Lakers

Lakers taking a long look at LSU prodigy Ben Simmons

Sorry, Kobe. You're not the only basketball player with a camera crew following you.

A touch of Hollywood has found its way to the southeastern banks of the Mississippi River, where video cameras and boom microphones traipse after Louisiana State's 19-year-old basketball prodigy Ben Simmons.

Unlike Bryant's band of lens-toters, this group isn't allowed into the typically exclusive enclave of the trainer's room. The postgame speeches they're allowed to record from Simmons are generally after victories, not losses.

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It's posed somewhat of a problem, a conundrum wrapped inside a camera, for Simmons' independent troop. There haven't been quite enough LSU victories despite the presence of a dominant freshman who will likely be the top NBA draft pick in June.

The Tigers (18-13) need to do very, very well in the SEC tournament this weekend or else they almost certainly will miss the NCAA tournament, potentially making Simmons the first No. 1 pick to do so since Michael Olowokandi in 1998.

This doesn't really bother him. He's from Australia, where his father, David, was an National Basketball League star and won a championship with the Melbourne Tigers in 1993.

"I never knew about the NCAA tournament until I'd come over here to America," Simmons said, adding that, sure, he'd like to play in it now if given the option.

The lack of bracket-busting Down Under might be why Simmons hasn't exactly embraced the college concept.

He was benched for about five minutes to start last month's Tennessee game because of academic issues. Last Saturday, Simmons was dropped from the list of Wooden Award candidates because he did not meet the "necessary credentials to contribute," an LSU spokesman said. The award is for the NCAA's top basketball player who also shows progress toward graduation with a minimum cumulative 2.0 GPA as a full-time student, according to its guidelines.

As such, the student section at Kentucky gleefully chanted "G-P-A, G-P-A" while Simmons shot free throws Saturday in a 94-77 loss that made LSU's NCAA tournament hopes even dimmer.

It's clearly only a matter of time before he moves to the next level.

"I always think about it, honestly," he said last week. "It's always on TV, it's always coming up with [reporters'] questions. I think about things but at the same time I'm back into reality."

The Lakers will study everything about him, hoping the aptitude matches the attitude. They currently have a 19.9% chance of winning the top pick at the May 17 NBA lottery. If they get lucky, Simmons might go from one purple-and-gold team to another.

So it's no surprise that representatives from 11 NBA teams attended Saturday's game, including two from the Lakers — General Manager Mitch Kupchak and scout Irving Thomas.

Some were curious about Kentucky swingman Jamal Murray, a likely top-10 pick. All were fixated on Simmons.

NBA officials can't comment on amateur players, but what they saw in Simmons was a left-handed "point forward" with sublime driving skills and a pass-first mind-set who would have many more assists if not for teammates' drops and missed shots.

He moves down the court and through the lane with surprising ease for someone 6 feet 10, averaging 19.6 points and five assists. He's not stick-thin, weighing a solid 225 and averaging 11.9 rebounds. He had seven steals against Kentucky.

Some people call him the next Magic Johnson, which he isn't. He's not a natural post player. He likes going there and then passes the ball back out. No junior skyhooks in his game yet.

Simmons also doesn't shoot well, or at all, from outside. He has taken only three shots from three-point range in 31 college games.

This doesn't worry NBA teams. "That's the knock on him but, you know, LeBron [James] couldn't shoot. We know how that turned out," said a league personnel evaluator.

James made 63 three-point shots as an NBA rookie, a number he almost doubled last season, his 12th as a pro.

Simmons isn't shy. Confidence is not a problem. Earlier this season, he said the best college player was "Oh, myself."

Opposing fans, either mildly envious or sensing the load of self-assurance, are all over him.

They taunt him with "Phil-ly, Phil-ly" chants at road games, mockingly tell him how great he'll look in a jersey of the woeful 76ers, who currently own the NBA's worst record and best shot at the No. 1 pick (25%).

It got really bad in Florida a couple of months ago. Gators fans ridiculed him about Philadelphia and asked if he even knew where it was located. (He knows. Simmons didn't just move from Australia. He played three years of high school ball at a boarding school in Florida before committing to LSU.)

Simmons has plenty of supporters.

"He's certainly received his share of exposure and a lot of demand on his time as well," LSU Coach Johnny Jones said last week. "A lot of times when things haven't been so positive, I think as a young man that he's done a great job of being able to stay grounded, taking it for what it was worth and keeping his blinders on. It's really been the first time I've seen someone that has been asked to do as much."

Going into the Kentucky game, Simmons said all the right things: Rupp Arena was a venerable place to play. His father might have even played there once. It will be a great game.

His coach was the one who came up with the one-liner. Was he anxious to see how the Kentucky crowd treated Simmons?

"Nah. I'm anxious to see how he treats them," Jones said.

The kid is that good, even if his team is not. Simmons had 17 points, 11 rebounds, four assists and all those steals while playing the full 40 minutes.

"I think he's the best player in the country," said Alabama Coach Avery Johnson, who won an NBA championship in 1999 as San Antonio's point guard. "I think he's been really consistent in terms of being that triple-double threat, playing both ends of the floor."

Lakers personnel were keenly aware that Simmons attended their game in New Orleans last month and chatted for a while with rookie D'Angelo Russell, his teammate for two years in high school. They're often in touch, talking as recently as Monday.

"He knows he's good so it kind of puts him over the edge and separates him from a lot of players. It's kind of intimidating," said Russell, who was a year ahead of him at Montverde Academy near Orlando. "I remember when we were young, I was one of the top players to come in and he was one of the top players, but I wasn't as good as him. I was the top player in the state [of Kentucky] and I ain't seen nothing like him. I was like, 'This dude's going to be a pro.' The jump shot's a little suspect but he's good."

There it is again. That jump shot. It's so easy for Simmons to get to the rim now. He doesn't have to work on a midrange game or anything behind the arc.

"Once he gets to this point, he'll work on it because he'll see everybody's good," said Russell, who has enjoyed a sharp run in recent games with 39 points against Brooklyn and 21 in the Lakers' upset of Golden State.

Despite Russell's uptick, Julius Randle's rebounding prowess and the ever-improving Jordan Clarkson, the Lakers crave more talent.

Simmons appears to be a future franchise player. If nothing else, he's already used to his daily life getting captured on video.

"I'm waiting for it to come out and see how it looks," he said.

Follow Mike Bresnahan on Facebook and Twitter @Mike_Bresnahan.

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Copyright © 2016, Los Angeles Times
A version of this article appeared in print on March 09, 2016, in the Sports section of the Los Angeles Times with the headline "SHARIN' OZ-BORN - The best player in college, Ben Simmons, is a pass-first Aussie import with a bit of Magic in him. Of course Lakers want him." — Today's paperToday's paper | Subscribe
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