The Great Debate: Brandon Ingram or Ben Simmons?

Photo Credit: Mark Dolejs/USA Today

The NBA Draft is less than a month away, which is kind of unbelievable.

While it is unfair to judge this early in the process, it would be fair to assess this year’s draft as top-heavy.  Many, including myself, believe that the two best incoming rookies are LSU’s Ben Simmons and Duke’s Brandon Ingram.  Most also would agree that there’s a large gap between the second and third-best players in the draft.  The 76ers and Lakers, respectively, have the first and second picks. Philadelphia’s choice will be real simple: the consensus #1 in Simmons or the younger, higher-upside, riskier choice in Ingram.

Let’s make a case for either as the #1 pick, starting with Simmons.  I’ll preface everything I am about to say with the fact that, at this time last year, I viewed D’Angelo Russell as the best player in the draft.  We all make mistakes.

The Case For Ben Simmons

Photo Credit: Derick E. Hingle/USA Today

The appeal with Simmons is obvious: he can play all five positions, rebound like a forward, pass like a guard, and run the floor like a wing.  On the surface, he’s one part LeBron James and another part Magic Johnson.  The latter seems to know something about this:

If you don’t believe Simmons is a freakish talent, there’s photographic evidence to prove it.  Take a look at this play from LSU’s late-January tilt against Oklahoma.  Watch Simmons identify the lack of backside help, blow by Khadeem Lattin, and rock the cradle like it’s nothing:

 

He’s a very intelligent offensive player, one who uses his athletic ability and length to overpower smaller, weaker defenders.  He needs to learn how to shoot (more on that later) but his athleticism, rebounding, and passing make him, in the minds of many, the undisputed top pick in the 2016 NBA Draft.

And it’s easy to see why; we haven’t seen anything quite like Simmons in a long time, and it’s difficult to compare the Aussie to just one past or present NBA player.  If I were to guess, he’s equal parts of Lamar Odom, Blake Griffin, and LeBron.  He possesses Odom’s passing ability and creativity, Griffin’s rebounding ability, and LeBron’s can’t-miss athleticism.  He has the potential to be a special player, but his skill set is one unfamiliar to many.

That shouldn’t prevent us from appreciating him, though.  And it shouldn’t prevent him from reaching his full potential, either.

The Case for Brandon Ingram

Photo Credit: Charles LeClaire/USA Today

Ingram’s case is rooted less in the now and more in the potential of what he could become later on.  Ingram came into Duke very shortly after turning 18 and improved greatly on both ends as the season went along.  While he had more talent around him in Durham than Simmons did at LSU, Ingram’s steady improvement and promising upside make him a potentially high-reward, albeit somewhat high-risk, pick at one.

The main difference between Ingram’s game and Simmons’ is that the former is able to consistently knock down shots from deep.  That being said, he can get up when given the space, as he did against Oregon in the Sweet 16 of the NCAA Tournament:

 

Ingram is easily the best two-way player in the draft, one who really competes on both ends.  He’s ready to contribute right away defensively and should be able to handle most threes and even some fours.  He’s an extremely athletic, long wing who will fit perfectly in today’s NBA and most teams’ systems, as well.  If there’s one knock on him, it’s that he’s:

  1. incredibly raw
  2. too thin to handle NBA physicality

After watching Ingram play several times and studying tape on him, I came to the conclusion that he reminded me of Kevin Durant. Yes, that’s a lofty comparison and it doesn’t mean he will become the player KD is, but their styles of play are very similar.  He weighs under 200 pounds, but as ESPN’s Ian Begley points out, he’s working diligently to fix this problem as quickly as possible:

Ingram’s potential is off-the-charts.  That’s why Philadelphia should take him with their first overall pick.

The Verdict

We’ve dissected the case for each player to go first overall on June 23. In my view, Ingram and Simmons are 1 and 1a; it’s hard to go wrong either way.  That being said, I do have to pick one over the other, and even though they are very close talent-wise, I’ll take Brandon Ingram by a hair.  Here’s why.

For one thing, I like his fit in most NBA organizations.  There aren’t many systems in which he would not be able to find a role, as his talent at both ends gives him the versatility to succeed.  This isn’t to say that Simmons is not versatile, but he is multi-talented in a slightly different way.  For example, he was asked to handle the ball more in college than he likely will in the NBA.  Ingram, on the other hand, worked more off-the-ball at Duke, getting open off screens and the penetration of Duke guards.

On that note, Ingram is a far better off-ball player than Simmons.  He plays very instinctually on offense and knows how to get open.  The LSU forward isn’t there yet, but he has to learn how to shoot first.

Don’t think that Simmons’ inability to sink a jump shot won’t hurt him at the next level.  Defenses will be more likely to sag off him, preventing him from building momentum toward the rim and, in turn, creating offense for his teammates.  He’s also not even shooting with the proper hand; learning to shoot with his right hand and not his left could help him improve.  But he absolutely has to get better from outside of the paint, and this will likely be the next step in his development.

The other factor that has been much discussed recently is Simmons’ interest in playing for the 76ers.  As Nick DePaula of The Vertical reported before the Draft Lottery, outside elements beyond fit and need may be at play:

The thinking from Simmons’ camp is straightforward and simple: It’s the Los Angeles Lakers or bust.

As it stands, Simmons has five-year endorsement offers from adidas and Nike. Adidas is offering a $10 million deal that also includes a $2 million signing bonus and a $1 million incentive bonus for being named Rookie of the Year. There are also several other on-court performance triggers that would provide Simmons with elevated marketing, extra resources and possibly his own signature shoe should he play at an All-Star level.

I’ll be honest: the shoe endorsement opportunities and off-court distractions are somewhat significant, but they should not be non-starters in Bryan Colangelo’s decision.  However, if Simmons and his agent, Rich Paul, expressly state that the prospect will refuse to play for the team, then Philly has to either take Ingram or trade down for more assets.  The 76ers are in a difficult position with this pick, especially if Simmons’ demands force their hand.

For these and other reasons, I would take Brandon Ingram over Ben Simmons if I had the #1 overall pick.  It’s a tough choice and one that will dictate the future of the 76ers for years to come, but I think that Ingram will continue to improve and validate his very high upside.

But it’s a very difficult decision, one I’m very happy I don’t have to make.

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