Ben Simmons has been the consensus top pick in this draft since this draft was being analyzed and broken down. There were a few times in certain mocks that Brandon Ingram would sneak into the top spot, but the 2016 draft has been the Ben Simmons draft since the 2015 draft was in the books.
This is a strange draft though. In ten years it could range anywhere from pathetic to great. Ben Simmons is the face of this draft and a metaphor for this draft. He could be great or he could be ordinary. The skills are obvious and the numbers are stellar. There are a few red flags however. The first is he didn’t block a lot of shots. The next is his efficiency isn’t as good as recent superstar PFs has been. Finally his team didn’t make the tournament. First I’ll get to the blocks and efficiency question. Here is Simmons stacked up against other PFs who were drafted in the top 5 in the past 10 years.
I included players like Williams and Gordon who were considered both SFs and PFs at the time, as Simmons is now. I also limited the list to freshmen and sophomores, which just means we don’t see Thomas Robinson’s numbers. There were only 2 players here with defensive numbers that looked dominant coming in, Davis and Thomas. Davis is on track to be an all-time great. Thomas was a bust. None of the others have a lot, if anything on Simmons as a defender. If Simmons was low in both steals and blocks, like Williams or Bennett, I would be worried, but that isn’t the case. Simmons 2PP is lower than what the all-stars other than Aldridge were at. That’s a mild concern, but .561 is still a pretty decent number for a freshman, especially in the case of Simmons who didn’t have much in the way of a supporting cast on offense.
Simmons is also a much better distributor than any of these other PFs. In fact he’s as good a distributor as any freshman PF ever, at 5.2 A40. To find another freshman over 5.0 I had to go back to Utah’s Josh Grant in 1989. Royce White posted a 6.28 in his only season, but I think he was technically a sophomore at the time. While passing is always a good skill for any player to possess, it doesn’t make a PF a good prospect without the other skills. Here are the successful PFs who posted an A40 over 4.0 at some point in their college careers.
I use “successful” loosely here. Ferry was actually a bust after being drafted 2nd overall. He did last a long time in the league in a stretch 4 role. In general this isn’t an impressive group. Walker and Lee each made more than one all-star appearance, though that fact might surprise some. Mills, like Ferry, was able to stick around the league for a long career as a stretch 4. Simmons is a much more impressive prospect than any of these 4. The chance of him busting on Ferry’s level seem very unlikely. Ferry came in as a weak rebounder with poor defensive numbers. The player in this group Simmons most resembles is Walker. Like Walker he’s a solid rebounder, an excellent ballhawk and his blocks are lower than you’d like from a PF. Simmons is a much more efficient scorer than Walker at this point. That’s a good thing, as Walker could be something of a mad bomber at times during his career.
Another thing to mention is 3 of these 4 players improved their 3-point shot as NBA players. Lee is the only one who never developed an effective 3-pointer. This is important, because for Simmons developing a 3-pointer will be an important part of his development. He hit only 1 this year on 3 attempts, so his .333 isn’t as impressive as it looks. He’s going to need to bring a more diverse game and a 3-pointer will have to be part of that. This is a very small sample, but if passing skills in college are an indicator of improvement in 3-point shooting as a pro, this is a great sign for Simmons.
Now I have to mention a couple of concerns I have about Simmons. Both might be small, but this is the likely first overall pick we’re talking about here. This young man will carry the hopes of a franchise’s fan base on his shoulders. Such players need to be overanalyzed.
The first is the decrease in his blocks as the season progressed. Here are his numbers from November and December comped with the rest of the year.
There is some decline across the board, but that is expected because the level of competition is always much greater in the conference games which start in January. His B40 faded a lot though. This could have been because he was wearing down and concentrating on offense more. This happens with college freshmen and can be fixed with conditioning. I don’t think it was from a lack of effort, because the effort was clearly still there in the other areas of his game. I’ll say this isn’t a big deal, but worth a mention in the negatives column.
The other issue is his LSU team sat out the tournament. In his defense he joined a team that had lost its top 2 players and was in rebuilding mode. In the 3-game losing streak in late February that likely doomed their tournament chances, Simmons played well averaging a double-double in 37 minutes per game. I don’t lay the blame for LSU sitting out the tournament on Simmons, far from it. He was likely the only reason they were even on the bubble to begin with. But it is a fact that players drafted off non-tournament teams have a higher rate of busting than players drafted off teams that played in the tournament. I don’t believe that will be the case with Ben Simmons but, like the decrease in blocks, I do feel it is worth a mention.
Those 2 minor quibbles aside, Ben Simmons is a stellar prospect. He came to a weak, rebuilding team and carried them close to a tournament bid. His prospect numbers are solid with a few negatives that seem correctable. He has a diverse set of skills that should work well in today’s game. At the high end Ben Simmons could become an amazing NBA player who can distribute, score from all over the floor, rebound and defend.
Looking at upside Ben Simmons is a sky-is-the-limit prospect. That’s something that could be said about only a few players every decade. What knocks Simmons down a few notches as a prospect opposed to a Kevin Durant or Anthony Davis is there is more potential for bust or just being something less than a superstar. Because every team must go into the draft with an eye on upside, Ben Simmons has to be the top pick in the 2016 NBA draft.