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Rethinking Recent Draft-Day Debates

Would the Sixers still select Ben Simmons over Brandon Ingram? Will D’Angelo Russell have a better career than Emmanuel Mudiay? The decisions have been made, but the evaluations continue.

Brandon Ingram and Ben Simmons Getty Images/Ringer illustration

We spend almost an entire year analyzing, projecting, and comparing the incoming crop of NBA prospects. But the stories for these young players don’t end once their names are called by Adam Silver. Nor do we stop debating whether teams made the right decisions by selecting one over another.

With that in mind, let’s revisit three major either/or arguments from recent drafts to find out where each player stands now, which players we’d want going forward, and how the findings can be applied to the 2018 draft.

Ben Simmons vs. Brandon Ingram (2016)

This wasn’t much of a debate to many observers prior to the draft, and still isn’t. Simmons, the no. 1 pick, was touted as the next Magic Johnson, and now, after sitting out his first season, he’s meeting the hype by averaging a near-triple-double on a playoff team. Simmons is already one of the game’s best passers, with a beautiful blend of technical skill and aesthetic artistry.

Despite his dismal defense in college, he’s shown he can lock down multiple positions when he wants to. (Keep that in mind when questioning the effort level of Arizona big man Deandre Ayton.) Though he still can’t shoot, the Australian gets to the paint with ease and scores well, posting a 53.4 effective field goal and 54.9 true shooting percentage.

Meanwhile, the Ingram comparisons to Kevin Durant are looking even more ridiculous than they did in 2016. Ingram, the no. 2 pick, has been plagued by inconsistency over his two NBA seasons, and the Lakers aren’t quite on this season’s playoff bubble in the West. Ingram has surged lately, averaging 18.4 points, 5.5 rebounds, and 5.4 assists over his past 14 games. But over the full season, Simmons’s impact has been more significant. The argument seems to have a clear winner, right?

Simmons (21) and Ingram (20) have long careers ahead of them. Remember when Tyreke Evans won Rookie of the Year over James Harden and Stephen Curry? That’s an extreme example, but the point remains: The Simmons-Ingram debate is just getting started.

A handful of NBA executives I talked to who ranked Ingram over Simmons before the draft haven’t budged. The questions being asked are the same as before: Will Simmons’s lack of a jump shot affect his play in playoff situations? How realistic is it that he’ll improve the shot? If he doesn’t, how will his team build around him? Two executives made the same point: Even a young LeBron James saw his production dip in critical playoff moments because teams game-planned to force him to shoot, and LeBron was far superior at both shooting and drawing fouls than Simmons is now at the same age. The book on containing LeBron was to turn him into a shooter, so teams would sag off, pack the paint, and double-dog-dare him to launch. But LeBron could sometimes make teams pay; he shot 33 percent from 3 before his age-22 season. Simmons, meanwhile, shoots with his off hand, has made only one 3 since high school, and is reluctant to shoot from midrange.

Teams will try to do to Simmons what they once did to LeBron: clog the lane and limit driving lanes, thus stifling his playmaking. It doesn’t mean it’ll work. The game has changed. LeBron had Zydrunas Ilgauskas and Drew Gooden in the frontcourt; Simmons has Joel Embiid, a 7-foot-2 center who can shoot 3s. And we’ve already seen hints at how opponents will defend Simmons late in games: They give him space on the perimeter. When Simmons gives the ball up, it sometimes looks like they’re playing four-on-five.

The Sixers work around this by essentially turning Simmons from point guard into center. They post him up or run screens to get him matched up against switches. They’ve also designed plays to get him the ball as a cutter.

Simmons dropped 32 points in this epic February win over the Bulls. But the Bulls, despite being ass, did a decent job of keeping Simmons out of the lane and away from making plays for his teammates late in the game. High-end defenses will have greater success in the playoffs. Those lobs won’t always work when defenses have time to prepare, like the Wizards did below by intercepting the ball at the goal line.

The Sixers have a minus-5.8 net rating in the fourth quarter this season, which ranks ahead of only the tanking Grizzlies; Philly’s defense regresses, transition opportunities become minimized, and thus the player it uses about as frequently as Cleveland does LeBron becomes limited in the half court.

