Ben Simmons isn't the first high school player to use Peach Jam as a personal stage to showcase the future of basketball. Two years ago, Andrew Wiggins emphatically introduced himself at the South Carolina grassroots event to kick-start an infamously hyped prep career. Simmons doesn't have Wiggins' stunning athleticism or a game custom-built for YouTube, but he did accomplish the same underlying goal.
After the LSU commit's performance at Peach Jam, there's no doubt who is the best high school player in the country.
Simmons' Each 1 Teach 1 squad only reached the quarterfinals of the tournament, but the impression he left across five games this past weekend was unmistakable. Against Team CP3, with the Clippers star looking on, Simmons recorded 21 points, seven assists and four rebounds. The next day he put up 23 points and 10 rebounds against a talented team from Oklahoma.
It was a weekend-long effort indicative of what Simmons has been out to prove since arriving in the United States in 2012. Few players enter their senior year of high school this polished or savvy on a basketball court, and packaging it all inside of a strong and athletic 6'9 frame is almost unheard of.
The lack of a major recruiting battle is part of the reason he hasn't received as much hype as some of the other big-time prospects over the last few seasons. Simmons committed to LSU early largely because his godfather, David Patrick, is an assistant coach there. He's still being hailed as the Tigers' biggest recruit since Shaq landed in Baton Rouge 25 years ago, and with good reason. But for as excited as LSU fans should be about his arrival on campus a year from now, Simmons' home country of Australia has an even bigger reason to celebrate.
Simmons is the latest in a line of prodigious basketball talents to call Australia home. He'll compete in the FIBA World Cup later this summer as the youngest player to be on the national team. It isn't about the present with Simmons or the Boomers, though. What's becoming evident is that Australia has all the makings of becoming an upcoming international powerhouse by producing some of the best young players in the world. Simmons is next, but he's not the last.
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Leave it to the San Antonio Spurs to serve as the catalyst for a movement. Even as a trio of heralded Aussie teenagers started to gain momentum as special prospects, the Spurs reminded everyone there are a few quality Boomer players already in the NBA.
Patty Mills started to break out in the 2012 Summer Olympics when he led the tournament in points per game, but it wasn't until this past season that he truly proved his worth in the NBA. The 25-year-old Mills scored 17 points in 18 minutes by hitting five three-pointers to help the Spurs clinch the NBA Finals in Game 5 against the Heat. Even after sustaining a serious shoulder injury that required surgery, the Spurs still rewarded him with a three-year deal in free agency.
Aron Baynes isn't as flashy as Mills, but he remained a valuable piece off the bench for San Antonio. After getting his feet wet on the Boomers' 2012 Olympic squad, Baynes provided interior toughness and rebounding for the Spurs in a limited role. If Mills and Baynes are part of the present of Australian hoops alongside Warriors center Andrew Bogut, Dante Exum is now the most recognizable piece of the country's bright basketball future.
Much like Simmons, Exum was raised through the Australian Institute of Sport. He never needed to arrive in America to become a phenom. After shining in the 2013 Nike Hoops Summit on the same court as Wiggins, Exum became the 2014 draft's most intriguing mystery man. He was selected No. 5 overall by the Utah Jazz and immediately left a strong impression in his NBA Summer League debut.
What's truly jarring is that Australia's most alluring prospect might not even be Exum or Simmons. Thon Maker made his way from Sudan to Australia at age 5 and will play for the Boomers in international competitions. He's a 7-footer with a sweet shooting stroke and refined perimeter game that has scrambled the brain of any scout to watch him. Don't worry about whether Maker really is the next Kevin Garnett or Kevin Durant -- the fact that he's drawing those comparisons at 17 years old tells you just how special of talent he is.
Fortunately for Australia, Thon isn't the only Maker receiving daily attention from high-major college programs. His brother Matur is a 6'10 forward in the class of 2017. He's still a raw and extremely skinny prospect, but he has potential if he can add weight and refine his skills. He's got plenty of time to do just that.
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Much has been made of Canada's basketball pipeline after Wiggins and Anthony Bennett became back-to-back No. 1 picks in the NBA Draft. Throw in Tristan Thompson, Nik Stauskas, Tyler Ennis and incoming Kentucky freshman Trey Lyles, and Canada's talent is certainly worthy of the hype. If Exum, Simmons and Maker continue to progress, though, there's a chance Australia turns into the United States' biggest competition in future Olympic tournaments.
If Maker decides to reclassify to 2015 as many believe he will, the two best incoming freshmen in college basketball a year from now will be Boomers. There was some thought Simmons could head back to his home country and try to enter the 2015 draft as an international prospect like Exum, but he's maintained he's committed to LSU. If his enormous basketball IQ doesn't translate as well as it should on a mixtape, it'll help make him a star the moment he begins his college career.
The hype is starting to roll in, slowly, following his domination at Peach Jam. Simmons' multi-faceted game is making one particular comparison popular: Scottie Pippen.
Several players have tried on the Next Pippen tag in recent years, with Kawhi Leonard wearing it well on his way to NBA Finals MVP and Giannis Antetokounmpo just now starting to display the ballhandling and passing ability necessary for such high praise. That's where Simmons already has a leg up. Simmons is a point forward just as Pippen was, and he'll be expected to have the ball in his hands often when he arrives at LSU.
With Simmons, Exum and Maker all 17-19 years old, Australia's basketball takeover is still years away. To anyone paying attention, though, it is already beginning to feel like the start of something big.