Very few would have believed back in October that LSU’s season would end on March 12th. The date of LSU’s swan song wasn’t so much astonishing as the manner in which it occurred. The Tigers effectively wrote their own eulogy with blowout losses at the hands of Tennessee and Arkansas down the gut of the season, but it doesn’t get much more embarrassing than what transpired in the SEC Tournament Semifinals against Texas A&M. 13 first half points. 19% shooting. A 71-38 drubbing was perhaps the most fitting capstone to a Ben Simmons era that had come and gone quicker than you can say “NCAA Tournament.” Countless analysts and experts throughout the college basketball season were broken records in stating that they have no problem with Ben Simmons failing to lead a team to an NCAA Tournament berth, citing his undeniable talent as what trumps any of his team’s ultimate struggles. Yes, the skill for his size is tantalizing. His offensive game is very present-day LeBron-ish. Transcendent vision, relatively poor outside shooting, almost all damage done in the paint, supreme dexterity at the rim. The LeBron comparisons have been surrounding him for quite some time. For such a can’t-miss prospect, missing the postseason is simply intolerable, and the history of NBA top picks would agree. So why now are exceptions being made?
Just as obvious as Simmons’ basketball talent is the reasoning behind LSU not nearly approaching its expectations. Simmons was mantled with plenty of surrounding talent to pilot a formidable basketball team. NBA caliber guards Tim Quarterman and Antonio Blakeney and ex-top 100 prospect Craig Victor were augmentations to the centerpiece. Teams often take on the personality of their indubitable best player. It might be harsh to plant all the blame on one man’s shoulders, as a handful of his teammates underperformed, but Simmons wore his poor values on his sleeve throughout his time in school. He had absolutely zero interest in defending, and his matador defense repeatedly led to uncontested layups or careless swipes at the ball and foul trouble. Insistence on flashiness rather than completing the simple play repeatedly led to careless turnovers. Carelessness off the court frankly had me shocked he was still eligible. “Careless” is the common thread, and it is an accurate summary of what Ben Simmons stands for, trickling down to his teammates as well. The Tigers weren’t even competitive in several of their losses. Rumors of a potential $100 million shoe deal swirled as LSU played games critical to their at-large hopes, but that did not bother Ben Simmons, because “at-large” was not in his vocabulary. As flattering as every LeBron James and Magic Johnson comparison may be, the reality is winning is not important to Ben Simmons, and that couldn’t be more obvious. Meanwhile, in Durham, NC, a perennial powerhouse program was faced with a set of obstacles that neither Mercer, nor Lehigh, nor an Eric Maynor dagger could even provide. The Duke Blue Devils were pressed into playing six for the vast majority of the 2015-16 season, including 38 minutes nightly from the least-heralded Plumlee. In spite of the roadblocks, Duke quietly managed a collection of noteworthy wins and another Sweet 16 appearance. Along the way, a once gangly incoming freshman physically matured and improved with each passing day.
A tale of two teams. Questions of NCAA Tournament participation surrounded them at approximately the same juncture. LSU folded the tent, Duke dug itself out of a 4-4 ACC hole, a mirror image of the case on our hands as the NBA Draft approaches. Brandon Ingram’s off-the-charts character dwarfs that of Ben Simmons, but analyzing the two from a purely prospect standpoint makes the idea of Simmons as the consensus top pick even more puzzling. Ingram already scores efficiently at all three levels, most notably a 41% shooter from beyond the arc, and with further added strength he will only get better at the rim. Conversely, the dexterously-confused Simmons attempted a grand total of 45 jump shots in 33 games (12% of his shot attempts), sinking just 14 (31%). Applause for understanding one’s own limitations, but a jumper that is broken beyond repair does not bode well at the next level. Clogged lanes forced awkward shots and a preference to defer, and that defensive gameplan will be amplified by the remainder of the NBA. While scoring in a half court setting is largely a foreign language for Simmons, Ingram thrives, just as he does in transition, with a deft ability to create his own shot and a superb middle game.
