At 5:30 p.m. on Saturday, while the more liberally tattooed pockets of Las Vegas were getting keyed up in anticipation of UFC 200, a serious buzz had gathered during a 12-minute cab ride down East Tropicana Avenue to the Thomas & Mack Center. Unlike UFC 200, the main event at Thomas & Mack would not to be pulled from the card on short notice, and though a one-on-one battle in this context isn't quite individual pugilism, the marquee was easy to sell. It was not so much about a game between the NBA Summer League teams of the Philadelphia 76ers and Los Angeles Lakers than it was about Ben Simmons against Brandon Ingram, the top two picks from the 2016 NBA Draft, going toe-to-toe for the first time.
It was all the more intriguing because of how the Sixers and Lakers landed their respective saviors. Simmons is the final culmination of Philadelphia's much-debated Process, a full-frontal, multi-year bottoming-out project overseen by a GM who lost his job because of how committed he was to it. The Lakers, on the other hand, have been failing less of their own volition, but now find themselves with Ingram at the top of an impressive asset pile to begin the post-Mamba era. This summer league team belongs to last year's NBA Draft prize, D'Angelo Russell, as he'd assert later on, but Ingram is just as important long-term. If Sam Hinkie died for Simmons, Kobe killed for Ingram.
That the Lakers faithful are so used to cheering a winner, and that so many live just a tank of gas away, made for an even livelier scene. When the Lakers entered the building at halftime of the prior game, the crowd erupted. When Ingram was introduced, the arena— which multiple Summer League veterans among the press corps assured me was fuller than than they have ever seen it—shook. Damian Lillard reportedly had trouble getting a front-row seat. Attendance figures later confirmed that it was the largest single-day crowd in NBA Summer League history.
"Of course, it's a lot of energy in the building," Ingram reflected later. "I think you kind of hype it up a little bit, you're kind of hyped coming into this game. You're trying to get the jitters out and play the game."
Coincidentally, with the crowd supporting Ingram, the prevailing feeling ahead of the matchup was that Simmons had more to prove than Ingram, who was selected one spot later. Simmons was always supposed to be the transcendent, generational prospect, and he has the title of First Overall and the task of turning around a thoroughly tanked-out team. And yet, somehow, it's also Simmons who seems far more even-keeled about the spectacle.
"No," Simmons deadpanned when asked about additional pressure after the game. "Lakers versus Philly tonight. You know, whoever you match up against, you're trying to go hard. It doesn't matter who it is. Obviously, they're going to make a big deal out of that. I came into the game wanting to win."
It helps, maybe, that Simmons quickly became a Vine Star at the Utah Summer League earlier in the week—he already has a way-premature highlight reel of his own that, after a brief and complicated year at LSU, can serve as a proof that Ben Simmons can be a franchise player.
But those gasp-inducing passes and some impressive defensive plays aren't the end of the story, and are not nearly enough to spare him from the microscope. "The passing is better than expected. So is the defense," a friend who covers the Sixers G-Chats ahead of the showdown. "Everything else is worse. He has no idea how to score…It seems like he'd rather pass even when attacking is the obvious move."
The last line of the scouting report was easy to read in various ways. "I've never rooted for a player who even vaguely resembles this," he wrote. There's a sense in which it's a judgment, and another in which it's an acknowledgment that Simmons is both unfinished and sui generis. We have not yet even started figuring out who he is, yet, let alone who he will be. That is part of why the place was so full. This is where we start fleshing out the idea of Simmons.
His inherent uniqueness is part of what's made him a little polarizing as a prospect. He's a 6'10" point guard who can't really shoot yet and didn't show everything you'd hope for from a sure-fire top pick as a freshman at LSU. There were some reported concerns about how he conducted himself and how his attitude would translate to the NBA. Strangely, he shoots left-handed but tries to finish right-hand dominant, puzzling press row on multiple drives. "He actually writes with his right hand, so I have no idea what his natural hand is," 76ers Summer League coach Lloyd Pierce said. It's not bad, necessarily, but it is awkward, and Simmons seemed strangely hesitant to shoot over a Lakers' defense that gave him plenty of room to do so. Even his evaluation of his own decision-making was wrought with contradiction: "I just need to be more assertive and take what they give me."