Possessions: Ben Simmons vs. LeBron James

Player Touches Per Game Dribbles Per Touch Seconds Per Touch
Player Touches Per Game Dribbles Per Touch Seconds Per Touch
Ben Simmons 98.1 3.6 4.4
LeBron James 87.4 3.5 4.6

Data via NBA.com’s Second Spectrum

Not only does Simmons not shoot well, he struggles to draw fouls on drives to the rim. Simmons has drawn 42 fouls and taken 398 field goal attempts on drives, per NBA.com’s Second Spectrum, for a ratio of nine shots per foul drawn — the equivalent of J.J. Barea. Ingram is at a more efficient five shots per foul drawn — the same as DeMar DeRozan. LeBron is also at five shots per foul drawn, and James Harden leads the league at three shots per foul drawn. Simmons gets to the basket with ease in the regular season, but the fact he almost exclusively uses his right hand and sometimes shies away from contact leads to a suboptimal free throw rate for a 6-foot-10 bulldozer. What that will mean for his game in the playoffs is a big unknown, but the players he often gets compared to — LeBron and Giannis Antetokounmpo — are far superior in shooting and drawing fouls.

It feels unfair to harp on a rookie’s only notable weaknesses, but these hiccups also make him a tough player to build around. For instance, if you plug LeBron into the Sixers’ lineup, there are questions about how Simmons would fit next to him. If you take the ball out of Simmons’s hands and give it to LeBron (or anyone else), Simmons essentially becomes a cutter or a player you must stick in the “dunker’s spot,” a position on the baseline where a player (usually a big) is available for lobs and dump-offs. If Simmons is down low, though, Embiid is limited to the 3-point line. There are no such questions about how LeBron would look next to Ingram. The Lakers run an offense that utilizes multiple ball handlers in Ingram, Lonzo Ball, and Isaiah Thomas; sliding LeBron into Isaiah’s place would be a seamless adjustment for all players involved.

Simmons is a better defender, rebounder, and playmaker than Ingram is right now — and probably will be for the entirety of their careers. Simmons also has an edge in driving to the rim, finishing against contact, and beating mismatches. I had Ingram ahead of Simmons on my 2016 draft board, but would now select Simmons. Still, the case made for Ingram before the draft is the same one that could be made for him now: Ingram is 14 months younger and entered the NBA less physically mature. He had a far steeper developmental curve and is still catching up with Simmons. And the signs have been encouraging.

Ingram has shot 40 percent on catch-and-shoot 3s so far this season, per NBA.com’s Second Spectrum, so he remains a threat even when he’s hovering above the line. His release point was too low in college, but he’s since tweaked his mechanics to bring the ball above his head rather than next to it. He’s also hopping into his shot more frequently, which allows him to release the ball quicker.

At Duke, Ingram also had a bad habit of taking off from too far when attempting layups, which led to shots being altered, or throwing up ones that were far too difficult to make. Now, Ingram’s improved strength — especially in the lower body — has allowed him to keep defenders off him. His tighter handle has also opened up paths to the rim.

Ingram doesn’t match Simmons’s explosiveness around the rim, but he finishes at a high rate inside the restricted area (61.6 percent), and draws more fouls on drives. The greater threat his shot becomes, and the stronger he gets, the more plays we’ll see where he can’t be stopped on the attack.

It’s obvious that Ingram projects to be a better scorer than Simmons. The real question is whether Ingram’s projected scoring edge will outweigh everything else. In early February, with Ball sidelined, Ingram took over point guard duties and displayed the playmaking skills he flashed in college. He brought the ball up the court, ran the offense, created in the pick-and-roll, and made accurate passes. Ingram doesn’t match Simmons in that regard, but he’s good, especially for an inexperienced 20-year-old. And while he’ll probably never match Simmons’s upside on defense or as a rebounder, Ingram has at least been competent.

Right now, I’d take Simmons. But it’s close.

D’Angelo Russell vs. Emmanuel Mudiay (2015)

The NBA hasn’t gone as planned for Russell and Mudiay. Nearly three years after the draft, both players find themselves in New York on their second teams. Russell, the no. 2 overall pick, was touted before the draft as a more skill-based point guard like James Harden, while Mudiay, no. 7, was hyped as a John Wall–level athlete. But so far Russell has yet to make a noticeable leap, while Mudiay has seen his opportunity dwindle each season.

