Ben Simmons: The tale of a basketball maverick

Simmons has never done basketball the conventional way.

Ben Simmons has never done basketball the conventional way.

But then again, Simmons wasn't your average basketball prospect. The Melbourne native attended Whitefriars Catholic College for Boys until year 9, when coach Kevin Goorjian (brother of 6x NBL Coach of the Year Brian) lured him to Box Hill Senior Secondary College. Box Hill didn't have a year 9 basketball program, meaning Goorjian had to create one for Simmons.

By the end of the 2011 school year, this grade 9 kid was playing against seniors, in the Australian Schools Championships. Despite going up against guys three years older than him, Simmons was already producing highlight reel plays, including dunks in transition. It was only going to be a matter of time before this basketball prodigy earned an invite to the Australian Institute of Sport (AIS), and he did so ahead of the 2012 school year.

Simmons showed basketball talent well beyond his years, and proved that he was too good for his age group. In early 2012, the then-15 year old made the Victoria Metropolitan Under-18 team, and rose to the occasion. He ranked seventh in scoring at the 2012 Australian Under-18 Championships, with 13.5 points per game. The lanky point forward also used his frame to his advantage, averaging 3.5 offensive rebounds - good enough for third place in the competition.

Simmons had nothing left to prove on home soil, meaning the next logical step was to take the international stage.

Between June and August 2012, the basketball world started noticing this kid from Melbourne. It began at the Pangos All-American camp in California, where Simmons dominated his American counterparts. College basketball insider Jeff Borzello - who currently writes for ESPN - described him as "the talk of the camp", before adding: "Arguably the best prospect at the event, Simmons would likely be the No. 1 player in the class of 2015 if he attended high school in the United States".

This is high praise for an international man of mystery, but Simmons earned it. He excelled against future NBA players such as Zach LaVine, Stanley Johnson and Christian Wood at the Pangos All-American camp. The Melbourne product then took his talents to Lithuania, where he represented Australia at the 2012 FIBA Under-17 World Championships.

Teaming up with childhood friend Dante Exum, Simmons helped the Aussie side achieve a silver medal. The boys in green and gold went all the way to the final, and ultimately lost to a much-fancied USA side featuring several future NBA players - Jabari Parker, Jahlil Okafor and Justise Winslow, to name a few. Simmons showed his class in a tough 63-58 group stage win over the Czech Republic, recording 26 points and 10 rebounds - not a bad effort for a 15 year old playing in an Under-17 competition.

It didn't stop there for Simmons. The Victorian went back to the States for another summer competition, this time representing Australia at the 2012 Adidas nations. He joined forces with Exum yet again, as the Melbourne duo turned heads. By the end of the 2012 American summer, Simmons had established himself as arguably the best player in his high school class. But his next move was a surprising one, as the future NBA All-Star forged his own, unique pathway towards greatness.

Bucking the trend

Luc Longley. Andrew Bogut. Patty Mills. Joe Ingles. Matthew Dellavedova. Aron Baynes. Dante Exum.

What do they all have in common? That's right, they all attended Basketball Australia's Centre of Excellence (CoE) until the time came to attend college or turn pro. Simmons on the other hand, elected not to maximise his tenure at the AIS. The rising star spent some time at the institute in the front half of 2012, but didn't see out the year in Canberra.

"The AIS was a great opportunity for me but I don’t think the timing was right. For the short time I was there the training I received was great and the coaches made sure we were all ready to go," Simmons said in a 2012 interview with Aussie basketball blog NBAmate. That's a polite way of saying the AIS wasn't for him; maybe Simmons just didn't like the Canberra weather?

In January 2013, the then-16 year old swapped chilly Canberra for sunny Florida. He joined Montverde Academy, a high school with one of the best basketball programs in the USA. Ben's father, a former NBL champion with the Melbourne Tigers in 1993, supported the move. “[Moving to the US] became the next logical step for him,” David Simmons said in a 2014 interview. “It then became a conversation around what’s going to be best for him, both in terms of school and basketball development.”

Ben's mother was less keen, but she wasn't going to stand in her son's way. “I actually was never that comfortable with [the move],” Julie Simmons said in 2014. “I’ll always remember when he came to me and said, ‘Mom, I want to go. You just can’t hold me back.’ It was very hard letting my baby go, but we knew America was the benchmark. It was all a leap of faith, I guess.”

The basketball prodigy could have easily followed the same pathway as his close mate, Dante Exum. Exum trained at the AIS prior to entering the NBA draft, and bypassed college as an international prospect. But Simmons wasn't interested in being an international man of mystery - he wanted to take on America's best high school players. “I knew I wanted to go to college and compete against the best prep players,” Simmons said in 2014. “I knew the best competition was here and so that’s why I came.”

The move quickly paid dividends, as Montverde won the national high school championship in 2013. Simmons had to settle for a supporting role - on a stacked roster featuring two future NBA players, Dakari Johnson and D'Angelo Russell - but his time would come. During the 2013 offseason, Simmons had another opportunity to represent Australia, at the FIBA Under-19 World Championships. It's a testament to his ability that he was called up to play in an Under-19 international tournament, while aged just 16. However, Simmons passed on the offer, as he had other plans in mind.

