This year’s draft is typically being framed as a two-player draft with a wide open third slot. I see things pretty differently, there is a clear #1 prospect, a very close debate between the #2 and #3 guys, and a wide open #4 ranking. I’m going to briefly give my thoughts on each individual player before comparing them.
Ben Simmons – Freshman – 19.9 years old – LSU
All the various criticism of Simmons game has overshadowed the fact that he’s a 6’10 athletic beast with handles and elite passing vision. He’s not Lebron obviously, he’s merely a great athlete instead of maybe the greatest ever, but he’s far and away the closest facsimile of Lebron we’ve ever seen. Simmons raw gifts really cannot be oversold – Lebron is the only player we’ve seen in the last twenty years with a better combination of size, athleticism, and passing ability.
Simmons lack of a jump shot is super concerning, as is his questionable effort level on the defensive end. However, as someone who can spend a lot of time with the ball in his hands his lack of a jump shot becomes much less of a big deal, and his defensive profile isn’t nearly as concerning as some make it out to be. He’s short armed and didn’t try all that hard in college, but he’s also super quick laterally for a man his size and has shown real instincts making plays in the passing lanes.
Without consistent effort no one can be a good defender, but the types of off-ball plays Simmons made at times suggests he has the awareness to be a big time defender if he ever locked in. As a short armed power forward he’s going to be able to be scored on over the top a bit, but the versatility he can provide switching on the perimeter could provide more value than his lack of rim protection. The issues with Simmons effort level and mentality are certainly real, and I wouldn’t be shocked to see him go through his career as an apathetic and negative defender, but he is by no means destined for that fate.
With Simmons offense, I’m far more concerned about a team using him correctly then his actual ability. If a team lets him operate as a primary creator on post-ups/face-ups from 15 feet-and-in and run plenty of pick-and-roll he can be enormously successful. He also can provide a lot of value as a role man – he’s got the athleticism to attack the rim and the playmaking to create for others.
If used in these roles Simmons lack of a jump shot will be mitigated, and he can bring huge offensive value to a team. I’m not sure he’ll ever be a great scorer in the half court, which is what might prevent him from ascending to top-5 player status (in addition to defensive effort), but I’ve got a lot of confidence in him at least being an all-star level player due to his unique creation ability at his size.
Brandon Ingram – Freshman – 18.7 years old – Duke
Ingram is often sold as the better defensive prospect, and while he probably has a higher floor, Simmons has the edge in defensive ceiling. Ingram’s crazy length causes problems on the defensive end, but he’s just not all that quick laterally, and struggles to get into a low stance due to relatively tight hips. Nothing in his college production or his athleticism suggests he’s going to be a significant plus on the defensive end, while Simmons at least has that possibility in his upper range of outcomes.
Depending on how his frame develops and how much he commits to the defensive end I expect Ingram to be somewhere between a 40th-60th percentile wing defender, with some potential to add extra value if he adds enough strength to switch onto big guys.
The huge question for Ingram is just how his body will develop over time. As things stand, Ingram has some vertical explosion with a running start but is generally a below average athlete by NBA wing standards. If his quickness and burst continue along a standard development curve I see Ingram as completely lacking any star upside. He can be a solid defender who spaces the floor and provides some extra creation – a borderline all-star, but without significant athletic improvements I doubt he can be much more.
The good news for Ingram is that since he’s so young and so skinny he’s got a much better chance at athletic improvement than most guys. Giannis Antetokounmpo had a very similar frame at Ingram’s age, and was also seen as a sub-standard NBA athlete. If Ingram follows a similar path to Giannis in upgrading his explosion and body control he has some real chance at being a big time two-way player. He’s not creative enough as an off-the-dribble scorer to have real top-5 player upside, but if his body develops correctly he could certainly be a Paul George-ish value player.
My other concern with Ingram that I find worth mentioning is with his outside shot. Everyone seems to operate under the assumption that he’s a borderline elite shooter, despite some warning signs to the contrary. Ingram’s <70% FT% is concerning, and his line drive shot off his cocked back form is a little aesthetically disturbing. Additionally, he doesn’t show much fluidity in shooting off the dribble, which both hurts his creation upside and casts further aspersions on the certainty of his NBA outside shot.
