Ben Simmons and Brandon Ingram, the top two selections in this year's NBA draft, are set to face off against each other this Saturday at the Las Vegas Summer League. The game will be our first chance to see them on the same court, and our first look at the two players widely regarded as the league's most talented incoming rookies.
Even though Simmons and Ingram are similar heights, play the same position, and were selected back-to-back, they have widely different skill sets. Simmons, the No. 1 pick by the Philadelphia 76ers, is an elite passer with a strong build and a lot of all-around game. Ingram, the No. 2 pick by the Los Angeles Lakers, is a terrific shooter and scorer, with a thin, wiry frame. Both have the potential to be All-Star-level performers, but neither can be considered a sure thing—not when each has significant holes in his game.
Let's take a closer look at how Simmons and Ingram figure to fit in with their teams and with the NBA in 2016-17.
Simmons played two games this week in the Utah Summer League, which concluded yesterday. He clearly has added a lot of muscle since the end of the college basketball season, and his 6-foot-10, 240-pound frame looked surprisingly large next to the competition. Simmons is often compared to LeBron James for having the build of a forward and the game of a guard, but Simmons looks even taller and wider than James. That said, he is still learning how to use his size and strength on offense, at times initiating contact with defenders and gaining ground, but then failing to capitalize.
Simmons' passing has been extremely impressive. In just two games, already has racked up a highlight reel's worth of fancy pass fakes and no-look assists, threading the needle and hitting cutting teammates in stride. Some players, especially skilled bigs, are good at making passes in controlled settings—off of post-ups, or as the ball handler in pick-and-rolls—but they lack the ability to make quick touch passes and swing passes. That isn't the case with Simmons. He makes just about every type of pass in the book with the accuracy of a point guard. He sees the court like a point guard, too, anticipating defensive movement and rotations and directing his teammates around the court, knowing exactly where they need to be before he makes his move and collapses the defense.
Simmons' post-up game isn't very polished, but he has shown the footwork and coordination to make explosive moves from both the low and mid-post. As with much of his game, he appears to be looking to pass first on his drives and post-ups, something that defenses will soon take advantage of. Given his size, a reliable post game will be a big part of his development—after all, he figures to become a walking mismatch, shooting over smaller forwards and speeding past bigger, slower ones.
Defensively, Simmons has great length and quickness and will likely develop into a multi-tool defender, able to guard all five positions. That said, his technique and effort need a lot of work. Against the Utah Jazz in a summer league game, he sometimes appeared lackadaisical, and in isolation he was beaten off the dribble by smaller, slower, and less-skilled players. It may be that Simmons' new frame has slowed him down a bit, but as he gains experience playing at NBA speed, he should be able to transform into an elite defender.
Simmons' ultimate ceiling will be determined by how much he can improve his jump shot. We saw what lack of confidence in a jump shot can do to an otherwise perfect player when, through four NBA Finals games, James refused to shoot consistently from outside. The same will be true of Simmons—only his jumper is far behind where James' was as an incoming rookie.
Simply put, Simmons seems scared to shoot from beyond ten feet. The pair of jump shots that he hit in Utah this week both came off of very deliberate possessions where he was set and had time to mentally prepare for the shot. He also looks hesitant to take short fallaways out of post-ups or off spin moves. As a result, defenders sag off of him by several feet. Simmons counters this by backing up and getting a running start at the defender, and had a bit of success with this against Utah. In real NBA games, he'll have to learn to shoot the one-dribble pull-up from the foul line with confidence, especially on pick-and-rolls; otherwise, defenders will just pack the paint and dare him to shoot.
To get the most out of Simmons' skill sett, the 76ers need to surround him with as many shooters as possible. An off-ball point guard would be ideal, since Simmons can and should initiate the offense more than anyone else. Unfortunately, Philadelphia's current roster is a very poor fit. To wit: Simmons' best position will be power forward, but the 76ers already have a surplus of front court players.
Jahlil Okafor gives the Philadelphia the chance to run the rare but highly effective four-five pick-and-roll to force a switch and allow Okafor to punish smaller defenders. However, Simmons probably won't be able to play the four alongside Okafor, since neither one can protect the rim. There also will be an issue with spacing in a Simmons–Okafor frontcourt, which might be too much to overcome in the modern, three-point-happy NBA.
By contrast, Nerlens Noel is a good defender and rim protector. But he and Simmons will have similar spacing issues. Still, the four-five pick and roll might be even more deadly with those two, since Noel is agile and can finish above the rim. As for Joel Embiid? No one knows. He certainly has the size and athleticism to be a great rim protector, as well as the touch and footwork to play inside and out, but he hasn't played basketball for two years and his health is a question mark until proven otherwise.
It likely will take the 76ers a few years to sort out their roster and assemble the right pieces to play alongside Simmons. He's clearly the team's new centerpiece, so expect Philadelphia to tailor the roster to him, not the other way around.
In some ways, Ingram is the opposite of Simmons. For starters, Ingram is the same height as Simmons yet weighs over 40 pounds less. His tall and skinny frame probably won't change much over time, even though his strength will improve. There are upsides and downsides to such a narrow build. On one hand, Ingram has long strides and quick feet, and he surprises people with short bursts that help him grab rebounds and drive by defenders with just one or two steps. On the other hand, he got pushed around by almost every low-post power forward and center in college, and he will be at a bigger disadvantage against bigger and stronger NBA players.
However, Ingram has a phenomenal jump shot. His 9'1'' standing reach allows him to get a shot off against anyone, making him a threat to score even when it's closely contested. He has the mechanics and the touch to be an elite outside shooter, and the foundation of a very versatile offensive player. At Duke, he showed off a wide array of dribble-drive moves and post-ups. With the Lakers, he'll likely improve his ball handling and become more reliable in pick-and-rolls. He already is very good at shooting pull-up shots off of ball screens.
Like the 76ers, the Lakers have a very young core group of players. D'Angelo Russell will be a nice running mate for Ingram, since both can play off ball and space the floor. Early in his career, Ingram will probably play most of his minutes at small forward—he'll be too weak to defend NBA power forwards. That's another plus for Los Angeles, since it means that Julius Randle, who also has a nice jump shot and has shown some playmaking skills, won't be competing with Ingram for minutes. The trio of Russell, Ingram, and Randle should be exciting right from the start. The Lakers just committed a lot of money to veteran Luol Deng, who will probably grab a majority of the team's minutes at small forward. Expect Ingram to be brought along slowly as a rookie.
In some ways, Ingram and Simmons represent an interesting contrast in value. There's a saying in basketball that shooting makes up for a lot of sins. Ingram's shooting makes up for many of his shortcomings. Conversely, Simmons has a unique mix of size and skill, but his complete lack of outside shooting ability will mask some of his best qualities. Surrounded by a more balanced roster and facing lower expectations, Ingram is starting off in a relatively favorable spot, whereas Simmons has been handed the keys to his franchise while being stuck alongside a pair of lumbering, somewhat incompatible big men.
Saturday's game will provide an early glimpse at the pair's NBA starting points, and it's likely that the two will guard each other for stretches throughout the game. I suspect that Simmons will look like the far better player in Summer League and throughout the early part of the regular season, given that Ingram's role with the Lakers likely will be far less demanding. However, that also means Ingram has a good chance to rapidly improve toward the end of season; by then, he very well may close the gap with Simmons.
There wasn't much debate about who would go No. 1 overall in last month's draft. Almost every expert picked Simmons as the player with more polish and more upside. But shooting really does make up for a lot of sins, and Ingram can really shoot the ball. Saturday will give us a taste for what's in store for these two players. Only time will tell how far each will go, and grow.
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