Fortune smiled upon the Los Angeles Lakers on the night of the draft lottery, allowing them to walk away with their top-three protected pick intact. Their slot with the second overall selection was a particularly coveted due to the two players at the top of nearly every draft board: LSU’s Ben Simmons and Duke’s Brandon Ingram.
The Lakers will be somewhat at the mercy of the Philadelphia 76ers, who have the first overall pick and will almost certainly take one of the two.
Which one should we hope falls to the Lakers? It’s a surprisingly complicated issue that requires a closer look at each candidate before one can make the decision to officially join #TeamIngram or #TeamSimmons.
Today, let’s dig in on the guy that is considered the favorite to be drafted first overall: Ben Simmons.
(Note: You can also read my breakdown of Brandon Ingram here).
Finding a player with Simmons’ combination of size and skill is a rarity. At 6’10” and 240 pounds he handles the ball and passes like a guard, unselfishly hitting open teammates whenever his own path to the basket is cut off. This skill set led to comparisons to LeBron James and Magic Johnson, but it’s unfair to put such lofty expectations on a young player.
He came into the college season with a tremendous amount of hype behind him, and that eventually led to a backlash of sorts, as many started picking apart any weaknesses Simmons showed rather than celebrate just how good he truly is.
In the midst of it all, it’s easy to forget that he had, statistically, one of the best college seasons in recent memory. His per-40 minute averages of 22 points, 13.7 rebounds, 5.5 assists, 2.3 steals, and .9 blocks are incredibly impressive. In particular, the steals stand out, as it’s not often that a player of his size is able to get into passing lanes the way that he can.
He’s essentially unstoppable in the open floor, where his speed, ball handling, and passing skills all come together to create death by fast-break for his opponents. Send multiple players his way and he’ll find a teammate cutting for the finish or spotting up behind the arc. Try to guard him one-on-one and he’s past his man before the defender even realizes what happened.
The fact that Simmons is just about ambidextrous is another plus, as he is comfortable firing passes with either hand. It has led to a bit of a strange situation, though, as he finishes at the rim almost exclusively with his right but shoots jumpers with his left. He almost exclusively uses his right hand around the basket, to the point where he will take awkward shots with his right rather than go left, like a reverse-Julius Randle.
That’s something that can eventually be worked out, though. The fact that he has the ability to use both hands is a positive, even if it’s a bit awkward right now.
Simmons didn’t participate in the pre-draft combine, but ESPN’s Chad Ford recently stopped by one of his workouts in Cleveland. There, they tested his speed, agility, and leaping ability in a combine-esque manner, and the results confirmed what the eye test already told us: Simmons is a ridiculous athlete.
His three-quarter court sprint time was 3.05 seconds and his lane agility was 10.61 seconds. To put those numbers into perspective, Jordan Clarkson, the speediest Lakers player, scored a 3.28 and 10.76 on those tests. Head-to-head, Simmons was faster than Clarkson both in a dead sprint AND in lateral quickness.
That’s not supposed to happen.
Clarkson is an excellent athlete, measuring 6’5” and weighing in at a lean 185 pounds. There is no way that a player bigger and heavier than him should be faster and quicker, but somehow Simmons is.
It’s that combination of speed, size, strength, and an incredible feel for the game that has had NBA teams salivating over Simmons for some time now. Regardless of where ends up, he’s going to have a lot of highlights running the floor, dunking, and dropping dimes in the NBA.
In spite of all of Simmons’ impressive tools, he does have some areas of his game that need refinement. Most notably, he is currently seen as a non-shooter, having attempted just three shots from behind the three point line in college. While LSU coach Johnny Jones argued that Simmons was simply making the right play by looking for higher-percentage shots, it’s still a bit odd to see so few attempts.
Reports out of his training camp indicate that he is working diligently on his shot, and video clips show that his form has significantly improved. Whether or not that translates into success in live-game situations is unknown, but it’s still a positive sign that he is attempting to shore up his biggest weakness.
There were also some questions regarding Simmons’ work ethic following the college season, as his body language at LSU could have been better when his team was down (which happened fairly often). The fact that his team didn’t qualify for the NCAA Tournament supported this narrative, as some viewed Simmons as a player who wasn’t fully engaged because he was playing for an underachieving team.
If true, that mentality could present a problem should Simmons wind up on the rebuilding 76ers or Lakers. Fortunately, all reports to this point have indicated that he is taking the jump to the NBA very seriously and is extremely focused, so hopefully these issues will turn out to be unfounded.
While Simmons certainly offers a lot to be excited about, fitting him into a modern NBA team is somewhat problematic. His size suggests he should be a power forward, while his skill set is more suited to play small forward or perhaps even point guard. Unfortunately, his jumper is still a work in progress, which means that a team would have to be very carefully constructed around him if they want to maintain the necessary offensive spacing.
On the Lakers, Simmons would most likely wind up battling current power forward Julius Randle for minutes. Should one (or ideally, both) of them develop a consistent jumper, the problem would be alleviated, as Simmons’ quickness suggests he can play small forward.
Until that happens however, it would be difficult to have them on the court at the same time. Lakers coach Luke Walton would have a tough time re-creating the Golden State Warriors offense with two players on the floor who can’t stretch the floor or protect the rim.
Furthermore, Simmons is at his best with the ball in his hands, where his dynamic playmaking and scoring can truly shine. Unfortunately, this is also true of D’Angelo Russell, Jordan Clarkson, and to an extent, Randle as well. The “too many cooks in the kitchen” effect would come into play, and it would likely take the young team some time to figure out how to play together.
All that being said, the Lakers won 17 games last season. Fit shouldn’t be a concern when it comes to their draft pick. Should the Philadelphia 76ers opt to select Brandon Ingram first overall, the Lakers will gladly take Simmons, who arguably has the best chance of becoming a superstar of anyone in this draft.