Big Thought: LSU's Ben Simmons has to guard better, too

Johnny Jones and LSU have to be happy with Ben Simmons' huge numbers, but the 5-4 Tigers could stand a little more on D from the freshman phenom. Derick E. Hingle/USA TODAY Sports

Earlier this week, after LSU gave up 105 points at Houston and added yet another ugly loss to its barely NIT-worthy résumé to date, we argued the Tigers were squandering star freshman Ben Simmons' lone season in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. And it's true. Simmons has been great. His team has not. The Tigers are rough on offense and a mess on defense, particularly on the defensive boards, despite having one of the game's rarest hybrid offensive talents in a 6-foot-10, rebound-gobbling frame. It's borderline malpractice.

However: We might have let Simmons off just a little too easy. Because for everything he's done well on the basketball court for the Tigers this season, he is not without individual flaws. Sometimes, those flaws are glaring.

The biggest of these is, indeed, on the defensive end, where the Tigers have also been at their worst collectively. The film of the Houston loss contains more than ample evidence. At times, Simmons struggles with simple pick-and-roll coverages, waffling between cutting off the ball handler (and leaving his original man, the screener) and failing to show on the screen entirely, letting the ball handler skip right past. Even when Simmons hedges well, or switches assignments, he can appear, let's say, less than enthusiastic about actually stopping the person dribbling the ball in front of him. And he is occasionally slow to recover in transition and secondary breaks, condemning his four teammates -- who got most of the criticism Monday -- to play five-on-four.

In lieu of carpet-bombing today's Big Thought with screengrabs and Microsoft Paint arrows, see Rush the Court's freeze-frame instead. As RTC notes, the most distressing aspect of Simmons' defense is his work -- or lack thereof -- as a help-side defender. Far too frequently, a Tigers defender will get beaten off the dribble, and Simmons will be the last player between the ball and the basket, and instead of stepping in front or even challenging the shot, Simmons will just ... slide out of the way. Or Simmons won't even show up to help. He'll just sort of stay put.

The Cauldron's Jonathan Tjarks provided even more damning visual aids this week in service of a breakdown less about Simmons' team than about what NBA scouts will be noticing when they begin to nitpick the top player on every pro franchise's draft board. Among these are things college coaches are already scouting for: Simmons' complete lack of perimeter range. The Australian has attempted just two 3-pointers all season. According to Hoop Math, Simmons is 42-of-56 when shooting at the rim but just 12-of-42 on 2-point jump shots. It doesn't take a coaching mastermind to tell your defenders to play off a guy with that little confidence in shooting from the perimeter ... which, in turn, hurts LSU's offensive spacing overall.

Anyway, the most interesting question is how LSU coach Johnny Jones tries to fix his team's defensive problem. The question is more complicated than a mere correction of effort, for two reasons:

  1. Simmons contributes on the defensive end already: He blocks shots, forces 3.6 steals per 100 possessions and, most of all, grabs 30.3 percent of available defensive rebounds. There are few players in college basketball more individually responsible for the elimination of second chances than he.

  2. When you have a player averaging 18.1 points, 14.4 rebounds and 5.7 assists, you don't really want that player to be wearing himself out on every defensive possession -- or worse, risking foul trouble.

Generally speaking, Simmons really has been stellar. Generally speaking, his teammates have struggled, particularly defensively, particularly on the glass. The Tigers' defensive woes are legion, and they do Simmons no favors. Nor does Jones' lack of a genuine rim protector -- and not a guard in a power forward's body -- to cover the back line (though the return of Craig Victor II on Wednesday night held promise).

And yet: When you watch the kid play, it is easy, as a viewer, to focus on all of the obviously awesome things he does while casually glazing over during the matador displays. It is just as easy to blame LSU's problems on everybody who doesn't have an all-world stat line. The Tigers still owe Simmons, and themselves, more from this season. But the reverse is true as well.