Ben Simmons Probably Won’t Make the NCAA Tournament. Does That Matter?

Posted: 02/23/2016 by levcohen in NCAA

One would expect — or at least hope — that the cream of the NBA draft prospect crop would be playing and excelling on the biggest stage the NCAA has to offer: the NCAA tournament. The tournament holds way more importance vis-a-vis NBA draft stock for prospects who hail from smaller schools or aren’t as highly regarded, but even top prospects can improve their draft outlook with a great tournament performance. NBA teams are looking to see how these players respond to heightened competition, after all, and the competition is never stronger than in the tournament. Last year, for example, D’Angelo Russell may well have leapfrogged over Jahlil Okafor thanks to a superior tournament, while in the past plenty of top picks have soared up draft boards after great tournaments. And remember when little-known Stephen Curry of Davidson put up a show in the 2008 NCAA tournament, leading his underdogs to the Elite Eight before finally falling by two points to eventual champs Kansas? Well, even if you don’t, NBA teams sure did, which is why Curry was so sought after even though his team didn’t even make the tournament the next season. Again, guys like Curry and Damian Lillard from smaller schools show how pivotal the tournament is for under-the-radar players. This year, draft-hopefuls like Marquese Chriss (Washington), Gary Payton II (Oregon State), and Ron Baker (Wichita State) could be beneficiaries of some primetime exposure.

While the top guys might not have as much to gain from a strong tournament performance, they still almost always make the tournament. Top prospect Ben Simmons and his LSU team seem unlikely to do so, which begs the questions: how much, if at all, are LSU’s struggles hurting him? Will his draft stock be harmed by an NIT trip while guys like Brandon Ingram and Kris Dunn star in the NCAA tournament?

First, a key reason that most top prospects make the NCAA tournament (besides the obvious, which is because they’re good and lead their teams there) is because most of them go to a very small number of schools, all of which are almost always successful. Simmons is an outlier, as he chose to go to LSU because of a family connection. The results, well, haven’t been great. Coach Johnny Jones isn’t very good, and the team has almost no chemistry. As a result, following a loss tonight the Tigers are just 16-12 and 9-6 in the SEC. They have losses to College of Charleston, Houston, Marquette, NC State, Wake Forest, Tennessee, and Arkansas, none of whom is particularly good. Their RPI is flirting with triple digits, and they haven’t won more than three consecutive games all season. Sure, they have talent, as evidenced by 18-point win over Kentucky and 8-2 SEC start, but they aren’t likely to secure a berth unless they win the SEC tournament or come very close. But guess what? I think the poor play means absolutely nothing for Simmons’ draft stock. Why? Because the point forward has the talent to transcend the team’s mess. He doesn’t take jump shots, but he’s so good that it doesn’t matter. Simmons is averaging 20 points, 12 rebounds, and 5 assists per game while shooting 56% from the field and averaging 8.6 free throw attempts per game. I’m not here to talk about the plusses and minuses about Simmons’ game today (I will do that closer to the draft), but I’m very confident in saying that NBA teams will care far more about his individual play than his inability to lead LSU to success. Team executives can see the poor coaching and team composition just as easily as we can.

So Simmons isn’t going to be dinged for the 16-12 record, although I can easily see a situation in which he struggles to win games in his first few NBA seasons and people point quickly to his college days to suggest that he’s not a “winner” or some garbage like that. Will he lose ground in the race to the top pick as other prospects get tournament experience? I guess that’s slightly more likely. I can envision a scenario in which Brandon Ingram has a great tournament, becomes the consensus #1 pick in April, and then… well, Simmons is going to be the top pick. I’m pretty sure of that. This sort of reminds me of a European player situation in that they always get downgraded in March and April but then slowly rise up draft boards as the tournament shine wears off. The Simmons situation is different, obviously, but I think his draft stock’s trajectory could be similar. This might be more of a debate in a different draft, but outside of Simmons and Ingram, it seems like the lottery is fairly weak. So while I guess I could see BS dropping to #2 after Ingram dominates the tournament, there’s no shot he falls further than that. The answers to my two questions, thus, are as follows: No, and not unless Brandon Ingram has an amazing tournament for Duke that convinces the team with the top pick to go with the shooter who led his team to the Final Four over the guy whose team lost 14 games. That scenario isn’t that far-fetched, actually, so I guess I’ll amend the comment that I’m almost positive Simmons goes #1 and instead say that he’ll probably go #1. I won’t get into my personal feelings about Simmons vs. Ingram now, but it’s bound to happen at some point in the months before the draft.

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