It’s been a long time since the LSU basketball program created so much buzz in the middle of the summer.
But on Wednesday, the first day of July, the lofty expectations that came from the nation’s third-ranked recruiting class that coach Johnny Jones and his staff put together hit with full force.
That’s when the country’s top recruit, 6-foot-10 power forward Ben Simmons, and heralded guards Antonio Blakeney and Brandon Sampson, who’ve been busy taking classes and doing individual skills work since June 8, were officially introduced to local media.
While the heat and humidity soared before an afternoon thunderstorm cooled things down, one would’ve thought it was the middle of the basketball season the way the three enthusiastically talked about what they bring to a team that won 22 games last season and reached the NCAA tournament.
All three were eager to talk about their own expectations in trying to help the Tigers take the next step in what will be Jones’ fourth season at his alma mater.
Despite the loss of All-Southeastern Conference first-team forwards Jarell Martin and Jordan Mickey to the NBA draft, LSU returns a solid group of players in guards Tim Quarterman, Keith Hornsby and Jalyn Patterson and forward Craig Victor, an Arizona transfer.
“There’s always those people that are going to believe that it’s going to be different this year,” said Simmons, a native of Australia who moved to the United States 2½ years ago to hone his game at Montverde Academy in Florida. “I guess it’s up to us to show that it will be and that we’re ready for the challenge.”
Simmons, of course, is the centerpiece of the athletic department’s “25 is Coming” campaign which launched in May to sell tickets, and market the program and create interest for one of the most anticipated seasons in years.
After his good friend and former AAU teammate, Blakeney, committed in early January, the expectations grew even more.
Simmons and Blakeney, the No. 14 prospect in the Class of 2015, were later joined by Sampson, a Baton Rouge native and Louisiana’s Mr. Basketball. The former Madison Prep star ranked 39th on ESPN’s 100 recruits list.
Simmons, who can play each of the five positions on the court from point guard to center, said he had no problem handling the expectations that came with him being the face of LSU’s recruiting pitch for new season-ticket holders.
“I’m fine with that,” said the easygoing Simmons, who is already being projected as the NBA’s top draft pick next June. “I have one goal on the court, and that’s to win. If I’m focused on that, everything else will take care of itself. I try to not let anything like that get to me.”
While Simmons would almost rather pass the ball than shoot it, Blakeney comes to LSU as a prolific scorer who averaged about 30 points per game last season at Oak Ridge High School in Orlando, Florida.
Like Simmons, the 6-4 Blakeney was a McDonald’s All-American.
“We know there are high expectations, but we’re willing to live up to them,” he said. “You can’t do it by yourself. You have got to have a good team and that’s part of the reason why I chose this school. They have players that can make me better.
“The early skills work and pickup games have been good because everyone’s good at what they do,” Blakeney added. “I’m a learner, a student of the game. I want to learn from every single player on this team and take something from their game and put it into mine.”
The 6-5 Sampson, who decommitted from St. John’s University and signed with LSU late in the recruiting process, said it helps to have three highly rated recruits coming in at the same time.
“I think everybody is approaching this pretty good,” said Sampson, who led Madison Prep to a state title this past season. “The expectations are going to be high because we have three top-50 players coming in. But we have each other’s back, so it’s not like all the pressure is on one guy.”
That’s three freshmen with one goal in mind.
“I think we’ll win the national championship,” Blakeney said.
When asked if he at least wanted his new team to be in the mix for a title, he said, “I think we’re going to win the national championship.”