Ben Simmons Looks to LeBron James as Model as N.B.A. Draft Looms


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Ben Simmons as a Louisiana State player earlier this year. Simmons is the subject of a documentary, “One and Done,” that examines whether talented high school athletes should be forced to spend a year in college or play outside the United States before going to the N.B.A.

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Samantha Baker/Associated Press

On the day LeBron James was having his victory parade in Cleveland, Ben Simmons spoke with me in a Manhattan hotel about anticipating his championship moment. Simmons, a 19-year-old who is coming off a single season at Louisiana State, is likely to be selected No. 1 by the Philadelphia 76ers in Thursday night’s N.B.A. draft — unless fate comes to the rescue and allows him to be selected by the Lakers at No. 2.

“It’s kind of surreal right now,” Simmons said. “It probably won’t hit me until I’m in the city, I’m actually part of the organization.”

Simmons epitomizes the rare gem produced on the supply side of the basketball industry. At 6 feet 10 inches, he is a versatile player at home anywhere on the floor.

Born and raised in Melbourne, Australia, Simmons pushed his parents to send him to the United States after looking at YouTube clips, studying rankings and looking at his high school competition.

“Part of it was him saying, ‘I’m ready,’” his father, David, recalled.

In 2013, Simmons moved to Florida and enrolled at Montverde Academy, which he led to three straight high school national championships.

During the recruiting process, Simmons rejected the idea that a top player should naturally attend one of the most successful big-time programs. He said no to Kentucky and no to Duke. Instead he went to L.S.U., where his godfather, David Patrick, was the associate head coach. Patrick is now an assistant at Texas Christian.

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Simmons, right, playing for Montverde Academy in Florida. He led the school to three straight high school national championships.

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Gregory Payan/Associated Press

“The point for me was going to a school that didn’t have a rich basketball history like a Kentucky or a Duke,” Simmons said. “I knew it was going to be hard. I like a challenge. I accepted that.”

L.S.U. severely underachieved. There were injuries and problems with team chemistry issues. The Tigers did not make the N.C.A.A. tournament and elected not to participate in the National Invitation Tournament.

“It was tough, because I’ve never been on a losing team,” Simmons said.

But ending up on one — and shouldering the blame for the team’s failures — will help Simmons in his transition to the N.B.A. if he does not get off to a flying start.

“The experience at L.S.U. helped me understand that things are not always going to be perfect,” he said. “I was getting all of that thrown on me, but I had to deal with it, and it came with the territory.”

Simmons signed last March with Klutch Sports. The agency’s highest-profile client is LeBron James, who Simmons says has become a friend and mentor. They talk frequently, discussing everything from footwork to how Simmons’s life is about to dramatically change.

“I’ve learned a lot just being around LeBron,” Simmons said. “People say things about him all the time, but he would never say anything back. That’s what I learned from him: Don’t retaliate to articles or pieces or to things that are said about me.”

Simmons is the subject of a documentary, “One and Done,” scheduled to appear on Showtime in October. The film explores Simmons’s journey from Australia to Florida to L.S.U. to the N.B.A. It illustrates the global system that delivers players to college programs in the United States.

“I think it’s great because you’re watching somebody go from high school to the N.B.A., and you see what’s actually happening,” Simmons said. “I want people to understand it’s not all about the money, cars and things like that. A lot of different things go into this.”

The underlying question the film examines is whether the most talented high school athletes should be forced to spend a “sham year” in college or play professionally outside the United States rather than having the opportunity to go straight to the N.B.A.

“I look at the N.B.A. as a job, a great job to have, so I think for me, I would have loved the opportunity to go to the N.B.A. out of high school,” Simmons said. “If you’re not ready, you’re not ready. If you are ready, I think you should be able top to go.”

He added: “I enjoyed my time at L.S.U. I wouldn’t change it for anything. My dad went to college — my sisters, brothers — so I felt like I just had to, and I enjoyed it.”

Simmons is the youngest of six children. His father, David, was born and raised in the South Bronx; his mother, Julie, is from Australia.

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Simmons taking a shot for Louisiana State. He said he had picked L.S.U., rather than a traditional basketball power like Kentucky or Duke, because he wanted a challenge.

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Gerald Herbert/Associated Press

David played college basketball at Oklahoma City University and spent his professional career in South America and finally in Australia where he met and married Julie.

“I never would have imagined any of this,” David said. “There was no plan for this. All of our kids were treated the same. They were all coached the same way. Ben just happened to be the kid who turned out to be 6-10 with the same skills they all had.”

Because of his high profile, his extraordinary skills and the desperation of the team that makes him their first selection, Simmons may have a shorter than usual honeymoon next season.

In the era of social media, anyone can text a good game. Anyone can Facebook or Snapchat a good game. But at some point, you have to play a good game — especially if you are a high-profile rookie in championship-starved Philadelphia.

“I’ll have time to mature and develop, and one day, hopefully, I can bring a ring to wherever I am,” Simmons said.

He smiled. “LeBron did it,” he said.

I reminded him that James left Cleveland and then went back.

“I think it had to happen,” Simmons said. “It helped him mature his game, understand how to be a better player, teammate and leader. He came back to Cleveland knowing how to win a championship.”

Impressive insight from a 19-year-old rookie on the eve of draft day.

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