BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) The first thing LSU freshman forward Ben Simmons did when he trotted into Pete Maravich Assembly Center for practice Wednesday was work his way through two rows of NBA scouts at court-side viewing tables, shaking hands with each one.
Mostly because of Simmons, the Tigers have had more preseason hype than perhaps the early 1990s, when Shaquille O’Neal was the star.
Simmons looks perfectly comfortable with that, and coach Johnny Jones wants the whole team to be as well.
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“You want to embrace it. It’s exciting,” said Jones, who was an LSU assistant under Dale Brown when O’Neal was there. “You’d much rather be on the side of high expectations and people thinking that you’re going to be very good.”
The 6-foot-10 Simmons, who grew up in Australia and attended high school in Florida, is as much at ease handling the ball on a fast break and delivering crisp, accurate passes as he is soaring to the hoop for a one-handed jam. He will be the marquee attraction this season and scouts believe he has the potential to be the No. 1 overall pick in the NBA draft.
But he isn’t the only player that NBA personnel from all but two teams came to see (Memphis and Orlando had scheduling conflicts, an LSU official said). The squad also features 6-4 guard Antonio Blakeney, who was named Florida’s top high school player last season – over Simmons. Then there is 6-6 junior guard Tim Quarterman, whose steady development has made him a bona fide pro prospect as well.
By opening a pair of practices to pro scouts in a “combine” setting, LSU is following the lead of Southeastern Conference powerhouse Kentucky, which began holding similar events for scouts last season.
How well the Tigers compete with the likes of the Wildcats on the court remains to be seen, but Simmons is getting the type of attention normally reserved for LSU’s best football players.
It was during a recent football Saturday on LSU’s campus, in fact, that Simmons found out just how popular he was.
He ventured out to visit some tailgate parties with teammate and roommate, Keith Hornsby, and found himself surrounded pretty quickly.
“It doesn’t help that I’m 6-10, so wherever I go, I’m usually spotted,” Simmons said. “Everybody just surrounds you, saying, `What’s up,’ shaking your hand. So it’s kind of overwhelming.
But it doesn’t bother him.
“I’m trying to take it all in,” Simmons said. “Not everyone gets to do this, so I’m just grateful.”
Hornsby said walking around campus with Simmons is like being around a rock star, and he would know. His father, Bruce Hornsby, is a renowned musician who has been successful as a solo artist and has played with the Grateful Dead.
“A lot of females gravitate toward Ben. I’d say he’s a relatively good-looking guy,” Hornsby said. “I thought I was OK, and he steals the show from me.
“It’s really quite astonishing, just watching him roam around and people notice him, and just give him attention, and he’s really good about it, too. He acknowledges everybody and that’s pretty cool,” Hornsby continued. “It’s fun to walk around him, even to walk about 10 feet behind him. Even when people don’t talk to him, they’re whispering to each other (about Simmons).”
LSU women’s basketball coach Nikki Caldwell said Simmons’ popularity among women might even be helping him gain interest from prospective recruits.
“We probably have had more people interested in coming to an unofficial visit, or official visit, because we have a lot of young girls that like Ben, and they know he’s here,” Caldwell said.
LSU plays in a 13,000-seat arena which it rarely fills anymore, with the few exceptions being when Kentucky or another highly ranked team comes in. Attendance has hovered around 5,000 in recent seasons, including last year, when the Tigers qualified for the NCAA Tournament and finished 22-11 after losing their first-round game to North Carolina State.
This season, LSU officials say they’re hoping to see attendance rise by around 30 percent – possibly more if the Tigers win consistently.
“If it’s not sold out, I’ll be kind of upset. Hopefully everyone comes out,” Simmons said. “I love seeing fans and them wanting us to win and do well. That really drives me.”