You are a pretty even-keeled guy. What gets you emotional? What gets you worked up?
When I’m playing PlayStation. That’s probably (the) only time. I try and keep a level head. Playing NBA2K, that’s the one. Especially losing to my (friend), Corey. That kills me. When he started playing, he used to dominate me all the time, and it used to frustrate me. I kind of caught up. He’s the better player, but I feel like I’m better. He’s better, but I’m not going to accept it. That’s why I just keep playing — and keep losing, so it’s kind of frustrating. I show emotion when I need to. Winning a game or the national championship, I was happy. But it didn’t really satisfy me. It was my third one and I still have much more to do. I want to be the best player in the NBA and winning an NBA Championship and the MVP. All of that, if I’m able to do that. At LSU, I want to win as many games as we can. I’m not used to losing, so I’m going to do everything I can to make sure we win.
Do you know your overall record at Montverde?
I lost one game — to Wheeler out of Georgia at the City of Palms Tournament in Florida. I remember being sick the whole week. It was just one loss. I didn’t really care that much.
Why did you choose LSU?
My godfather, David Patrick, is the main reason. He’s an assistant coach at LSU. He’s family to me. I’ve known him my whole life. He played with my dad, and my dad took him under his wing when he was a rookie in the professional league back home. I feel like he’s never done anything wrong by me. For me it’s just another team. It’s about the people on the team and the people around it. I really trust Coach (Johnny) Jones — he’s been the same guy from when he started recruiting me until now. He hasn’t changed at all.
Was it an easy decision because of your relationship with David?
Definitely. For me, it was cool having offers from Duke and some of the other big schools. I felt like I kind of waited to see who I could get offers from just because I’m an Australian kid. To have Coach Cal and Coach K call. That was cool for me. Once I had everyone calling, I already knew where I wanted to go — so I didn’t want to hold them up, get more attention or lead them on, so I committed pretty quickly.
Have you had a chance to meet former LSU star Shaquille O’Neal yet?
I haven’t met him yet, but we’ve spoken on the phone. I think I’m fine when I meet big pro athletes. I’ve met Michael Jordan, Kobe — to me, they are just other hoopers. To meet him, it will be cool — with his personality and what he’s done.
What are your expectations at LSU?
I don’t really have any besides to win. I don’t have any pressure on me. I don’t have any. I’m not worried about that. I’m going to do what I know how to do, and if that’s not good enough, the expectations are too high.
Who is the best player you’ve ever played against?
LeBron at his camp before my senior year. I played against James Harden recently. To me, they are just other players. I don’t get nervous when I play against guys. Back when I played against LeBron, I was a little nervous — but not anymore. Now I know what I can do.
Your confidence level was completely different during your junior season in high school compared to this past year. Why?
I think I was holding back a little bit. I had my role and I was sticking to it. My role this year was to be a leader and make sure I took over games — and I think I did that.
Your dad taught you the game and played it professionally. How are your games different?
I have more skill than my dad. He was more of a center or a power forward.
What player do you think is the best comparison for your game?
It’s kind of hard because I’m not as athletic as LeBron, but I’m athletic. I think I handle the ball a bit better, but at the same time he’s stronger, more physical and athletic. I don’t even know. I couldn’t tell you a player. I think sometimes LeBron, or Magic (Johnson) or Scottie Pippen.
What’s the area you’ve been working on most in preparation for college?
My perimeter shot and being a better ball handler. I think I have a good handle, but I want to tighten it up a little more.
What’s your position?
It was point forward, but I think now it’s 1 through 5. I can guard the 5-man, and I showed that at the Nike Camp. I can guard a 4, 3, 2 and 1 — and can run all positions, too. I think I’m able to be versatile.
Favorite music to listen to?
Future, Kanye, JayZ, Rick Ross.
What would you say is the coolest part of the whole ride so far?
Just being Ben Simmons. Being me and being recognized for that. Having a chance to be a role model for people back home. I love people knowing who I am. I think it’s cool. It’s just a blessing.