The NBA has such an infatuation with age. The late-blooming Ingram is 10 months younger than Simmons, not turning 19 until September. The NBA, additionally, has an infatuation with length, and justifiably so. Length can solve a lot of issues and make up for a lot of shortcomings. It cannot be taught. It translates to the professional level. Ingram has it. Simmons doesn’t. Ingram puts that physical gift to good use on both ends of the floor. Length alone allowed him to consistently finish through contact in the paint at Duke, finishing either over defenders or contorting and scoring at unusual angles.
The same category of contested shots were largely missed by Simmons, hindered by average length and no shooting touch to write home about. With plenty of room and time to fill out his frame, some strength to complement Inspector Gadget arms would transform Ingram into an indefensible offensive juggernaut, able to score from anywhere on the floor and appropriating the Kevin Durant comparisons. Shear length comes in handy, perhaps even more so, on the defensive end of the floor, contesting and blocking shots and distorting passing lanes. Ingram was able to wreak havoc in such a way, averaging 1.3 steals and 1.6 blocks per 40 minutes. The Duke star put that on full display in a matchup with Utah, a team with plenty of size, at Madison Square Garden, blocking three shots and collecting three steals. We can see an example of his length leading to defensive playmaking in post defense against the Utes’ Kyle Kuzma, a 2017 NBA Draft prospect.
Still relatively frail, Ingram may get outmuscled, but his length makes amends. Again, the inevitability of adding to his frame will only aid Ingram in his quest to become a two-way star.
The NBA, above all, has an infatuation with versatility. Playing multiple positions. Defending multiple positions. Stuffing stat sheets. Simmons, as a triple-double waiting to happen, is oftentimes seen as synonymous with that word. Overlooked is the notion that Ingram is actually the one that checkmarks all the boxes. With Duke being devoid of a competent true point guard this past season, Ingram was, in fact, pressed into some point guard duties while playing center in other lineups. In the NBA, he will likely be able to line up anywhere from 1-4. I have focused much of my energy on Ingram’s scoring proficiency, but his versatility extends to every important aspect of the game. The assist numbers aren’t that gaudy, accumulating a respectable 2.3 per 40 minutes, but Ingram showed flashes as a passer on several occasions throughout the season. Duke had no choice but to play small given their personnel, spacing the floor with shooters and hiding Marshall Plumlee behind the defense for lobs and dump-offs. This system was tailor-made for a player of Ingram’s skillset and is very comparable to what he will be seeing next year. With each game, Ingram became more adept at reading defenses on the fly in Duke’s dribble-drive/drive-and-kick scheme, making the simple play by either kicking out to shooters or pocket passes/dump-offs underneath when bigs helped up like so:
Unlike his counterpart, Ingram never tries to do too much and has shown he brings more than merely scoring to the table. His defensive potential, however, may be the true goldmine in terms of his versatility. Ingram’s aforementioned length will prove to be very disruptive and will allow him to guard power forwards, but devious quickness provides the element of the ability to defend opponents’ point guards. Here, we see Ingram on a switch matched up with NC State’s Cat Barber, one of the quickest players in all of college basketball.
Ingram is able to keep Barber in front for an extended amount of time and forces him into a difficult contested runner. You could sift through hours of Ben Simmons film and won’t find a single instance where he showed the willingness to compete like this nor the desire to prove he can guard at all. Concerning defense, Ingram is in a completely different hemisphere than Simmons, and character and general effort, not to mention a more diverse offensive game, are the separating factors firmly placing the Duke product ahead of the Australian lefty.
The Philadelphia 76ers (AT LAST!) will be making the first selection in the 2016 NBA Draft on June 23rd, and all signs point towards them taking Ben Simmons. This has forced me to ask if I am missing something, because this selection defies all of my logic. It’s almost like Hinkie is still running the show.
Simmons has stated he would have no issue playing in Philadelphia, which I am not buying. It is no secret Los Angeles is his ideal destination. Do the Sixers have a real shot at retaining him beyond his rookie contract? The man with his eyes fixated on the League the second he set foot on campus in Baton Rouge. The man fixated on the dollar. The man fixated on flashiness. The man fixated on looking cool. The man who wouldn’t get in a defensive stance if his life depended on it. That’s who will be chosen. The Sixers have now finished dead last in offensive efficiency for three consecutive seasons. Is it really a good idea to infuse an utterly anemic offense with another non-shooter? Philadelphia will be building their franchise around this #1 pick. It is far easier to build around the two-way player, but