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On the “LeBron and Ben Simmons” Conversation

Like it or not, Ben Simmons plays like LeBron. That doesn't mean that he is LeBron.

Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports

Ben Simmons reminds me of LeBron. I’m not going to get into the Semantics of what it means to say that. There’s been enough #hottakes on the twittersphere the past week or so, especially Monday night, after a loss to Marquette that included Simmons getting two open looks for the Tigers on the final possession. Neither shot fell. "He should have been more aggressive and went to the basket!" (instead of making the sound basketball play and creating open looks for more than competent, though slightly underperforming, teammates.)

Where have we heard this before?

(via @olgunulic)

Some have said Magic; others say a rich man’s Lamar Odom. Last night, I read a pretty convincing argument that his best NBA player comparison could be Blake Griffin. But Benny hater’s, it’s time to face the music. For an unabashed LeBron hater and Simmons lover, in a way it pains me to say it, but it’s all there. Watch the entirety of Simmons performance against Kennesaw State last week (I know, its Kennesaw, but still, watch.) Re-watch Monday night’s Marquette game (where the team put forward a pretty terrible performance from an energy and effort standpoint, until crunch time.) Don't pay too much attention to last night, which was a pretty terrible team performance all-around, where Simmons was overly timid to score the ball and looked visibly uncomfortable, but still found a way to impact the game with rebounding and defense (including a pair of volley ball spike blocks.) He finished with a stat line of 4-16-10 3 steals, 3 blocks, and 0 turnovers, before fouling out in overtime, where the Tigers dropped the second of two contests in the Barclay's Center.

Look a little closer. The similarities are undeniable.

DISCLAIMER: Simmons is shackled in Coach Jones' "Scott Brooks" offense - lots of iso's with the occasional high pick and roll/pop, with zero off-ball movement or flow to the offense. This is an ill-suited system for Ben Simmons' talents. In the open floor, he will shine. HIs ability to make any pass with both hands is incredible. But in a system where 3 of 5 players are basically standing around for most of the offense, his true brilliance will not show in the half-court. Last night was tough to watch.

Okay, I’m not saying he is LeBron. I’m not saying that he’s going to win multiple MVPs, lead his team to the finals 5 years in a row (and counting) with two championships (and counting.) But in Simmons, we get a glimpse into what LeBron would have looked like had he attended college. He’s not as freakish of a raw athlete as LeBron. He’s a notch or so below that, with his biggest physical drawback being average length of wingspan (6’11".) And what he lacks in pure athleticism he makes up for in natural feel for the game, and more advanced ball skills than LeBron had at his age (including a less than perfect, but still better than young LeBron’s outside shot.) Many of us wondered what Ohio State, or Duke, or Syracuse, or wherever would have looked like for the year that hypothetical LeBron attended, I think we’re getting a chance to see the answer now.

I understand it’s been four games. Monday night was a strong performance (21 points, 20 rebounds, 7 assists, 2 steals, and 3 turnovers in 40 minutes) despite a tough loss that the team slept walked through most of. Last night was an example of how Simmons will be held prisoner of the college game, with zero spacing and teammates who didn't make shots off his assist worthy passes. He didn't play well, either; he was undisciplined on defense (resulting in his fouling out) and scared to shoot on offense. He's best in transition, where he's fed us a stream of dunks that, while not on LeBron's level, are still Sportcenter top-10 worthy. Let’s take a little bit of deeper look at the similarities and differences.

What makes Lebron, Lebron (besides the hype)?

1. Incredible vision and passing ability, natural feel for the game and making teammates better.

This is where the Simmons comp is closest. The looking over the defense, crisp passes to shooting pockets from any situation, even the post-up laser to the corner

This is, at the core of their complete and versatile games, what makes them such great players. LeBron inherently understands the team passing concept, and has seeked to involve (or over-involve) his teammates in the offense to a fault over the course of his career. Expect similar faults/criticisms of Simmons over the course of the season.

2. His size/strength and speed/agility combination

Lebron, at his best, is like a taller Adrian Peterson, cutting and crashing his way to the hole and finishing with thunderous dunks. If you’re not 6-8 and 240, you have no shot of checking him. This is what has made him such a devastating force in the post (and such a tragedy that he’s never fully committed to playing there the majority of his time on the floor); if you’re smaller then him, he’s more than strong enough to bully you, if you’re bigger than him, there’s no chance you’re as quick, disciplined, and have as good of footwork as you would need to guard him. Simmons is baby LeBron in this aspect. Doesn’t have quite as broad of a frame and isn’t as strong as LeBron. But there are some similarities. Simmons doesn’t run, he glides. Watch the fluidity and coordination of his 6-9 frame up and down the court, in and out of cuts, picking and popping; it’s all so LeBron. Again, he’s not the physical specimen that LeBron was. But he’s close.

