Sometime early in Thursday night’s NBA draft extravaganza, Ben Simmons will saunter across the stage at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn, grab a Philadelphia 76ers hat and jersey and smile a multimillion dollar smile befitting the No. 1 overall draft pick as he poses with NBA Commissioner Adam Silver.
At that moment, Simmons will become the fresh face of a downtrodden franchise, its sneakered savior — at least the latest one, anyway.
Then begin the questions. Will the young Australian possess the talent, the willpower, the charisma to make the Sixers his team, to become their latter-day Dr. J, another Allen Iverson or the next Charles Barkley?
We’d include Philly native Wilt Chamberlain, who played four seasons for the Sixers and led them to the 1967 NBA title, but let’s not put too much pressure on the bloke. One can argue Wilt the Stilt is the greatest player of all time.
Still, the pressure is going to be ginormous. Give our regards to Broad Street, Ben, and bon chance. Philly fans love their sports heroes, but remember they also once booed Santa Claus.
All of the Simmons related-conjecture, the attention, the pop culture sensationalism of his being the presumptive nominee for president of the Dunker from Down Under Party — in the name of Carnac, Tuesday night he was on “The Tonight Show” chowing down on Philly cheesesteaks with Jimmy Fallon — hasn’t boiled over into any meaningful excitement back here in LSU land. You know, the school that was Simmons’ eight-month detour on his epic journey from the Outback to Independence Hall.
It was, of course, the transient nature of Simmons’ stay at LSU that resulted in the lack of froth and pride among the Tigers faithful over his comet streaking across the NBA sky. Simmons’ single season at LSU was like a stay in someone else’s ritzy condo in Destin — it’s nice, but how attached can you be to something like that?
There certainly is nothing like the pride and the passion that existed the only other time LSU had the No. 1 overall NBA draft pick: Shaquille O’Neal back in 1992.
When it comes to charisma, O’Neal had it by the bucketful over the reticent Simmons. Perhaps most importantly, O’Neal stayed three seasons in Tigertown. He made a deep connection with LSU fans, a slam-dunking, shot-rejecting love affair that still burns brightly 25 years later.
I wonder if 25 years after Simmons fast break through LSU will Tigers fans ask, “Now, what was his name again?”
It would be best for LSU basketball if that was not the case.
Simmons didn’t leave a Shaq-like or even Chris Jackson-like imprint on the sport here, but if you care about LSU’s program you should hope he does it in the NBA. Throw in three or four memorable appearances for Australia in the Olympics while you’re at it — taking silver or bronze medals to Team USA’s gold, of course.
There are those who say Simmons made a mistake by coming to LSU instead of taking his talents to Durham or Lexington or Chapel Hill. That he cost himself millions in endorsement dollars — Simmons reportedly signed with Nike for five years and about $38 million; LeBron James got seven years and $90 million from The Swoosh — by associating himself with a middling basketball program that had a disappointing 19-14 season and didn’t reach the NCAA tournament. Heck, ESPN would have put Simmons and the Tigers on prime time in the NIT for sure, but LSU declined even that.
This column has served as testament over the years to the mercurial nature of LSU basketball. The program has been home to some of the sports’ all-time greats — O’Neal, Pete Maravich, Bob Pettit — and has also spent plenty of seasons bumping along the riverbed of the Southeastern Conference standings with casts of characters far too forgettable.
But there will, near in the future or far, come a day when LSU will have another chance to land a transcendent talent like Simmons. So for LSU’s sake, Simmons needs to go the NBA and become a star — a shooting, passing, dunking, baseline-to-baseline star.
For what it’s worth, Simmons said at NBA draft media day Wednesday that LSU readied him for what’s to come.
“Going to LSU, there were a lot of ups and downs,” he said. “But I learned a lot from going there. I needed to go through that to prepare for this next step. It was a roller coaster, but, I think ,everything that I went through molded me into the player I am now.
“I think I’m ready.”
LSU needs him to be. To prove to the basketball world that while his season as a Tiger didn’t do much to burnish his brand, it didn’t tarnish him either. That the Pete Maravich Assembly Center can still be a launching pad to greatness.
The last thing LSU basketball needs is for Simmons to become its version of JaMarcus Russell, the shiny NFL top overall pick who turned to rust. That’s a lasting impression from LSU’s brief encounter with Simmons that it simply can’t afford to have.
Follow Scott Rabalais on Twitter, @RabalaisAdv.