76ers rookie Ben Simmons' year at LSU exposed in Showtime's 'One & Done'
The 91-minute documentary exposes how the NBA rule creates a bad situation for the NCAA
There can only be one headline on every story. Josh Swade knows that. And he totally gets why the one headline on most of the stories written about the documentary he spent much of the past two years making has been what it's been.
Because, yes, Ben Simmons really did say the NCAA is "f---ed up."
And, Swade knows, that's a great headline.
"I understand why that's what has gotten traction," Swade, co-director of "One & Done," which debuts at 9 p.m. ET Friday on Showtime, told me by phone this week. "And that's fine. But that's only a very small part of the picture and the story we tell. So I just hope that, as a result of all of this attention, people actually do see the film and are able to take away everything that transpires -- and not just that one moment."
To be fair, though, that one moment is a fascinating scene in a 91-minute film that provides a unique, if not unprecedented, look behind the curtain of what it's like to spend a year in college, in this era, as the next great basketball thing.
Simmons, then a freshman at LSU, is buying bedding at a local Wal-Mart. He swipes his debit card. The machine asks if he'd like cash back. And suddenly it kind of hits him that he'd love cash back but that his checking account is nearly empty. Here's a guy who is merely months from signing a $20 million guaranteed contract with Nike. It's not a stretch to suggest, even at that time, that he's probably worth hundreds of millions of dollars. He's watching networks and universities use his likeness to generate revenue. And all of this, stacked on top of each other, is getting to him. It's what led to the quote that's created the most buzz over the past week.
"He was frustrated in that moment," Swade said. "And we were there with him."
Truth is, they were there with him a lot -- first in his native country of Australia, then during his final year of high school in Orlando, then during his only year of college in Baton Rouge, and all the way through the 2016 NBA Draft in New York, where Simmons was selected first overall by the Philadelphia Sixers. What you watch transpire through the film is a young person go from wide-eyed and excited to super-jaded and alone.
Simmons doesn't appear to have many, if any, friends around campus.
He doesn't seem to have a good relationship with his teammates.
In one scene, he's held on the court to do a postgame television interview while the rest of LSU's players head directly to the locker room. It's early January. The Tigers had just won at Vanderbilt. Simmons finished with 36 points and 14 rebounds. And I've seen this scene enough to know how it usually goes down. The player enters the locker room and his teammates immediately swarm him. That's the typical reaction. But when Simmons enters the locker room, big smile, all joy, he's met with ... almost nothing. Some teammates barely acknowledge him. And you don't need to know anything else about anything else to understand why LSU struggled from start to finish and didn't even come close to making the NCAA Tournament.
"I do think there was a lack of team chemistry," Swade said. "That's fair to say."
Little glimpses like this -- and of Simmons noticeably bothered by the reality of being a target of national criticism while still only 19 years old, and of Simmons struggling with the demands strangers have for him nearly every public minute of every day -- make the film worth watching for any fan operating under the assumption that it's easy to be young and famous. But the questions you'll be asking when it's over are still the same questions people have been asking for a while, and those questions are these: Should prospects like Ben Simmons be in college at all? And, if so, should they really be held to the traditional standards of amateurism?
No matter how you might personally answer those questions, know this: Ben Simmons was terrible for the one-and-done rule. From the start, he knows he's only spending one season in college, that he only has to get a 1.8 GPA in the first semester to be eligible for the second semester, and he eventually decides that once the first semester is over, in mid-December, he will quit attending classes because, in his mind, it's pointless.
"Are you ever at school?" his sister, Emily Simmons, once asked via FaceTime, and it was a completely fair question. "I swear to God it's like you're a full-time athlete."
In essence, he was.
Which is not to suggest all one-and-done prospects approach college this way. Because they don't. Jahlil Okafor always knew he'd only spend one year at Duke, but he still lived in a normal dorm with normal students and seemed to enjoy the experience. And I know Kevin Durant looks back on his one year at Texas fondly, same way John Wall feels about his only year at Kentucky.
That said, it'll never not be awkward for the NCAA to preach about how much it cares about academics when there's a system in place that allows a prospect like Simmons to basically quit school in December but play through the end of the season anyway. And the problem is that there's no obvious way for the NCAA to fix it without pushing back against the one-and-done rule by making freshmen ineligible, which, of course, is never going to happen.
So it is what it is.
Either way, my opinion is well-established. I think prospects should be allowed to enter the NBA Draft out of high school, and that student-athletes should be allowed to profit off of their own likeness in whatever way they can. In that world, the truly elite talents would never spend an undesired day on a college campus, and the ones who do would earn whatever the market suggests they're worth. Yes, I realize, it would be weird at first for some fans to know the point guard at Kansas has a six-figure endorsement deal with a restaurant in Lawrence. But, like everything else, most would get over it in time, and these circular conversations would finally go away for good.
Problem is, I'm not in charge of the NBA Draft or the NCAA rules. So the system will, for the foreseeable future, likely remain similar to what it is now. Which, I guess, means this: the prospects who are comfortable with being an amateur for a year while waiting to become eligible for the NBA Draft should enroll in college, enjoy the experience for what it is and, if nothing else, chalk it up as a brand-building exercise that could lead to a larger-than-normal apparel deal. And the prospects who aren't comfortable with that should take a stand and refuse to play along with a system they deem unfair.
I personally have no problem with either approach.
I think there are benefits to both.
But it would be fascinating to watch the next Ben Simmons flash a middle finger and publicly say, "It's ridiculous how the NBA has me playing a waiting game that's unnecessary, and I know most people like me just go to college anyway, but I'm not going to do it. I'd rather not play at all than play for a scholarship I don't value and a cost of attendance stipend that's pennies relative to my actual worth. So I'm going to spend the next year training alone. And, hopefully, enough future prospects will follow my lead in a way that forces the NBA and the NCAA to look at the rules they have in place and consider changing them for the better."
In hindsight, that's what Ben Simmons should've said and done.
And that's my main take away from "One & Done."
It's that Ben Simmons shouldn't have been one.
He never should've been one.
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