The major benefit of Simmons having to go to college is that, because he is de-facto one of the 3 biggest bodies on the court at anyone time, he will operate often out of the low post. This is where he can really kill teams if he develops a couple go-to scoring moves down there. Once he can force doubles, he’ll have a plethora of offensive options to locate and fire to, which is when he’s at his best.

Simmons natural footwork is flawless. The variety of spins, half spins, and drop-steps he can pull off from either of the elbows, as well as dribbling coming from the permiter, is truly a beautiful site to behold. He’s mastered the Steve Nash one-handed-wide-pivot entry pass, and he’s 19 for Christ sakes. Ahead of his time is an understatement.

3. Wide variety of skills and above average competency in every area.

Above average ball skills (more so for Simmons than Lebron). Both’s biggest "weakness" is jump shooting. Simmon’s is starting from a much better spot than LeBron did, except for he's even more afraid to shoot the ball. Last night he looked downright scared to try and score the ball (actually reminded me a little of LeBron's 2011 finals.) He let a few fly against Kennesaw and McNeese, but I was hoping to see him be more aggressive all-around scoring the ball last night against the Wolfpack.

Frame and athleticism that should allow for world-class rebounding and defense when effort is exerted in those areas for both. Again, LeBron’s elite wingspan (7’.25") puts him ahead of Simmons in this category. Simmons, when engaged, is a plus defender and naturally has a great feel for rebounding. Both benefit from their ability to grab and go, so rebounding is a point of emphasis for both every game.

Ability to play any position when needed to. This speaks for itself. LSU’s best line-ups (offensively) will be one’s that feature Simmons at the 5, surrounded by Blakeney, Quarterman, and two shooters. Lebron’s best line-ups in Miami were him at the 5, with surrounded by Wade and 3 shooters. But both are equally comfortable (and undeniably prefer, in LeBron’s case) handling the ball and playing on the perimeter.

How they’re different

1. Defensively – LeBron was a monster unleashed from hell early on in his career on the defensive end of the floor, and while Simmons is certainly a solid defender, he doesn’t have quite the "inside of his man’s jersey" feel that LeBron had at his peak. This also stems from the fact that LeBron is, again, arguably the greatest athlete in the history of sports. Simmons, if he commits himself, has great potential to be a true monster, as well as competently guarding both perimeter and bigger players (though he’ll need to put on more weight to bang with NBA "true" bigs.)

2. He’s even more reluctant to be aggressive scoring the ball then LeBron. This is what concerns me about this team’s ceiling. Blakeny and Quarterman are quality offensive options, but if Simmons can be aggressive getting to the hoop early in games it will really open things up for everyone. He’s not really that guy at heart, but he’s more than capable and one or two go-to post moves could result in huge dividends during game’s when they’re spacing the floor appropriately by making threes (which clearly didn’t happen last night.)

3. Better at finishing with both hands than LeBron was early in his career. The lefty wild-card. Lefty’s are often more ambidextrous than righties, and LeBron was quite obviously right-hand dominant early in his career. Simmons is equally competent going both ways, and even likes to operate from the left wing in a good amount of his perimeter possessions (where the wide-side of the floor is the right side. It seems like he likes to dummy dribble to the center before eventually getting back to his left, but still, many lefties feel more comfortable on the right wing.)

I was able to learn a lot from just being able to go up against @jharden13 #lefties #NIKE

A photo posted by Ben Simmons (@bensimmons25) on

The other major difference: He’s growing up in the primetime twitter analysis years. LeBron’s time was at the inception of social media, which is now a multi-billion-dollar industry and a hugely important part of every-day life and American culture. There’s a lot of vitriol on twitter already, saying how dare we compare the two. Because they’re similar. It’s important not to confuse comparing playing styles with predicting a players career arc. Simmons is an elite prospect. But can never be LeBron, solely on the grounds that LeBron was the single greatest, biggest, most hyped and surest thing of a prospect in any sport ever. Especially from a physical standpoint, LeBron is the ultimate athletic specimen for basketball (or any physical activity, really. If you told me there’s a parallel universe where LeBron is the greatest sprinter, swimmer, or ballet dancer in the world, I’d believe you.)

But that shouldn’t downplay how great of a prospect Simmons is. He’s number one by a long shot for next year’s draft class, and will continue to be barring any major injury or freak off the court incident. He has such a good feel for the game, such great vision, that even the most amateur of analysts can see it happening when they watch him play. Simmons is the real deal. So don’t get overly offended when he gets compared to LeBron. It makes sense, it’s merited, and it’s going to happen whether you like it or not. Let’s all just appreciate that there is another future master of the floor working on his 10,000 hours down in Baton Rouge, and like LeBron before him, we’re all going to get a couch-side ticket to watch it all unfold. It’d be wise of you to tune in.