Ben Simmons sized up 6-foot-6 Logan Hovey in the midcourt circle as their teammates exchanged pregame pleasantries. Simmons waited for the ball to be thrown up on a college career onlookers have awaited for more than a year, tipping it out easily to Elbert Robinson III.
Three minutes and 51 seconds later, Simmons’ LSU classmate Antonio Blakeney poked a steal from Marley Biyendolo — one of 16 on the evening for a pesky Tigers defense that perpetually had hands in perimeter passing lanes — and finished with a one-hand jam for his first collegiate points.
“I tried to get up and dunk it pretty hard,” Blakeney said, “to try to set a statement for this season.”
Simmons’ first basket came three possessions later, grabbing his own miss and scoring through contact to put LSU up by 12 points in a game they won 98-72 on Friday night.
As a documentary crew filmed and his half-brother, Liam — an assistant for Southwest Baptist — looked on, Simmons ushered in the most anticipated LSU basketball season in years, going for 17 points, nine rebounds, five assists, four steals and six blocks while getting help from classmate former Madison Prep standout Brandon Sampson.
A pregame video touted a “new era” that Johnny Jones’ bunch would showcase to fans who nearly filled the Pete Maravich Assembly Center’s lower bowl, most eager to see the boy who’s jersey No. 25 ended the video and won the tip off.
In fact, the freshman trio whom Jones signed to accentuate this “new era” all finished in double figures: Simmons with 17, Blakeney with 16, and Sampson leading all scorers with 19.
“We play well together,” Simmons said. “Brandon played really well; (Antonio) played well. We have a lot of chemistry to build up on. I think we’re missing a few things, but we’re nearly there.”
Sampson, who saw prominent action thanks to Keith Hornsby’s injury, was smooth from the perimeter, burying 3-of-4 3-pointers and flushing two first-half, fast-break dunks to finish with 19 points in 22 minutes.
“It’s not easy to just throw someone in the game, especially a freshman,” Sampson said. “With a senior being out, I knew I had to step up in some kind of way, either defensive end or offensive end, because Keith did both of those and he’s one of our team leaders. Coming into today, I tried to play a role like he did.”
Blakeney scored 11 second-half points after struggling to find his stroke or get to the rim in the first, where he had three points on 1-of-5 shooting. He used driving lanes efficiently throughout the second half, laying in easy scoring opportunities before finally hitting a top-of-the-key 3 on his fourth attempt.
Simmons’ passing starred early: He assisted on each of LSU’s first two baskets while regularly rifling one-handed passes cross-court to open teammates.
“Ben’s really good at just allowing himself to play whatever the game dictates,” Jones said. “He doesn’t force it. If he’s got an opportunity to make plays, knock down shots, I think he takes advantage of it. He can get to the rim, play inside or out, and he’s done a good job of making passes. His assist line could have been up even higher.”
It didn’t take long for Simmons to get to the rim.
He took the ball away from Nate Nahirny with 6:30 to go in the first half, his team already ahead by 29.
Running the fast break, he neglected to pass, instead double clutching and throwing down a backward, reverse jam for a 45-14 lead.
“That’s my little dunk I do when I’m wide open,” he said. “Felt good.”
The Tigers open the regular season next Friday at 8 p.m. against McNeese State in the PMAC.