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All eyes on SEC freshmen as college season begins

Ben Simmons of LSU and Skal Labissiere of Kentucky are more than likely to be two of the top players in the NCAA this season

POSTED: Nov 17, 2015 10:29 AM ET

By Scott Howard-Cooper

BY Scott Howard-Cooper


Kentucky big man Skal Labissiere and LSU guard Ben Simmons are already top-flight prospects.

Ben Simmons grew up in Australia, moved to Florida in 10th grade, is in the front court for a Southeastern Conference team with a basketball tradition, and could play multiple positions some day in the NBA.

Skal Labissiere grew up in Haiti, moved to Tennessee in eighth grade, is in the front court for a Southeastern Conference team with a basketball tradition (understatement of the decade), and could play multiple positions some day in the NBA.

There is Simmons at LSU, Labissiere at Kentucky, and then everyone else. They are one-two as dueling true freshmen as the college basketball season opens in earnest with Kentucky-Duke plus Michigan State-Kansas at the Champions Classic on Tuesday night in Chicago and several holiday tournaments on the way.

Need a true big man? Labissiere could become the next Kentucky power forward-center to be chosen first in the NBA Draft. Labissiere is 6-foot-11 ½ and 225 pounds, so he needs to add muscle, but is smooth, can shoot or play above the rim, and has the leaping ability to become a good interior defender if he gets stronger.

Prefer a ball-handler on the wing? Simmons is the ultimate in multi-dimensional, a point forward in the Giannis Antetokounmpo mold who could not defend most point guards but may run the offense enough to play there on offense at 6-foot-10 and 240 pounds. That would surely, and unfairly, spark comparisons to a former oversized Los Angeles Lakers point guard out of Michigan State with a magical identity, whose name won't be mentioned to avoid putting undo pressure on Simmons. That's how unique Simmons is as he reaches LSU after stepping into Dante Exum's old job as the Great Prospect From Australia.

"I don't know that there's been a guy like Simmons," one NBA general manager said. "I don't know there's a lot of guys in the league that are like that right now, like Simmons. He's different. The way the league's going, you can throw him at (power forward), you can throw him at (small forward) as long as he can shoot OK. He's a skilled player, he's smart, he's tough, he knows how to play."

Simmons' shot is the concern heading into the season, the primary reason the NBA sees him as a decent scoring threat but not a star in that area unless the jumpers begin to fall. Still, in an informal survey of executives and scouts, Simmons is considered the better prospect.

"I've seen both, and it's Ben Simmons," one scout said of the Simmons-Labissiere comparison. "He is multi-dimensional. He can do everything. He's a great passer. Vision. Speed. He's not a great shooter. That's the thing. But he can score the ball.... If you get that pick, you're taking that kid."

Said an executive of his preference for Simmons: "It's not 55-45. For me, it's like 70-30 right now."

The feeling is that strong, even around the league?

"I think that's probably the consensus thinking," he replied.

The two freshmen will square off at least twice, in Baton Rouge on Jan. 5 and in Lexington on March 5. The teams could meet again in the SEC tournament in Nashville, Tenn.

Scott Howard-Cooper has covered the NBA since 1988. You can e-mail him here and follow him on Twitter.

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