Even the best rookies have weaknesses, and some of the most recent NBA freshman elite have struggled in Vegas. Before the draft, Simmons' perceived shortcomings helped Ingram sniff the top spot on some draft boards, and the case was made that his aggressiveness and potentially more adaptable game made him the right call. Simmons is a mold-breaking talent, but right now he draws comparisons to a Kevin Durant-sized version of Rajon Rondo. Ingram is a much more recognizable type of wing prospect, and an excellent one.
"He's got a chance to be one of those guys," an excited Jesse Mermuys, head coach of the Lakers' Summer League team, said of Ingram. By "those," he means high-level talents, players worthy of the second—or first—pick. Mermuys just jumped to L.A. a few weeks ago, and already he was excited about Ingram's length, how difficult it is to block his shot, how he impacts the game without scoring. He was equally impressed by how Ingram was able to sit for a long stretch before re-entering the game and hitting two big shots in a comeback victory. The knock on Ingram is that he's still under 200 pounds, and spindly and easy to push around. Later, Simmons will drive Ingram like a tackling sled when the latter set a screen. "There's going to be a learning curve with the physicality," Mermuys conceded.
The One-against-Two debate has been the story of the last few NBA drafts. For the last three years, the college basketball season began with a presumptive top prospect and a fairly clear No. 2 giving chase. Entering as the incumbent introduces some psychological biases—Negativity Bias, Observational Selection Bias, the Anchoring Effect, Everyone Fucking Hating Duke—that may or may not push observers to seek negatives about one player or the other. Or without the jargon, unless you're invested in Simmons, it can be easier to look for reasons why he shouldn't have been the top pick and reasons why Ingram should have been. Consistently evaluating them on equal terms can be difficult, and also a little boring.
These potential biases don't mean the eventual findings are incorrect, necessarily. This happened with Andrew Wiggins and Jabari Parker (the jury's still out) and with Jahlil Okafor and Karl-Anthony Towns (Towns ultimately overtook Okafor and it has very clearly proven correct). What it means, though, is that there's a greater burden of proof, so to speak, on Simmons. If it wasn't hard enough to try to make it as a new type of basketball player, in terms of his size and skills, the Sixers staked the future of their franchise on him. He carries the burden of expectation as a result.
Saturday did nothing to "settle" the debate, both because it was one game in July and because Simmons eventually rounded back into being a consensus atop the draft. If nothing else, this game was a reminder of why that happened. Neither player really went off—Ingram in particular was muted for most of the game, finishing with seven points, four rebounds, and three turnovers. Both have already turned in better performances this summer.
What Simmons did, though, was tantalize, well beyond the eight points and 10 rebounds that box score-surfers will notice. From the moment he walked onto the court, he commanded attention, and not just because he was a big man moving with the grace of a guard. With all eyes on him, his eyes were everywhere; it's clear that few players, in the Summer League and possibly on earth, see the game quite like he does. He turned the ball over seven times, but he also dished eight dimes. At least five of the assists quickly got passed around as Vines, and the sheer variety of passes he was able to throw—fastball outlets, whipped bounce passes out of a Rondo fake, no-look finds to back-door cutters—speak to an otherworldly vision and a preternatural ability to transport leather spheres.
"You can tell that's what turns him on," Mermuys said. "When you can pass like that, everything else will come."
The everything else is still a work in progress. "Everything," Simmons confirmed when asked what he can improve. "That's what we're here for, to learn." He's 19 years old. Ingram is even younger, and his skill set is substantial. The upside for each is stunningly vast, but it remains a little higher for Simmons, because the things he does supremely can't be taught and the things he does not yet do well can—or historically have, in players with his talent—be coached up. He's going to make those around him better, and he's going to look even better when the players around him are better. He's a building-block unicorn.
Lakers fans disagreed, of course, and as a result Simmons got to play the heel for a night, showered with boos when he touched the ball and jeered when he missed or coughed it up. That's part of the learning process, too. "I knew they were gonna be, every layup they were gonna go crazy," Simmons said. "That's L.A. fans for you. They're great."
The head-to-head may have disappointed, overshadowed by the heroic haymakers traded by T.J. McConnell and D'Angelo Russell, itself a nice debate about who should have gone No. 2 in the 2015 draft. Yet even on a night when Simmons and Ingram didn't show their full hands, there was the sense that this was a preview of main events to come. In July, in Vegas, that will do.