As with most teams in the college basketball universe, many teams in the WCC will be experiencing a plethora of incoming transfers this upcoming year. Thanks to the “senior rule” (where transfers do not have to sit out a year if they already have their degree), it is becoming more enticing for squads to get that “free agent” for a year to help boost their team’s chances for a NCAA Tournament berth for the upcoming season. The big squads that will be reliant on some big-time transfers are the usual suspects like Gonzaga (who will be depending on Kentucky transfer Kyle Wiltjer and USC transfer Byron Wesley) and San Francisco (who will be relying on a plethora of transfers that are too many to count), but St. Mary’s is a surprising squad that will be more transfer-heavy than usual. One of the more interesting players they bring to campus this fall is Desmond Simmons, a local Bay Area kid from Vallejo, California (a city that produced talent like DeMarcus Nelson and MLB great CC Sabathia) who went to Salesian High School, but ended up playing for a talent-stacked Washington Husky squad for three seasons. Now a senior, Simmons has returned to the Bay Area to play for Randy Bennett, hoping to not only help the Gaels return to the NCAA Tournament after missing out last season, but also to experience his first NCAA Tournament game as well (the Huskies never went to the Tournament in his time there despite playing with such highly-touted players like CJ Wilcox, Terrence Ross, Tony Wroten, and Abdul Gaddy).
If you watched the video above from Simmons’ time with Drew Gooden’s Soliders AAU team based out of the Bay Area, its obvious that Simmons brings athleticism to this Gaels squad. While the Gaels have had their fair share of athletic forwards in Bennett’s time there (Diamon Simpson being the most prime example), Simmons may be one of the most athletic players to make his way to Moraga. At 6-7, 225 pounds, Simmons has the potential to play in both the post and the wing, and his combo ability should help out post centerpiece Brad Waldow, who while a talented offensive player, has struggled on the defensive end against more athletic and talented post players. While Beau Levesque, the player Simmons most likely will be replacing in the rotation, was extremely talented as a shooter and defensive rebounder, Levesque also struggled physically against bigger power forwards, as his offensive rebounding rate was meager at 7.7 percent. Look at the three year numbers for Simmons in his time at Washington, playing in a more talent-heavy roster, and in a more competitive conference (Pac-12).
Though his offensive rebounding rates went down in his last year there, his offensive rebounding rate average is 11.1 percent, which is a significant upgrade over Levesque. Add that with already good offensive rebounders on the squad like Garrett Jackson (16.7 in 21 percent minutes played), Matt Hodgson (13.1 in 25 percent minutes played) and Waldow (13.7 percent last year) and Simmons should make stronger an already good offensive rebounding Gael squad from a year ago (35.8 percent offensive rebounding rate, 54th in the nation).
Another area which could be key to Simmons’ contributing to the Gaels squad will be his effectiveness on defense, which has not been a strength of the Gaels in Bennett’s time there. While Bennett has succeeded with strong-shooting, very good offensive-oriented squads, defensively, they have left a little to be desired. After ranking 46th in the nation in eFG percentage allowed in the 2009-2010 season, the Gaels have only cracked the Top-150 in eFG percentage allowed once since (2012-2013). Their main struggles as a team centers around giving up high 3-point percentages (165th, 296th, 274th and 300th in opposing 3P % the past four season), which is alarming considering they usually rank low when it comes to opposing 3-point shots allowed (they’ve been in the top-10 in fewest 3-pointers allowed 5 out of the past 6 years). One of the main issues is that they haven’t had the kind of athleticism in the perimeter or post to defend against that shot. Teams can hurt the Gaels with both on-ball and off-ball screens to free shooters on the perimeter, because the Gaels defenders aren’t strong or quick enough to go through or play around the screens quick enough to properly defend the shot. Add that with Bennett’s penchant for playing a shallow rotation, and the fatigue that sets in also has had an effect in terms of perimeter players losing their man (they are mostly a man-to-man based squad under Bennett) and giving up easy three point shots.
Simmons however could buck that trend. He’s long enough to contest three-point shots, and he has the speed to play adequate defense on the perimeter and the strength to go through screens and not allow space for the three pointer. Furthermore, Simmons comes from a defensive system where they excelled in defending against the the three point shot. Last season, the Huskies ranked 52nd in the nation in 3 point percentage allowed and two years ago when they won the Pac-12 regular season title, they ranked 94th in the nation. While Simmons wasn’t the sole culprit (Lorenzo Romar is known for recruiting athletic wings), the fact that he is been in that kind of defensive system and had the ability to play in it should be a huge boost to a Gaels program that has traditionally struggled in such an area.
The biggest question though is how Simmons’ offensive game will transition to minutes in Bennett’s rotation. As written in a post earlier in January, Bennett is not known for utilizing his bench much, and though this Gaels team will be deeper athletically in years past thanks to the slew of transfers, it is obvious that Bennett prefers a shallow rotation in comparison to most coaches in the WCC. It is also seen that Bennett prefers to have at least one post player who is able to step back and shoot the 3 pointer, and it is yet to be seen that Simmons has the shooting ability to fit into what the Gaels want to do offensively. Waldow is primarily a post player (only 1 3-point shot last season), and Simmons resembles the same kind of profile, as he only took 9 three point shots a year ago, a career low (he took 27 his freshman year). To make matters worse, Simmons overall shooting is pretty mediocre as well, as he sported an eFG percentage of 44.7, which was a career high. Considering Levesque had an eFG percentage of 49.2 percent last year, it doesn’t bode well that Simmons is exactly the type of 4 player that Bennett has typically played or wanted for his offensive system (which is primarily a 4-out style of offense).
But, even though he is not strong as a shooter, Simmons has gone a long way to develop his offensive game. His offensive rating of 104.4 was better than Hodgson (93.4) or Jackson (98.2) a year ago and against better competition (4th best conference in comparison to 9th best conference according to KenPom). And, Simmons is not a player who needs the ball in his hands to succeed offensively either, as his usage rate of 15.1 percent last year makes him more a complimentary piece on the offensive end, which is what the Gaels really need considering their main scoring option will again be Waldow next season. So, even though Simmons may not fit the mold characteristic of 4-position players that have come through Bennett’s system in years past, he is not a ball-killer kind of player (i.e. he doesn’t hog it and need a lot of possessions to be effectively offensively), and if he can put up similar offensive efficiency to what he did in Washington, that might be good enough for Bennett to keep Simmons in the rotation, especially considering the upside he can bring to St. Mary’s defensively.
It will be interesting to see how Simmons fits in the Gaels rotation, a team that initially looked to be in rebuilding mode until they landed high profile transfers such as Simmons and Stanford guard Aaron Bright. While Simmons may not be as high profile as some incoming WCC transfers (such as Wiltjer or Wesley for Gonzaga), he could be a complimentary piece that could help the Gaels bounce back after such a disappointing finish last season. Furthermore, it will be interesting to see how Simmons affects Bennett’s recruiting in the future, as Simmons is very atypical of what Bennett has traditionally brought to Moraga in terms of profile and athleticism. If Simmons succeeds with the Gaels, and helps St. Mary’s to another tournament berth, it could result in the addition of more higher-profile and athletic wing players to the Gaels program, not only as transfers, but perhaps as incoming freshmen as well.