With the number one pick in the 2016 NBA draft, the Philadelphia 76ers are ostensibly faced with a choice between two gifted athletes – Ben Simmons (LSU) or Brandon Ingram (Duke). There has been much talk leading up to and immediately following the draft lottery that 2016 is essentially a two-player draft. The drop off after those two is significant, but what’s ignored is the significant difference between them.
Ben Simmons is the superior prospect, and it really isn’t close. Let’s take a look at what he could bring to the Sixers, beginning with the negatives.
Simmons doesn’t shoot well, at least, as far as we know. He rarely took jump shots at all, at LSU, which isn’t generally a strategy of players that can shoot the lights out. Simmons went 1-3 from three point range. You read that correctly, Simmons only shot three times from beyond the arc in his college career and made one of them. His field goal percentage was 56.1% on two-point shots, which is great, but most of those were dunks, floaters, and layups. He has great touch around the rim and can finish strong in traffic, but hasn’t shown a mid-range jumper. From the free throw line, Simmons shot a pedestrian 67%. Defenders often sagged off Simmons to prevent the blow-by and dared him to shoot – he rarely did. Simmons’ shooting form is not bad and doesn’t need to be completely rebuilt from scratch, but reliable outside shooting has never been more important in the NBA, and Simmons will need to put in work in that part of his game.
Simmons tended to check out during his freshman year at LSU. It’s easy to understand why; the team was absolutely terrible and poorly coached, to boot. The disappointment of that miserable LSU season appeared to wear down Simmons. There were still times when he would take over late in a close game and will his team to victory, but often the inept coaching and dearth of talent around him effected a very blasé demeanor on the court. Simmons sometimes looked like he couldn’t wait for the season to end. This has led many to question his toughness or competitive spirit. I believe that with good coaching and better players around him, Simmons can flourish. I won’t fault a 19-year-old for getting discouraged by playing on a hopelessly bad college team.
Simmons averaged 11.8 rebounds per game (13.5 per 40 minutes) last year and works hard on the defensive glass. He instinctively boxes out his man when a shot goes up and has an ability to read balls off the rim that is reminiscent of Kevin Love. Simmons’ strong rebounding throughout college is a good counterpoint to those that criticize his effort. Rebounding is about effort and desire (and being tall doesn’t hurt, either).
Passing and vision
Simmons is a tremendous distributor. He is able to anticipate his teammates’ cuts to the basket and deliver timely, well-placed passes for the assist. Simmons’ vision and passing ability give teams the option of using him as a “point forward” like Magic Johnson (and at times LeBron James). At LSU, the offense often ran through Simmons, and was by far the most effective when it did. While he couldn’t defend the opposing point guard, on offensive Simmons could play that role.
For his size, Simmons handles the ball very well. He excels at the fast break and can deftly negotiate traffic to get to the rim. He sometimes fails to finish strong through contact and is more likely to settle for a floater or kick out to a teammate when defenders clog the lane, but is slick enough to glide past opponents and find an angle for a layup. If defenders guard him closely on the perimeter, Simmons can blow past almost anyone.
Simmons has a surprisingly smooth style when posting up opponents. Because of his size, he presents a huge mismatch opportunity and can take full advantage by backing down undersized defenders and finishing with hook shots or dunks. Playing in the post doesn’t always come naturally to players that are used to bringing the ball up the court, and it can take years of work to establish that threat. Simmons’ footwork and coordination in the paint are fluid and allow him to dominate smaller, quicker defenders.
Body / Athleticism
Simmons is not LeBron James. Let’s be very clear about that. Nobody needs that comparison weighing on them. But the reason people keep bringing up their names in the same sentence is there are few players that have the size, strength, and quickness that both Simmons and James possess. At 6’10 and 240 pounds, Simmons is two inches taller than James and about 10 lbs. lighter – with plenty of room on his frame to add some muscle. Players that size almost never have the speed and agility that Simmons has. They tend to be tall and lanky (like Kevin Durant) or doughy and a bit sluggish (think Kendrick Perkins). Simmons is proportional and fit. Most players his size are just a step slower than their 6’6 brethren – not Simmons. Complimenting his size and speed, Simmons has a smooth, coordinated athleticism that is rare in young players his size.
While Brandon Ingram is the superior shooter, Simmons’ physique and athleticism makes him impossible to pass up. There are no guarantees in the draft, but the rare combination of size, speed, and coordination that Simmons possesses are extremely rare. Players like LeBron James, Dwight Howard, and Joel Embiid have nearly-unique body types in the NBA. Ben Simmons is in that same category, physically. As those three examples show, body type alone does not ensure success or championships, but to leave that potential on the table would be sports management malpractice.