LSU’s heralded basketball freshmen Ben Simmons, Antonio Blakeney, Brandon Sampson raising expectations, and one's talking national championship _lowres

Advocate staff photo by HEATHER MCCLELLAND -- LSU basketball freshman Ben Simmons talks to the media about the upcoming basketball season Wednesday, July 1, 2015 in the LSU basketball practice facility.

Long before he was a basketball phenom in a faraway land, before he moved and became the No. 1 high school prospect in the United States, before he was tabbed as the likely first pick in the 2016 NBA draft — being compared often to Magic Johnson and hailed as the next LeBron James — Ben Simmons was simply “Ben from Australia.”

Of course, at 6-foot-10 and 240 pounds, and with the rare ability to play any position on the floor — from point guard to center — Simmons can portray himself any way he wants.

Yet, on the eve of his first real college game with LSU, Simmons, who’s already been voted Southeastern Conference preseason player of the year and chosen to The Associated Press preseason All-America team, is still “Ben from Australia.”

He’s certainly enjoying his time on campus, much the same way LSU running back Leonard Fournette has taken to fellow students and fans who just want to chat with and perhaps take a cell phone photo with a celebrity.

“Going to school and during classes, I’m just a regular student … I tell everybody that,” Simmons said. “Everybody thinks I’m something else, but I just try and enjoy it. I’m Ben from Melbourne, Australia.”

Polite and engaging with big eyes and his Down Under accent, Simmons was naturally the main draw at SEC Tipoff 2016 in Charlotte, North Carolina, last month as reporters from each of the conference’s outposts gathered around the large round table he was seated.

For nearly 30 minutes, Simmons didn’t disappoint those who came to see and hear the star player who left Australia with his family three years ago and led Montverde Academy of Florida to three national championships.

The second one came after he committed to LSU in October 2013 and the third came five months after signing with the Tigers a year ago.

By then, Simmons was the consensus top recruit in the Class of 2015 and well on his way to earning three national player of the year honors: the Naismith, Gatorade and Morgan Wootten awards.

His ability to do anything on the court — which includes running the floor as a point guard and getting teammates involved with sharp passes, facing the basket and knocking down jump shots or throwing down dunks, rebounding and playing defense with steals and blocked shots — earned him great notoriety to be sure.

Vanderbilt center Damian Jones, a Scotlandville High School graduate and a preseason All-SEC pick, played with Simmons at the Nike Academy in Los Angeles in late June and said he was a “big Magic Johnson.”

“That’s awesome just to hear that,” said Simmons, the godson of LSU assistant head coach David Patrick. “But I try and take parts of different players’ games and put into mine. One day, hopefully, (younger) players can compare their game with mine.”

Still, the 19-year-old Simmons is the same now as he was back in his homeland even though his boyhood dream of playing in the NBA is a year closer now — the comparisons to the game’s greats, most notably James, notwithstanding.

Simmons even gets a bit embarrassed when people compare him to James, the 11-time all-star guard/forward who has four most valuable player awards and twice has been named NBA Finals MVP.

“He’s my favorite player to watch,” Simmons said. “I think (the comparisons to James) are a bit much, but we’ll see how it goes. Some people have their own opinions, but yeah, he’s my favorite player.”

“I’ll tell you, the good thing about Ben is he’s grounded,” LSU coach Johnny Jones said. “You certainly have to credit his mom and dad for the job they’ve done bringing him up and rearing him, and his other siblings, as well.

“They’ve done an incredible job, so much so to allow him to leave his country and come without their guidance to high school over here,” Jones said of Julie and David Simmons. “That says a lot about Ben’s maturity level.”

Jones credits a lot of that to David Simmons, a native New Yorker who played college basketball at Oklahoma City University and professionally in Australia, where he was a close friend and teammate of Patrick.

“A lot of attention’s been thrown Ben’s way and with his dad playing professionally, he’s had an opportunity to be around it and he’s been able to embrace it,” Jones said. “He understands it and he’s done a tremendous job of handling it.”

Similarly, Jones said, Simmons has handled all the pressure that came with being the No. 1 recruit and the spotlight that came with it. Like the marketing plan LSU started last spring with Simmons at the forefront of a season-ticket sales push as he was at the front of the Tigers’ third-ranked recruiting class.

“I don’t allow pressure to get to me,” Simmons said. “I don’t put pressure on myself because I’ve played the game since I was 4 years old, and it’s the same game. … I’ve been doing the same thing since then.”

He’s just doing it a higher level now.

Patrick saw it on his annual trips back to Australia, where he spent his formative years before coming to Louisiana to play his high school ball at what is now known as The Dunham School.

He said his godson was called “Shrek” because he was taller than most of his teammates when he was 12, and three years later was even bigger at 6-6.

“I went over and watched him play at 15, and he was dunking and passing and dribbling,” Patrick said. “I told David if he was in America he’d be one of the top 50 high school players in the country. At that point, I wasn’t even thinking about professional ball or anything else.”

After Simmons arrived in Florida, Patrick took Jones for a firsthand look at the youngster on the first day they were allowed to be on the road recruiting. Jones immediately tabbed Simmons as the best junior-to-be in the country.

“Wow!” Jones said with a laugh when he was asked about the first thing to come out of his mouth that morning. “He was young at the time, but was just so skilled with his ball-handling, passing and making plays for (someone) that size.”

“Johnny had seen Ben on tape, but I don’t think you can appreciate how big he is until you stand in front of him,” a smiling Patrick said. “Right away, Johnny compared him to Magic and LeBron because of his ability to pass the ball … he was so good at that.”

But unselfishness is certainly not the only facet of Simmons’ game.

“He can impact the game in so many ways because he can play multiple positions on the floor,” Jones said. “The big thing about Ben is not his ability to score, which he can, but he creates opportunities for other people on the floor and makes the game easier for the guys he’s playing with.”

So it’s really no surprise that Simmons only wants to be like them.

“It’s kind of funny because they don’t look at me like Ben Simmons,” he said. “I’m a teammate of theirs. I’m just Ben the Australian kid who plays in America.”

Follow Sheldon Mickles on Twitter @MicklesAdvocate.