Bucking the trend, part II

Australia narrowly missed out on a medal at the 2013 Under-19 World Championships, finishing fourth. The Exum-led team suffered a five-point loss to Serbia in the semi-finals, before Lithuania won the bronze medal match in overtime. Simmons' decision to sit out the tournament was a curious one, as he could have been the missing piece to put that team over the top. When asked about his absence on social media platform, the future #1 NBA draft pick had a simple answer.

"Felt like I needed to work on my game for next season," he said.

Some may view Simmons' reasoning as a cop out, but he knew exactly what he was doing. With Dakari Johnson college-bound, somebody had to step up for Montverde. That somebody was none other than Simmons, who formed a lethal combination with D'Angelo Russell throughout the 2013/14 season. Montverde finished the season with a 28-0 record and won a second consecutive national title. Simmons was named MVP of the national tournament over Russell, who many viewed as the leader of the team.

Without those long hours in training camp over the off-season, what's to say Simmons would have improved so rapidly? He made a tough decision to pass on the Under-19 World Championships, but it arguably paid off. Dante Exum was established as the Emus' primary ball handler, meaning Simmons wouldn't have had his preferred point forward role.

After Russell left Montverde to attend college, Simmons had the team all to himself. He put together a monstrous 2014/15 season - with per-game averages of 28 points, 12 rebounds and 4 assists on 71% shooting from the field. Montverde won yet another national championship, meaning Simmons finished his high school career with a threepeat. US colleges unsurprisingly lined up to recruit the Aussie, given that he was the best player in his class. Simmons made his decision early, and it was a surprising one.

Bucking the trend - part III

Simmons could have attended just about any Division I school in the states. In fact, he was the first player in the class of 2015 to receive an offer from collegiate powerhouse Duke University. Most players would jump at the opportunity to play under Hall of Fame coach Mike Krzyzewski, but Simmons had other ideas. The Aussie committed to Louisiana State University (LSU), a school better known for its American football program, and he did so very early.

Simmons announced that he was taking his talents to LSU in October of 2013. At the time, he was yet to start his second season at Montverde, and hadn't yet emerged as a dominant force on the high school scene. Why commit so early to a school not particularly known for its basketball program? Once again, Simmons knew what he was doing. The 6'10 point guard had an opportunity to be the star of the show, in a program that would revolve around him. His godfather, former NBL player David Patrick, also happened to be an assistant coach at LSU.

Prioritising his college basketball preparations, Simmons passed on another opportunity to represent Australia - this time at the 2015 FIBA Under-19 World Championships. “I’ll be going to college,” Simmons said in 2015. “I really need to focus on going to college because that’s around the same time I’ll be going to school.” After skipping this same event back in 2013, the LSU commit once again put his personal development first. But Simmons' decision ultimately paid off, as he firmly established himself as the #1 NBA draft pick in 2016.

Without putting in the hard yards over the offseason, there's no guarantee that Simmons would have had the same impact at LSU. The freshman averaged 19.2 points, 11.8 rebounds and 4.8 assists per game, as the coaching staff gave him free rein over the team. LSU finished the season with a disappointing 19-14 season, but Simmons wasn't there to win titles. His ultimate goal was always to play in the NBA, as a one and done prospect. On another team, there's no telling whether Simmons would have had the freedom to put up video game numbers.

Bucking the trend - part IV

Ben Simmons has always been different.

He could have stayed at the AIS, but chose to play high school basketball in the states.

He could have represented Australia and played for the Emus at the 2013 and 2015 Under-19 World Championships, but chose to work on his game.

He could have attended a powerhouse college like Duke or Kansas, but chose LSU.

All of these moves were questionable at the time, but the end result was undeniable. The Philadelphia 76ers selected Simmons with the first overall pick in 2016, and he became the first Aussie to win the Rookie of the Year award - not counting Kyrie Irving. Since then, Simmons has made two All-Star teams, and stands alone in the history books as the only Australian All-Star - again, not counting Kyrie Irving.

Australian fans have spent almost seven years waiting for Simmons to suit up for the national team. Since making his Boomers debut in the 2013 FIBA Oceania Championships, the explosive point forward hasn't been sighted in the green and gold. We can only wonder what could have been, if he was present at the 2016 Olympics or 2019 World Cup. With the Boomers narrowly missing out on a medal at both events, Simmons could have been the final piece to historical success.

Simmons' absence from the Boomers need not be interpreted as a lack of commitment towards the national cause. Similarly, his aversion to jump shots doesn't mean he isn't working on it behind closed doors. Simmons isn't one to follow the crowd - he has always done things his own way.

"I know it's going to come," Simmons told ESPN earlier this year, in relation to his jump shot. "I could be one of those guys shooting 30% [from three-point range] right now. But I'd rather be one of those guys shooting 40%."

Just like his jump shot will come with time, the Melbourne product will suit up for the Australian Boomers. Simmons deserves the benefit of the doubt - he was, is and always will be a basketball maverick.

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