The 2016 draft may not be rife with talent, but it does provide a rare occasion for a legitimate #1 overall debate. I am not certain which player is truly the correct pick, as having access to interviews, feedback from coaches, workouts, etc. would be helpful information toward discerning the correct pick.
Brandon Ingram is the straightforward prospect, who offers height, length, shooting, youth, and no discernibly debilitating weakness in his game. Given that he will only be 18 on draft night, there is some non-zero (albeit exceptionally small) chance that his game develops well enough such that he becomes a Kevin Durant doppelgänger. On the downside, he isn’t an exceptional athlete or skilled enough such that it’s guaranteed that he becomes a star, and he is more likely t0 approximate Marvin Williams than Durant. But he becomes an all-star or fringe all-star a significant frequently enough to be a comfortable pick at #1 overall, albeit a below average #1 overall. This is aided by the fact that his shooting and defensive versatility make him a comfortable fit in any NBA lineup.
Ben Simmons is the enigmatic prospect of the duo, as he has the talent to be as good as LeBron James but the red flags to be as disappointing as Michael Beasley. He is 6’10” with elite speed, athleticism, ball skills, rebounding, and touch near the rim. The only skill that separates him from LeBron is shooting, which is something that he is not hopeless to acquire given his youth.
His glaring concerns are his lack of competitive drive and defense, which are difficult to quantify from afar. But a quick look at LSU’s bottom line is not encouraging. In 2013-14 with freshmen Jordan Mickey and Jarrell Martin, LSU was the #58 kenpom team in the country. In 2014-15 they were the #44 team before losing both to the NBA draft and replacing them with Ben Simmons and Antonio Blakeney.
Simmons vs. Martin and Mickey
It may be natural to think that Martin and Mickey are NBA players and Blakeney is not, so some level of decline should be expected. But the summation of Simmons (11.6) and Blakeney’s (1.6) BPMs exceed that of Mickey (5.5) and Martin (5.3), and with other returning players progressing it is easy to argue that LSU should have taken a leap forward. Pre-season projections tended to agree, as they were projected #30 by SI.com, #32 team rankings, and #49 kenpom. Yet the Tigers instead fell off a cliff finishing #92 in spite of Simmons exceeding expectations statistically.
This does not necessarily prove that Simmons’ statistics are empty, as key wing Keith Hornsby missed 13 games, and Simmons was playing out of position at center where he is not a rim protector like Mickey. But LSU’s defensive 2P% in conference play was 14th out of 14 at an abysmal 54.7%, far behind #13 Missouri (52.4%) and 12th Auburn (49.0%).
It’s fair to expect a decline from their #4 ranking (44.7%) the prior year after losing Mickey, but plummeting like that bodes ill for Simmons’ defensive performance. And even if you want to shift the blame to his teammates, coach, and Mickey’s goodness– it doesn’t explain why the offense barely improved from #77 and #84 in the prior two years to #69 with their center now having superstar PG skills.
Where does this leave us?
It leaves us with a 6’10” player that anchored an awful defense and couldn’t even compensate by leading a particularly good offense even though PG skills are a key selling point on his prospect profile. At best he is a serious risk to land in the dreaded intersection of poor defense and poor shooting, and at worst he is simply not hardwired to make winning basketball plays.
I did not watch enough LSU basketball to have a strong opinion on the matter, but when statistical trends align with behind the scenes narratives it is easy to hop on the skepticism train. If he does not have great competitive drive, do you really want to gamble that he learns to shoot and/or defend? And if he proves to be poor in both of those areas, how good can he truly be since his PG skills more conducive to producing highlights than efficient offense.
I cannot say with certainty that he will not be great. He is clearly the most talented player in the draft, and perhaps both statistics and narratives overstate concerns about his NBA future. This is a thinly sliced argument, after all. But if I were an NBA executive immersed in the evaluation process, I *suspect* the conclusions I would arrive at are:
- Brandon Ingram is a better prospect than Ben Simmons
- I would rather roll the dice on Dragan Bender at #2 overall (to add an even more thinly sliced prospect to the equation!) than gamble on Simmons’ talent overcoming his warts.
I do not believe there is a 3rd prospect who merits consideration about Simmons, but my gut feeling is that he is an underdog to become a clearly positive NBA player. Again, this is all thin analysis from afar and it could be wrong, but it’s my foggy perspective and I am in the mood to share it.