FORMER Newcastle Hunters junior basketballer Ben Simmons is two years away from enjoying the same life-changing moment his friend and Australian Boomers teammate Dante Exum experienced at the NBA Draft last Friday.
The Utah Jazz selected Exum fifth overall, catapulting the Melbourne-born 18-year-old point guard into basketball's big show and a standard rookie contract worth a minimum $US4.5 million a year for the next two years.
Simmons, who turns 18 later this month, is following the same flight path.
Though he has another year of high school in Florida and a college season at Louisiana State University to look forward to before he begins his professional career, the baby-faced man-child is already being projected as a potential No. 1 pick in the 2016 NBA Draft.
But the son of former Newcastle Falcons forward and Hunter Pirates coach Dave Simmons, who took his first basketball steps at Broadmeadow, is looking no further than the LeBron James skills camp he will attend in Las Vegas next week.
"I was actually texting Dante 20 or 30 minutes before the draft, just wishing him luck and stuff, then our whole family was sitting there watching it," Simmons told the Newcastle Herald yesterday from his family home in Melbourne.
"It was a crazy experience for us because I grew up with him and I've been friends with him for a long time, so it was fun watching him finally get up there and get drafted.
"I was happy for him. If you get drafted anywhere, you're happy, because it's not something that's easy to get into."
Born in Melbourne during the Opening Ceremony of the Atlanta Olympic Games in 1996, Simmons moved to Newcastle with his family when he was 18 months old and learned to play basketball at Broadmeadow while his father coached the Pirates.
Though he has the basketball world at his feet, Simmons still has a soft spot for this city, and appreciated the Hunters singlet Newcastle Basketball sent him as a reminder of his roots.
"That's my home away from home. I've got a lot of homes now. I kind of look at Australia as home, not just Melbourne, because I lived in Newcastle for a lot of my life," he said.
"I still keep in contact with a few people I went to school with and played basketball with, so I'm still good friends with them.
"That's my earliest memories of basketball, playing in the Newcastle Hunters gym. I'd definitely love to come back when I have time, for sure."
Simmons will begin his high school senior year at Montverde Academy in September, then next July he will begin his freshman year at LSU, the college Shaquille O'Neal and "Pistol" Pete Maravich made famous.
Barring any unforeseen glitches between now and then, Simmons is expected to play the minimum one year of college hoops before entering the 2016 NBA Draft.
"If I get the opportunity [to go 'one and done'], I'll definitely take it, because it's once in a lifetime. But if I don't, I'll stay another year at LSU and try to get better," he said.
"I've got a long way to go but hopefully I can reach my goals and make it to the NBA and hopefully have a long career.
"It's a good feeling, because there's a lot of people that don't make it, so I'm just lucky to have the opportunity to go to college and then hopefully I can enter the draft."
The 206cm tall, left-handed combo forward has helped Montverde win the past two national championships, in April he was named America's top high-school junior, then last week he was voted MVP at the NBPA (National Basketball Players' Association) Top 100 camp.
After the Vegas camp next week he will play in the Nike EYBL (Elite Youth Basketball League) Peach Jam tournament in South Carolina, then will return to Australia for the final Boomers selection camp for the FIBA World Cup in Spain from August 30.
Simmons made his Boomers debut alongside Exum in the Oceania qualifying series against New Zealand in August last year, and he said representing Australia on the international stage as often as he can was one of his priorities.
Punching above his weight at Box Hill Senior Secondary College in suburban Melbourne, Simmons said he realised he had the potential to extend his basketball borders beyond Australia after performing well at a series of talented player camps in the US two years ago.
"You have to play the best in order to see where you're at, so me going over to America and playing at a few camps, that helped me a lot because it kind of showed where I was on the level of being one of the top high-school basketball players," he said.
". . . From there I got a few offers from high schools where they wanted me to go. All the top high schools in America wanted me to play for their team.
"From there on, I knew I had an opportunity to get there, but I wasn't sure how much of an opportunity I had, because there's so many other good players."