When I last touched on the 2016 freshman class, I used statistics from summer all-star games in attempt to forecast their success at the college level. With the NCAA season now well into league play, the top freshmen have each had around 500 minutes to sink or swim, and two players have established themselves as the defining figures of the next NBA draft: LSU’s Ben Simmons and Duke’s Brandon Ingram.
Aesthetically, Simmons is a descendant of Carmelo Anthony, Michael Beasley, and Jabari Parker. In particular, Simmons is eerily reminiscent of Beasley, as the two not only share the same physical frame but also light skin tone, left-handedness, and a “this shit is easy for me” on-court demeanor. The 6’9″ manchild with polished offense prototype is built to destroy the NCAA (if not necessarily the next level), and Simmons has been no exception.
(click on the table to zoom)
Where Simmons separates himself from his peers is as a passer. He is not only a uniquely good passer for a guy with PF size, he is as good of a passer as any 19-year-old prospect you will see period. Simmons’ status as a non-jump shooting, non-center makes him an unappealing #1 pick, but his passing skills stand out as an outlier superpower that could allow him to thrive despite his inherent limitations. Perhaps the best comparison for Simmons when considering all the factors is Blake Griffin. Like Simmons, Griffin was a consensus #1 pick despite being neither a shooter nor shot-blocker.
Griffin didn’t come much closer than Melo, Beasley, or Parker to matching Simmons’ gaudy assist rate, but we now know that he turned into one of the best passing PF of all-time, making that a pointless distinction. If Simmons can develop a jumper on the level of Griffin’s (just good enough so defenders have to respect it), a reasonable expectation given his age and talent, he could be a very similar pro and is thus hard to argue against as the #1 pick.
The only thing standing the way of Simmons’ seemingly inevitable fate of becoming the top draft pick is Brandon Ingram (pictured), a spindly 6’9″ small forward with an effortless shooting stroke. As is the case in most of these debates (see: Okafor/Towns and Parker/Wiggins), Ingram stands in strong contrast to Simmons. First of all, Ingram, a tall, bird-chested teenager, is far from a manchild. Secondly, Ingram has no discernible weakness on the basketball court. He can shoot, dribble, pass, rebound, and defend and provides tons of versatility at 6’9″ with a devastating 7’3″ wingspan. Ingram has an absurdly low turnover rate for a young freshman thrust into a major offensive role and is on pace to become the first top prospect to hit the 2 blocks and 2 steals per 40 minutes plateau since Nerlens Noel and Kevin Durant before him. While Ingram is not quite on Durant’s level as a prospect, the similarities in their game, physique, and even statistics are hard to ignore.
History speaks well of top-ranked freshmen that perform up to or even exceed expectations in the NCAA, which is why I would still rank Ben Simmons as the top prospect. Passing up a freshman posting 24 PTS, 15 REB, and 6 AST Per 40 on 63% True Shooting takes serious balls, no matter how valid the concerns are over his unique game translating to the pros. However, it doesn’t take much imagination to see Ingram becoming the more effective NBA player four or five years down the line. I could see a GM being so knocked over by Ingram’s long-term potential that he would select him over the historically dominant Simmons, and it’s possible that I will feel the same way come draft day.