BATON ROUGE, La. — Even if it was always evident that Ben Simmons was only going to be in Baton Rouge for one year, there’s really no way to prepare to replace him.
But that’s exactly that task that Johnny Jones and the LSU Tigers men’s basketball team will be facing when they begin their first practice in advance of the 2016-17 season today. Simmons, the No. 1 pick in this year’s NBA Draft, was the Tigers’ entire team last year, leading the squad in points per game (19.2), rebounds (11.8), assists (4.8), steals (2.0), blocks (0.8) and minutes per game (34.9). Pretty much if there was a statistic, Simmons led LSU in it.
There are few ways to spin Simmons’ departure into a good thing. But Jones, heading into his fifth season as LSU’s head coach, seems to have found one.
“I think the thing that’s different that people don’t realize is that we took everybody’s best shot last year,” Jones said. “Everybody was looking forward to playing us and playing against Ben Simmons, so we had to really prepare certainly like we always do. This year’s team I don’t think will be looked upon like they were last year because you don’t have that one marquee person who’s out there who’s projected to be the No. 1 pick in the draft.”
There’s a certain logic to that point, but recent history has refuted it. Before Simmons, the last five players selected No. 1 in the NBA Draft were Kentucky’s Karl-Anthony Towns, Kansas’s Andrew Wiggins, UNLV’s Anthony Bennett, Kentucky’s Anthony Davis and Duke’s Kyrie Irving. In the five individual seasons leading into those players being selected No. 1, their teams won on average 31.6 games per year. In the years following the selection, however, that number dropped to an average of 24.4 wins per season and only one team — Kansas following Wiggins’ declaration — improved.
Based off those numbers, the intuitive belief that losing arguably the best amateur basketball player on the planet hurts a team seems to be the correct one. And, unless you’re John Calipari and Kentucky, there’s no direct way to replace a player of Simmons’ caliber one-for-one.
But like Billy Beane in Moneyball, Jones doesn’t have to replace Simmons. He just needs to recreate his output.
To do this, Jones will be relying on some returning players and new faces. When it comes to rebounding, for example, Jones expressed excitement about the prospects of Australian junior college transfer Duop Reath, a 6-foot-10 forward Jones singled out for his ability to attack the rim. When it comes to distributing the ball, LSU will be looking for a new point guard, but freshman and Baton Rouge native Skylar Mays was the recipient of plenty of Jones’ praise, as was junior college guard Branden Jenkins, who Jones said has a speed and explosion that his team has lacked over the past couple of seasons.
As for scoring, sophomore guard Antonio Blakeney might just have that covered.
“He’s a guy who I think automatically you look to and I think he’s projected to be one of the leaders of this year’s team,” Jones said of Blakeney. “I think he’s taken ownership of that… The last 10 or 11 games of the year, he was our most prolific scorer that we had on the floor averaging around 20 points per game and shooting a high percentage. We’re hoping that that will carry over from last year and he will have an exceptional start and an exceptional year for us.”
Over the last 15 games of conference play last season, Blakeney averaged 15.7 points per game. By comparison, Simmons averaged 18.9 points per game over that same span. But those numbers don’t account for the sort of things that don’t show up on the stat page, particularly his dedication to getting better and to his team.
“He played in the SEC Tournament with a 103 fever in the first game against Tennessee, which we were able to win,” Jones said. “It told me a lot about him because of what he tried to provide and give us in those two games. He almost put himself in a situation where he had to be hospitalized after we returned last year. We know what we have in him. We’re just hopeful that it will rub off on some of his teammates as well and those guys will play as hard and be as committed and have the same kind of conviction.”
Unfortunately, sheer conviction won’t be enough for LSU to replicate last year’s success. But that said, there are certain things about the short-lived Simmons era in Baton Rouge that Jones would be smart to avoid replicating. And that, at the core, is the team’s goal for this season.
“There was a lot of winning, but unfortunately not enough,” Jones said. “And at the end of the day, not checking that one box to get to the NCAA Tournament, we certainly all felt bad about that. That’s something that we want to get corrected.”