The Sixers Will Draft Ben Simmons, But Should They?

Posted: 06/22/2016 by levcohen in Basketball, Draft

The NBA likes it when there’s intrigue leading up to the draft and especially to the #1 pick. The league and teams like to always at least pretend that there’s a debate as to which player will get drafted #1. With that in mind, I’m sure the league wasn’t thrilled when the Sixers’ promise to Ben Simmons that he would be drafted with the first pick was leaked to the public. I think most people expected the Sixers to draft Simmons anyway, but now there’s no question that he, and not Brandon Ingram, will be the first pick in the draft. But should he be the first pick? Or should his issues — a lack of shooting and some perceived attitude issues — be enough to boost Brandon Ingram over the Australian?

A few things about this debate, which has been raging since the middle of the NCAA season, irk me. It seems to me like Simmons’s weaknesses and Ingram’s strengths are both accentuated in order to manufacture a true debate over who should go #1. Ingram’s going to be a good player, but people need to stop comparing him to Kevin Durant. At first, I was enamored of Ingram, his play at Duke, and his potential to be the next Durant. They do have similarly special bodies for small forwards. Durant’s an inch taller (6’10” vs. 6’9″) and has a wingspan an inch longer (7’4″ vs. 7’3″), but both he and Ingram are on a very short list when it comes to the tallest, longest, and skinniest wing players. It’s worth noticing, however, that even the notoriously skinny Durant, who couldn’t bench press 185 pounds coming out of college, was 215 pounds when he left Texas, which means that he had nearly 20 pounds on Ingram, who weighs 196. And while both players are good shooters, there’s really no comparison to be had between their overall abilities. Durant’s strength has always been his explosiveness. Even at Texas, he excelled in one-on-one situations, with great crossovers, blinding quickness, and a unique ability to change gears seamlessly. Ingram is fine in those situations, but he has no chance of becoming Durant-esque, simply because he’s not the explosive athlete that Durant has always been. Durant’s offensive game was also way way way more advanced than Ingram’s even in his lone year in college. There’s a reason that Durant averaged 26 points per game for Texas, while Ingram put up “just” 17 points per contest for Duke. Ingram generated a lot of his offense from catch-and-shoot threes and from put-backs generated against slower and smaller opposition. Meanwhile, Durant was an amazing post player in college, with an unstoppable turnaround jumper. I can count on one hand the number of times I remember Ingram going to the post for Duke. Finally, Durant has always had a scoring mentality that Ingram doesn’t have. People criticize Simmons for not wanting to score down the stretch, but Ingram also often differed down the stretch, usually to point guard Grayson Allen. His mentality might change, but by that logic one of the big criticisms of Simmons could also disappear.

So Ingram isn’t Durant, and he’ll never be Durant. I needed to say that, if only for peace of mind. That doesn’t mean he isn’t a phenomenal prospect. He was a great college three point shooter, hitting 41% of his threes, although it’s very illuminating that 76 of his 80 triples came off of an assist, a stat that shows his shot’s reliance on his teammates. Am I worried about Ingram’s 68% free throw shooting, given that college free throw shooting is often a better indicator of NBA long range success than college three point shooting? No, not really, just because his stroke looks so sweet and natural. Make no mistake about it: Ingram’s going to be able to shoot in the NBA. But it takes more than a long range shot to be seriously considered for the #1 pick, and Ingram has dutifully improved his game massively in other areas. While he’s no Durant off the dribble, Ingram seems likely to become a good (not great) isolation scorer, with the ability to create for himself off the bounce. Ingram’s also a decent and certainly a willing passer. And he has potential to become a player who can play above-average defense at three positions (SG, SF, PF), with speed, long arms, and a nifty toughness that he exhibited at Duke. But he’s also got a long way to go on defense, as he was sometimes caught sleeping and/or was too hesitant on defense. And there are offensive worries, too. Especially compared to Simmons, Ingram struggled both to finish inside (48% shooting inside the paint) and to get to the line (4.7 free throw attempts per game). All of this sounds very familiar. Ingram’s another skinny, pretty raw prospect who has a lot of potential but has a long way to go. He’s obviously more advanced and has a brighter future than the Pat McCaw’s of the world, but he’s not necessarily the polished player that #1 picks often are and that Ben Simmons certainly is.

