March 14, 2016

SHATZMAN | On LSU’s Ben Simmons and NBA Eligibility

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Texas A&M’s 71-38 victory over LSU on Saturday marked the final game of Ben Simmons’ brief collegiate career. The 6-foot-10 freshman from Melbourne, Australia led the Tigers in points, rebounds, assists, blocks and steals in what was statistically as productive a season as any in the country. At just 19 years old, Simmons looked like a pro in a college uniform.

In 2005, NBA Commissioner David Stern changed the league’s eligibility rules, mandating that no player under the age of 19 could be eligible for the draft. In order for one to be entered into the NBA draft pool, the prospect had to be at least one year removed from high school. This brought an end to the increasingly common high school to NBA path that countless top players — like LeBron James, Kobe Bryant and Kevin Garnett among others — took to professional stardom. The rule change gave way to a new era of NBA draft prospects, today known as “one-and-done” players: those like Ben Simmons, who play college basketball for one season knowing full-well that they will leave for the NBA after their freshmen seasons. Whatever David Stern’s intentions were — he claimed that urban Americans were incorrectly viewing the NBA as an easy path to fame and fortune despite the overwhelming success of NBA players who came straight from high school — the rule change served no purpose other than delaying the inevitable, hindering the development and careers of NBA-ready prospects.

Of the top 15 players selected in the 2015 NBA draft, nine were one-and-dones, three were international prospects and just one, Frank Kaminsky, had finished four years of college. In 2014, the first four picks in the draft were one-and-dones. And the pattern is seen consistently dating back to the rule change 11 years ago. Think about the concept of the rule: we force the most promising young athletes to essentially waste a year, at the same time making a mockery of the idea that they are going to college to attain an education as opposed to playing ball, counting down the days until their names are called in June. And that isn’t to say that every one-and-done player considers the one college season a waste. I’m sure that many are academically inclined, make lasting relationships like other college students, and some even compete for an NCAA title under the guidance of a legendary coach. But the eligibility rule wasn’t imposed for those reasons and the fact remains: these players aren’t going to college to graduate, they are going because the NBA requires them to take a post-high school gap-year before becoming professionals.

Despite the eligibility rules, players are not forced to go to college out of high school. Current Orlando Magic guard Brandon Jennings was among the first basketball players to spend his pre-NBA year overseas, playing for a top team in Italy. This is a seemingly cushy option: a $1.65 million contract, subsequent endorsement deals and the title of professional basketball player — it all sounds great. But Jennings wanted to go to the University of Arizona, but couldn’t because of academic reasons — again highlighting the irony of making prospects wait a year to realize their dreams. On the other hand, even though his plan was to attend college, playing in Italy wasn’t a bad fallback option.

Nuggets’ rookie Emmanuel Mudiay went through a similar situation, originally committing to play for Larry Brown at SMU, but later deciding to sign a contract with the Guangdong Southern Tigers of the Chinese Basketball Association. Jennings and Mudiay both ended up in the NBA as soon as they were eligible, and if the current rule remains, maybe more prospects will follow suit. But remember, these are NBA talents who will ultimately make a living in the Association. The current eligibility rules seemingly encourage prospects to go make a quick million in China. Spend your gap year how you’d like, just not here in the NBA. Come back next year, though, and we’ll pay you millions of dollars and sell your jerseys to adoring fans.

But back to Simmons, who is an interesting case. Because he grew up in Australia — his dad played professionally there when Ben was a child — it wouldn’t have been surprising had Simmons skipped the one-year NCAA retreat. Thus, it was a bit of a head-scratcher when Simmons — the top-rated recruit for his year — committed to LSU, a decent division-one, SEC program, but one that lacks the storied history and legendary coaching of the Dukes and Kentuckys of the NCAA. And although Simmons’ statistics were phenomenal this season, his collegiate career was a major disappointment. LSU missed the NCAA Tournament in what was an up-and-down season best represented by the fact that the Tigers beat Kentucky and Texas A&M, but lost to Wake Forest and Charleston.

The final game of Simmons’ college career was perhaps the worst team performance I have ever seen in a basketball game: stagnant offensive possessions, lethargic defense and Simmons foul trouble, capped off by coach Johnny Jones telling a reporter at halftime, despite trailing 35-13, that he liked his team’s “great energy” in the first half. And this was a win-or-go home, season-on-the-line game. After the game, Jones announced that LSU wouldn’t be participating in the postseason, though the team was a likely NIT candidate.

Ben Simmons is the projected first-overall pick in the upcoming draft. The last player to be selected top-three in the NBA draft who did not play in an NCAA tournament was Benoit Benjamin in 1985. Simmons’ season at LSU perfectly encapsulates the absurdity of the NBA’s eligibility rules: Simmons chose LSU over Duke and Kansas, his team was terrible, he had alleged academic issues that cost him his starting spot for a game, and yet, in just a couple of months, Ben Simmons will shake Commissioner Silver’s hand at the NBA Draft, where he knew he’d end up all along.

It seems fitting that after Saturday’s pathetic performance by LSU, reports surfaced that Simmons will hire LeBron’s agent as he prepares for the NBA. The reason we don’t talk about LeBron’s college days is because he was talented enough to play in the NBA at age 18. So was Ben Simmons.