I’m not expecting him to be a <35% shooter from the NBA three, but his shooting ability is being oversold. He can provide spacing value beyond his raw percentages though, because his high release allows him to get shots off in volume and forces defenders to stay much closer to him.
Like I said earlier, I see Ingram’s most likely outcome as a borderline all-star. He has some real upside above that with athletic development, but he also could end up even worse if he hits his low end defensive outcome and doesn’t shoot as well as people expect.
Dragan Bender – Croatia – 18.5 years old – Maccabi Tel Aviv (International)
I wrote my love letter for Dragan Bender as a #1 pick last August, and while I’ve come down from those heights, I’m still a huge fan of his game. Bender’s season with Maccabi wasn’t all that impressive; he played the Kevin Love spot up in the corner role in Maccabi’s offense, and the way he fouled on the defensive end showed he was clearly physically overmatched. However, there also were some real positives to take away from a season in which Dragan didn’t play or produce all that much.
The most encouraging sign was the continued development of his outside shot. His form has gotten noticeably more consistent and compact, and he seems to have quickened his release a bit as well. He only shot 33.8% across his 77 attempts, but he seems more confident taking the three ball and he’s on track to continue to improve. I wouldn’t bet on him stretching the floor efficiently right when he gets to the NBA, but he’s set up well to develop into a true floor spacer.
Defensively, Bender really struggled with the physicality of the full grown men he routinely faced. He got buried inside on post-ups and rebound opportunities, and frequently let opponents power through him to finish shots. Despite all that, he showed his incredible defensive versatility by routinely matching up against wings as a 7’1 player, and even did a decent job of stuffing the stat sheet with steals and blocks due to his great length and quick leaping.
The one thing Bender didn’t get to show at Maccabi was his incredible passing ability. It was mostly due to his role, but it is also fair to expect he will need some time to adjust to the speed of the NBA game before he can fully showcase his distribution skills.
The argument for Bender as a top-3 or even top-2 pick is pretty easy. His frame seems to be developing pretty naturally and in time he should be able to be a legit 7’1 center who can switch on the perimeter, protect the rim some, shoot the three ball, and even attack in space and make plays with the ball. That type of player is crazy valuable in today’s NBA, and Bender has surefire all-star upside because he could turn into that player.
The argument against Bender is similar to the argument against Isaia Cordinier, not that he doesn’t have the tools he’s purported to, but that something in his profile prevents him from putting them to use. For Bender, the question is why he wasn’t able to produce much at Maccabi this year. Is it because he’s super young and just doesn’t have the strength and mental experience to compete with older guys quite yet, or is it because he lacks athleticism and toughness that he will never develop?
I tend to side with the former, and continue to love Bender as an NBA prospect, but I do have real concerns he might just lack a degree of physicality that will cause him to never really amount to much in the NBA. Even with those concerns, I do believe he will turn into a borderline all-star guy with some real chance at having Draymond Green level impact on a team.
All in all, I really don’t understand the perceived closeness of the debate between Simmons and Ingram. If you have a lot of confidence in Ingram’s athleticism developing then he’s about the same value prospect as Simmons, though I would still give Simmons a slight edge. However, Ingram’s athletic development isn’t anything close to a guarantee, making Simmons the clearly better prospect.
Ingram is a tier below Simmons, and Bender operates in the same tier as Ingram as borderline all-stars with some possible better or worse outcomes. In fact, I give Bender the slightest of edges over Ingram as a better prospect. Both can be semi-stars due to their versatility more than their creation abilities, and the versatility Bender could provide as a big man strikes me as more valuable than what Ingram could do on the wing.
I will not be writing about Bender, Simmons, or Ingram in my positional previews for them because I don’t have too much more to say about either.
Tier 1 – All-Star-Superstar
#1 Ben Simmons (1)
Tier 2 – Borderline All-Star
#2 Dragan Bender (2-3)
#3 Brandon Ingram (2-3)