Transcendent star or overhyped, just hope Ben Simmons’ season doesn’t end in irrelevance

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BROOKLYN — The nation got its first really good look at college basketball’s biggest star on Monday night, as LSU freshman Ben Simmons — the No. 1 recruit in his class and the current favorite to be the No. 1 pick in the 2016 NBA Draft — lived up to the hype he’s garnered through the season’s first two weeks.

That’s saying a lot, mind you.

Simmons gets compared to LeBron on a daily basis.

So it’s no small feat when I say that he lived up to the hype of being compared to the best basketball player this planet has ever seen, even if it is for one game. But on Monday night at Barclays Center, Simmons looked every bit the part of a potential No. 1 pick in the NBA Draft. He finished with 21 points, 20 boards, seven assists and two steals, numbers that would have been even more impressive had the rest of the Tigers shot better than 35.6 percent from the floor.

He was phenomenal. There’s really no other way to put it. He was unstoppable in transition. His vision and passing ability was on full-display. He attacked the offensive glass. He even took a critical charge on his freshman counterpart, Marquette’s Henry Ellenson, late in the game, a play that fouled Ellenson out and earned LSU a crucial possession.

It was a pleasure to watch, thrilling enough that LSU-grad Odell Beckham Jr. of the New York Giants made his way to Brooklyn to see it.

And it was all for naught.

No. 23 LSU lost to the Golden Eagles in a fun-but-brutally-sloppy game in the semifinals of the Legends Classic, 81-80. The two teams spent 40 minutes running up and down the floor in what felt like a heavyweight clash at Peach Jam, the biggest and best AAU tournament of the summer.

Pretty, it was not, but given Simmons’ skill-set, it was the perfect setting to showcase what he can do.

“We know the potential in how good ben is and what he’s capable of providing for this team,” LSU head coach Johnny Jones said.

He’s at his best in the open floor, when he can grab a defensive rebound and go coast-to-coast. Given the fact that he’s 6-foot-10, he can hold his own on the defensive end of the floor playing at the four and, if he has to, the five. It creates all kinds of matchup problems for opponents. There were long stretches where Marquette was forced to have 7-foot center Luke Fischer guards Simmons.

That’s why things like this happen:

“He’s a very unique and talented player,” Marquette head coach Steve Wojciechowski said. “Because of his size and athletic and ability to handle the ball, he’s a unique matchup.”

Just how unique and talented he truly is has been a topic of debate. It’s clear that he’s a terrific prospect. I’m not even sure his doubters would argue that. But whether he’s one of, if not the best prospect in a down draft year or the kind of player that can transform an NBA franchise for the next decade is a debate that will rage on for a long time. Through the NBA Draft, into his rookie year, perhaps beyond.

Whether or not you truly embrace the debate, the truth is that this is what draws people to sports. He’s a special talent doing special things in a game that can be watched on any TV, tablet or cell phone in the country. When he goes for 21, 20 and seven in that setting, he’s going to be talked about. He’s going to trend on twitter even though the Patriots are playing on Monday Night Football at the same time. And everyone is going to have an opinion on him. Is he the best since LeBron? Is he a Lamar Odom clone? Royce White? Shawn Marion?

But more than anything, he is a topic of discussion, one that will draw eyeballs when he plays on a stage like this.

The question, however, is just how often he will play on a stage like this.

Let’s call it like it is: this LSU team has questions they need answered. The Marquette team they lost to on Monday? They entered the game 1-2 on the season. They lost to Belmont at home. The beating they took against Iowa last week was as bad as any loss we’ve seen this season. Their only win came over IUPUI. At home, in overtime.

“We’re so far from being a finished product,” Wojciechowski said. “We have a lot of things that we have to work hard to earn.”

The Tigers are talented. No one in their right mind will argue that. But fair or not, Johnny Jones has a reputation for fielding teams that fail to play up to their talent level. It’s far too early to say that’s happening again — if anything, Marquette has been the underachiever this month — but there is a reason why a team that has a talent like Simmons surrounded by the likes of Antonio Blakeney, Tim Quarterman, Brandon Sampson and, eventually, Keith Hornsby and Craig Victor is barely sneaking into the AP top 25.

They were not in our top 25 this week, and they’ll no longer be in the AP top 25 when the new poll comes out.

In other words, as it stands today, this isn’t a team that’s expected to compete for the SEC title; giving the likes of Vanderbilt and Texas A&M a run for a top two finish would be considered a success. They’re not a team expected to make it out of the first weekend of the NCAA tournament, not if Simmons can play this well in a loss to a team picked to finish in the bottom half of the Big East.

“We can’t ask him to put up those kind of numbers night in and night out,” Jones said. “He was forced tonight to be in a position to put up 21 and 20.”

And therein lies the danger of a one-and-done talent going to a school outside what is considered to be the traditional contenders. Simmons isn’t the only one learning that this year; Malik Newman is struggling to find his way on a bad Mississippi State team. Stephen Zimmerman is a projected lottery pick on a projected NIT team. Even Ellenson is in danger of fading into the obscurity of being on the wrong side of the bubble.

It draws to mind Michael Beasley*.

*(I realize that I’ve compared Simmons to three guys — Odom, White and Beasley — who don’t, shall we say, have sterling off-the-court reputations. That’s not an insinuation that he’s a knucklehead off the floor; no one I’ve spoken too believes that to be the case at all. He just happens to have a game that’s similar to guys that carried red flags with them.)

If you don’t remember, Beasley was a revelation during his one season at Kansas State. He averaged 26.2 points and 12.4 boards and was good enough that the Chicago Bulls actually considered picking him over hometown hero Derrick Rose. But he was also on a team that finished 21-12 overall, never threatened for a league title, lost in the first round of the Big 12 tournament and the Round of 32 in the NCAA tournament.

They were, more or less, irrelevant nationally, an after thought in a year where four No. 1 seeds reached the Final Four.

And my fear is that Simmons is heading down that same path, that his one season of college basketball will be boiled down to the two games where he gets a chance to square off with Kentucky.

The beauty of the 2015 season was that the best teams in the country not only were the most recognizable, they also had the most relevant players. It extended to the Final Four, which included the two best players (Frank Kaminsky and Jahlil Okafor), the two most talented teams (Duke and Kentucky) and the two guys everyone thought, at the time, could be the No. 1 pick (Okafor and Karl Towns).

That won’t happen this season, not unless LSU and Kris Dunn’s Providence team find a way to win four straight games this March.

Does that mean Simmons made a mistake going to LSU?

Of course not.

Family matters to him — his mother and father were both in attendance in Brooklyn on Monday night — and he’s playing this season on a team where his Godfather, David Patrick, is an assistant coach. It’s a great story, one that will deservedly be retold over and over again, particularly if he can manage to carry LSU to a big year.

But it would be a shame if his one season at this level ends anywhere other than Houston.