Ben Simmons is very clearly the best freshman in college basketball. He's averaging 20 points per game, leading the nation in rebounding and putting up the sixth-highest player efficiency rating in the country. His 43 points, 14 rebounds, seven assists, five steals and three blocks against North Florida was the type of stat line college basketball hasn't seen in two decades.
Yet, despite that individual dominance, the Tigers sit at just 4-3, with all three losses to unranked teams. LSU has played one of the the easiest schedules in the country so far, with a slate that ranks No. 300 out of 351 D1 teams, according to KenPom.com. Therefore, they're currently projected to finish 14-15 and miss postseason play. A college player taken No. 1 overall in the NBA draft hasn't missed the NCAA Tournament since Michael Olowokandi was at Pacific in 1998, but there's a real chance it happens this year.
Why has LSU struggled so much even with one of the best NBA prospects to play college ball?
1. LSU's two other highly touted freshmen are struggling
Simmons isn't LSU's only talented freshmen. The Tigers also brought in a pair of blue-chip 6'3 shooting guards in McDonald's All-American Antonio Blakeney and consensus top 40 recruit in Brandon Sampson. Both are off to slow starts, and that's a huge problem for LSU.
Blakeney was Simmons' AAU teammate in Florida and entered college basketball with a reputation as a knock-down shooter. That hasn't materialized yet: Blakeney is shooting just 35 percent from the field and less than 28 percent from the three-point line on 5.7 attempts per game.
Given Simmons' major limitations as a shooter, it made sense to surround him with three-point threats. The problem is those three-point threats aren't actually making any three-pointers. Here's Blakeney's shot chart right now:
If you're looking for reasons for optimism, it's unlikely Blakeney remains so bad at corner threes. He's getting good looks, but just isn't knocking them down. This beautiful feed from Simmons in LSU's loss to NC State is a perfect example:
A number of Blakeney shots have popped in and out so far. At some point, these shots should fall:
Sampson is also shooting 35 percent from the field and has only been slightly better from three (32 percent on five attempts per game). He still has plenty of room for improvement, as well, but the present isn't good. Coach Johnny Jones had to bench Blakeney and Sampson in LSU's comeback win over North Florida.
LSU has become too resigned to stand around the perimeter with little movement, which negates the functional spacing they should have. The Tigers would benefit greatly from more off-ball movement, so they aren't so easy to defend.
This team is still very young and it's hard to find freshmen who understand how to move off the ball. Still, this is an area where LSU has to get better if it wants to start winning consistently.
2. LSU is struggling to rebound and giving up too many easy threes
LSU finished No. 32 in defense last season, but that was was a different team. Jordan Mickey, one of the best shot blockers in the country last year, was drafted by the Celtics and isn't walking through that door. At the moment, the Tigers' defense ranks No. 99 in efficiency, according to KenPom.
LSU's defense has two big problems: they're doing a poor job on the glass and letting opponents fire too many uncontested threes.
Even as the Tigers beat North Florida during Simmons' best game of the year, the Ospreys drained 19 threes at a 57 percent clip. The Tigers look lost too often when trying to stick on shooters:
So far, opponents are making 38 percent of their attempts from three-point range. That puts LSU at No. 293 in the country in defending the three-point line.
The defensive glass has been another problem even as Simmons has been cleaning up there. LSU's opponents are grabbing 31.6 percent of their own misses thus far, which puts the Tigers at No. 223 in the country, per KenPom.
Sophomore center Elbert Robinson wasn't much help on the glass before injuring his ankle in the loss to NC State, only posting a 10.5 defensive rebounding rate even at 7'1, 290 pounds. Replacements Aaron Epps (15.5 defensive rebound rate) and Brian Bridgewater (16.3) have been a little better on the defensive glass so far, but it still hasn't been enough.
3. Simmons can't shoot and other teams know it
As good as Simmons is, his game has one serious flaw: he can't throw the ball into the ocean from the perimeter. Simmons didn't attempt a three until his sixth game of the year, and has only taken two (and made one) all season. His entire production is at the rim.
Simmons is only shooting 7-of-22 (32 percent) on shots outside of five feet this season, according to Shot Analytics. Other teams have noticed and they're playing way off of him:
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The hope for LSU is that Blakeney and Sampson find their groove, North Florida's three-point shooting was an outlier and Simmons can continue to be great even as defenses become more attuned to his strengths and weaknesses. The roster is also set to get a big boost when senior guard Keith Hornsby returns from injury and big man Craig Victor becomes eligible as a transfer later this month.
With the SEC only playing like the sixth-toughest conference thus far, per KenPom, there's no reason to bury LSU yet. But then you remember losses like the one to a College of Charleston team that went 9-24 last season and realize LSU can't have many more slip-ups, either.
Jones' LSU teams have a long history of underachieving, but this year was supposed to be different with the program's best recruit since Shaq. If the Tigers don't pick it up soon, this team will be the most disappointing yet. It's unfair to pin all of that on Simmons.