Aussies in NBA: Why Ben Simmons was forced to play college basketball

Ben Simmons committed to Louisiana State University on 15 October 2013. He was 17 years old, and he was forced to play college basketball.

Since One & Done debuted last month, there has been much conversation regarding the ‘options’ Simmons had at his disposal back in 2013. A sentiment has developed that Simmons didn’t have to play college ball, that he could have gone to Europe or returned to Australia and spent a season in the NBL. This is true in theory, yet fanciful in reality.

Nobody held a gun to Simmons’ head and said you must attend LSU; they didn’t have to. His career choice dictated he play by the NCAA’s rules.

Simmons was an Australian kid who had one goal in life: to play in the NBA. His family moved from Victoria to America when he was 14 to chase this dream and he spent his teenage years getting acclimated to a foreign country. He completed high school and was arguably ready for the NBA in June 2015. NBA rules dictated he had to wait a year. So what was he to do?

Under the current system, there were three options. Leave America and play professionally for a year, go to an American college and play through the NCAA system, or sit out of organised basketball and do his own thing for 12 months.

The latter option is a complete non-starter. The same goes for the NBA’s Development League. We don’t need to touch on why these options are littered with danger. That leaves the college versus international basketball debate.

Simmons was an atypical one-and-done case study. As his documentary illustrates, the twelve months between high school and the NBA were a stepping-stone for bigger goals. The Simmons family had money; professional paychecks were not a factor in deciding how Ben would prepare for the NBA. It was all about maximum readiness for his upcoming career.

To amplify future employment chances, Simmons did what any shrewd individual would. He stayed in America and played by the rules of an industry he was chasing. He could have gone to China, he also could of wasted six months playing in the NBL, but what is the point? Simmons was pro-ready and his family didn’t need the money. Why upset the applecart?

The decision facing Simmons in October 2013 was this: either pay your dues at LSU for a season or take an unnecessary gamble. Would you be willing to do that for your career?

Shaun Powell wrote an interesting piece for NBA.com and unwillingly honed in on the real reason why this ‘choice’ faced by Simmons wasn’t a choice at all. Here is an excerpt from his article that bears exploring.

“Here’s the real issue: Simmons and those advising him wanted him to play against solid competition (to sharpen his skills), enjoy massive American TV exposure (to enhance his brand) and do so on the best route (which was playing in college). That’s why he went to LSU. Nobody forced him.”

Powell is one hundred percent right and wrong all at the same time. The reasons why Simmons should have attended college are obvious and Powell touches on them. Simmons wanted elite competition to test his skills, he was chasing exposure to the planet’s biggest television market and like anybody, wanted to find the most effective route to his dream career.

He chose to attend college because it was the most beneficial option within a difficult system. It also happens that college was the only option if Simmons placed maximum emphasis on reaching the NBA, something he evidently did.

The factors Powell raises aren’t isolated to Simmons and prospective professional athletes. They apply to any human chasing professional work. Herein lies the point.

We occasionally become too narrow focused on athletes, I know I do. It’s easy to forget that these arenas we attend with joy are the workplace for those competing. That athletes have finite careers, which often begin in their teenage years. Simmons definitely falls into this category. He was a professional once he left Australia as a 14-year-old, whether a sporting league or collegiate sporting system recognises him as one is an arbitrary, and largely irrelevant, debate.

Simmons made a qualified decision in attending LSU, he made the only choice available to him as a professional emphasising the next 20 years of his working life. Simmons knew the easiest path to an NBA career and life-changing dollars was through the NCAA system. You can’t hold that against him.

Just because there was a tangible, and clearly inferior, alternative to get paid for basketball upfront – be it overseas or in the NBA’s Development League – doesn’t mean he should feel forced or compelled to take this route. It also doesn’t mean he should sit in silence when critiquing the collegiate system.

This is all true even before you encounter the human element. Realise for a second, the absurdity of calling for Simmons to leave his adopted home in America to build a third base before his 20th birthday. Those calling for this are discounting the interplay between reality and real life.

Unsavoury as it may be, the NCAA was Simmons’ destiny from the moment he left Australia. That might actually be the most valid evidence for those criticising the tone of One & Done. The “you knew this was coming, suck it up for 12 months and make your millions” sentiment is out there. While I tend to disagree, it’s undeniable that there is some merit in this opinion. But it shouldn’t deflect attention away from the NCAA.

The forum used by Simmons may not have been perfect. The message on the other hand, it is the personification of perfection. Lesser-known collegiate athletes, such as Australia’s very own Isaac Humphries, do not have the platform to speak out, and they definitely don’t have the power of Australia’s newest basketball star.