By any tangible measurement, Ben Simmons is the best player in college basketball this season. No, he won’t win the SEC Player of the Year award (that will almost certainly go to Tyler Ulis), and at this point I’m not even so sure he’ll take home the league’s Rookie of the Year award either (thanks, Jamal Murray!).
At the same time he is still in fact the “best” player in the sport, a transcendent talent who doubles as his team’s best big guy and guard at the same time, not to mention the best ball-handler, passer and athlete on the court as well. No, Simons isn’t a finished product. But there is a reason after all that he has been projected as the No. 1 pick in the 2016 NBA Draft since like two days after he left his mother’s womb.
Yet for all the Simmons hype — and admittedly, there’s been plenty — when it comes to analyzing the LSU basketball program this year, it seems like there is a 50/50 split on who to blame for the Tigers’ disappointing season. Sure, some of it is heaped on LSU’s coach Johnny Jones, but plenty too has been thrust on Simmons as well. Some say that for all the stats Simmons has put up, he’s not enough of a “leader.” Others say he’s not assertive enough, that he doesn’t take over when his team absolutely needs it. He’s also been criticized for not having a “mean streak,” whatever that means (seriously, every time I hear Simmons doesn’t have a mean streak it reminds me of the movie clip below).
Except while Jones and Simmons appear to have equal footing on the LSU blame tree, the simple truth is this: Anyone who is placing any blame on Simmons for LSU’s disappointing season isn’t only absurd, but patently wrong. Frankly, the idea that any of this falls on Simmons is laughable, the equivalent of Will Smith getting blamed when the movie “Concussion” bombed at the box office. If the infrastructure underneath you is a mess, it doesn’t matter how much talent you have.
That’s Simmons’ biggest problem, which also raises an interesting question for me: Why isn’t his head coach getting more blame for this? Sure he has gotten some, but it’s mostly been in the jokey, Twitter “he’s in over his head” sense, and not in the “he’s truly a terrible basketball coach” sense. It also makes me wonder this: In a world where every coach gets blamed for everything and everyone wants everyone else fired, doesn’t it feel like somehow, Jones has largely skated by untouched? That he somehow gets a pass for being totally inept and doesn’t get enough blame for LSU’s struggles? Call me crazy, but that’s honestly how I feel.
And to truly understand how inept Jones is, the best place to start is with Simmons. Because while I feel like Jones doesn’t get enough blame for LSU’s struggles, I also kind of feel like we don’t totally appreciate what we’re getting from Simmons either. The guy isn’t just having a “good” freshman season but a “historic” one, and it’s still not enough for most of us. He has, in every tangible measurement (other than wins and losses), not only met his insane expectations but exceeded them. And no one is talking about it.
For starters, there are the stats, and put simply, Simmons really is the Mozart of college basketball (as a matter of fact, I will only refer to Simmons as “The Basketball Mozart” from here on out). He is literally leading LSU in every major statistical category (points, rebounds, assists, steals and blocks), and according to a graphic that ran on TV the other day, he is on pace to become the first player to average 19 points, 11 rebounds and five assists in a college basketball season since… are you ready for this??… assists became an official stat. That’s insane. And it also means that when we say Simmons is having a “historic” freshman year, that isn’t hyperbole. That’s fact. He’s literally doing things that no one else in the history of college basketball has ever done.
Of course despite having that historic freshman season, Simmons — like we do with all athletes — has been ripped down and criticized, the national media picking apart his game for the sake of easy to consume conversation points. The criticism seemed pretty tame early, with most folks choosing to joke about Jones’ coaching acumen rather than actually come down hard on Simmons, but as time has gone on, those complaints have grown louder. As I mentioned at the top, some say he’s not a “leader.” That he puts up big numbers, but that they’re hollow and never come at the moment LSU needs them. That if he really was the “best” player in college basketball his team would win more.
To which I say this: Are you people insane? Do you have absolutely any idea what you’re talking about? Because I’m pretty sure there’s never really been a case of a guy putting up damn near 20 and 10 at the college level who gets critiqued for “not doing enough.” Heck, in their last two games — LSU’s two worst losses of the year by the way — Simmons has averaged 21 and 10, so yeah, Simmons might not be doing enough, but you know what? When you lose to two sub-.500 teams, no one is doing enough. And for those who say he needs to be a “better leader,” doesn’t leadership start at the top with the coach?
I think so, and that is where the problem lies: LSU has a man in charge who is ill-equipped to coach this team. Jones is a 16-year-old kid driving his dad’s $500,000 sports car on the highway, the Sunday school piano instructor tasked with training Mozart. He is in over his head in every way possible. And he’s being exposed in front of a national audience every single night.
Honestly I didn’t realize just how overmatched Jones was until I did some quick Wikipedia research on him. Frankly, his resume speaks more to a guy who should be the second assistant on a middle-of-the-pack ACC team rather than the head coach of a Power Five program.
If you’re looking for some facts on Jones, here you go: Jones has been a head coach at the Division I level for the last 15 years, which included 11 at North Texas and the last four at LSU. First of all, that’s a red flag right there. Most coaches worth their salt don’t spend 11 years at a mid-major school before getting their big break. Only Jones was there for over a decade, and even when he did get the LSU coaching job his best qualification seemed to be that… cough… he was an LSU alum.
Why do I say that? Well, let’s dig a little deeper into his resume.
For starters, it took six years for Jones to even post a winning record at North Texas, and over that decade-plus at the school, he had one season with fewer than double-digit losses (he still has just that one season with single digit losses. Thanks for the Twitter tip, @tomnotj). Heck, he could have conceivably been fired at that school if he didn’t make the NCAA Tournament in year six, but even that comes with an asterisk with it, considering that he finished fourth in his own division of the Sun Belt that year (although in his defense, I’m sure the Sun Belt West was especially tough that season).
To Jones’ credit, after two more years of mediocrity, he took North Texas back to the NCAA Tournament in 2010 (the one legit season on his resume), before back-to-back third place finishes in the Sun Belt West. And then somehow from there, he ended up with the LSU job. Meaning that in 11 years at a school, with one first place finish in conference, he got one of the cushiest jobs in college basketball. Basically he’s the George W. Bush of college basketball. No one’s quite sure how the hell he got the job he did, only here we are in year four in Baton Rouge, and it appears as though he may end up getting another term.
And the sad thing is, it’s been much the same since he got to LSU. There were two lackluster seasons which included one NIT bid, before last year’s “breakthrough” into the NCAA Tournament… that almost didn’t happen after the Tigers’ lost to Auburn in the opener of the SEC Tourney. LSU was immediately bounced by NC State, this despite having two players who would go on to be two of the Top 35 players taken in the draft. Actually, the fact that Jarrell Martin and Jordan Mickey declared for the draft like .0000002 seconds after the season ended should have been a red flag right there: They saw the ship sinking before the rest of us did.
Only we’re here to witness it now, and what a sight it is to see. The most talented basketball player of a generation, stuck on a team with no hope, coached by a guy who has no clue.
We all expected more from Ben Simmons one year at LSU, only here we are, stuck with a sad reality as we head into the final few weeks of the season: The best player in college basketball won’t be in this year’s NCAA Tournament.
That’s a bummer for Simmons himself, and the fans who love the sport.
Only when diagnosing this season, and what went wrong in Baton Rouge, don’t blame Simmons.
Blame the guy coaching him.