It helps Ingram that his two biggest strengths — shooting and his motor and competitiveness — are the two biggest complaints people have about Simmons. So for the people who value shooting over everything else and for the people who value effort over everything else, Ingram is the likely favorite. And guess what? A lot of NBA fans fall into those two very separate groups. A lot of new-school fans doubt that a player can be that helpful without a three point shot, and a lot of old-school fans think that the biggest problem for bad teams is a lack of effort. I’m guessing those two larges niches of NBA fans are the main reasons that this debate is an actual debate, because otherwise Simmons is a pretty foolproof prospect.

People always qualify a Simmons criticism with “He was good at LSU, but…” but I don’t think they realize how good he was at LSU. A year ago, when Simmons was the top recruit in the country, had I told you that he would average 19/12/5 in his lone year of college, is there anything barring LeBron James re-enlisting in the draft that would have persuaded you that Simmons wouldn’t be the clear-cut top pick in the draft? The guy was incredible. Chief among his strengths is his ability to grab a rebound and immediately start a fast break. Think Draymond Green, but with better ball-handling and playmaking ability. Simmons is going to be one of the best transition players in the NBA right away. In the half-court, he’s less insane but still pretty darn good. He was often made to look bad because his team had neither good coaching nor good spacing on the court, but his passing ability and slashing are both extraordinary. He’s also already pretty good in the post and went to the line nine times per game, although he shot just 67% when he got there. Simmons isn’t an elite finisher at the rim, which may be because he shies away from contact and because his wingspan (7’0″) isn’t elite for a 6’10” player, but he’s already developed a boatload of ways to finish, with the ability to score off either foot and with either hand. Of course, his biggest offensive weakness is his shooting. He rarely took jump shots in college, and he’s going to need to become at least a decent shooter from midrange and beyond if he wants to maximize his potential. Simmons will undoubtedly be best on a roster with a bunch of shooters, as he’s able to facilitate for himself and for his teammates when the floor opens up.

The effort questions mainly crop up on the defensive side of the ball, and they’re real. For an athlete like Simmons with his basketball IQ and ability to anticipate offenses (2 steals per game), it’s very worrisome when opposing forwards are able to just drive by him for easy points. That has to be attributed to a lack of effort. It’s also true that Simmons wasn’t able to lift a 19-14 LSU team out of mediocrity. Whether that’s a small concern (Simmons was on a badly-coached team with a bunch of pieces that didn’t fit well together, none of which is is fault) or a big concern (#1 overall picks should be able to transcend the players around him more than Simmons did) remains up for debate, but it’s certainly a concern. There’s no question that Simmons is better when his teammates are better. It’s easier to facilitate good teammates than it is to facilitate bad teammates. To me, though, that’s a good sign. There are a boatload of players in the NBA who can only be stars on bad teams. Kevin Love is a recent example of that. If Simmons is the opposite, a player who can only be a star on a good team, I’ll be ok with that, because you need more than one star to win a championship anyway.

It’s undoubtable that both Brandon Ingram and Ben Simmons are great prospects who will likely be longterm starters at the very least. But Simmons is clearly the better prospect in my mind, as he has both the higher floor and the higher ceiling. Even if the shot remains bad and attitude doesn’t round into shape, Simmons will have unique traits that will help a team win. At his best, Simmons could be the best player on a championship team. I don’t think that’s the case for Ingram, a guy who might put up 20-25 points per game in the NBA but will almost certainly always be better off in a supporting role. So yeah, while I’d be happy to draft either one, I’d be much happier to have Simmons, baggage and all.

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