The lesson from this point guard debate is that we need to be careful about being too hyperbolic about athleticism. Mudiay was never close to John Wall. He is a good, maybe great athlete and definitely better than Russell, but he’s not elite. That view distorted expectations — Mudiay relied on brute force to drive to the rim, but now that he doesn’t have the same athletic edge that he had in high school or China, his at-rim finishing numbers have plummeted (49.8 percent within 3 feet in his career). And since he can’t get to the rim at will, his playmaking has been limited. Mudiay’s shot was also a weakness, and though his tweaked mechanics have helped, he’s still not a threat.

Meanwhile, Russell, whose athleticism was rightfully questioned, has experienced his own share of struggles. His clear edge in passing vision, feel for the game, and shooting have translated into decent production. The problem is he still takes too many risks as a passer and doesn’t consistently show the mind-set of a go-to scorer.

Then what is he? Russell shoots 63.5 percent in the restricted area, but he doesn’t get there often. Nearly half of his field goal attempts come from midrange, since he settles rather than drives. It feels like he’s hesitant, as if he’s in his own head after suffering multiple knee injuries. But he can’t play like that; Russell needs to be sharp as a playmaker and attacker to reach his upside. Athleticism is a critical component of NBA success, but it’s not the be-all and end-all. Perimeter players in particular need skill and feel to become reliable playmakers, and Russell has both. The key now is improving his discipline, which doesn’t always happen.

There’s still a long way to go for both 22-year-old point guards, but it’d be a miracle if they reach pre-draft expectations. There are two highly regarded point guards in the 2018 draft: Alabama’s Collin Sexton and Oklahoma’s Trae Young. Both are rightfully knocked for their decision-making; Young hoists low-quality shots, while Sexton sometimes plays like he’s gunning in a game of NBA 2K. Teams interested in either guard will need to do extensive research on both players to figure out whether they’re willing to evolve. But as the Lakers and Nuggets found out, sometimes you don’t get the answers you’re looking for until you have the player in your building on a daily basis.

Stanley Johnson vs. Justise Winslow (2015)

Johnson, the eighth pick by Detroit, and Winslow, the 10th pick by Miami, were billed as versatile defenders with offensive skill sets that were works in progress. I gave Winslow the edge at the time because of his leadership and consistency on defense. But you could have made a strong argument for Johnson, too — he was a more advanced ball handler with the sort of quick-twitch athleticism you see in great scorers.

Both players had solid rookie seasons and made an impact in the 2016 playoffs. Remember when Johnson said he was in LeBron’s head? Or when Winslow played center in a second-round series against the Raptors? It wasn’t long ago that both were on the rise. But their progress has stalled ever since their sophomore seasons, when Johnson laid an egg and Winslow underwent season-ending surgery for a torn labrum in his right shoulder.

Johnson has had moments playing hard-nosed defense against the likes of Giannis and C.J. McCollum, which speaks to the immense versatility of the 6-foot-7 245-pounder. But he’s still plagued by consistency issues — he’ll fall into lulls where he misses rotations or doesn’t close out with full effort. It’s possible he’s merely a reflection of his environment, but he was drafted to set a tone defensively, and it hasn’t happened with the Pistons. It needs to soon, because his offense hasn’t come along, either.

Shot Locations: Stanley Johnson vs. Justise Winslow

Shot Area Johnson % (Attempts) Winslow % (Attempts)
Shot Area Johnson % (Attempts) Winslow % (Attempts)
Restricted Area 63.4% (93) 53.5% (129)
Mid-Range 31.9% (141) 24.3% (103)
3-Point 29.9% (174) 43.8% (73)

Stats via NBA.com, as of March 3

Johnson is average or worse scoring from all levels of the floor. Winslow, meanwhile, is shooting 43.8 percent from 3 this season, but it’s coming on only 73 attempts (not counting long-range heaves). Until he proves it over an extended period of time, defenses won’t respect him behind the line. Winslow has similarly struggled scoring inside; it can be infuriating to watch him drive the lane, only to blow a layup because he can’t elevate enough in traffic. These are the limitations an NBA team will have to live with.

It’s easy to say a player will learn to shoot, but oftentimes they just never do — even ones who can still have long careers without a shot, like Johnson and Winslow. Duke center and 2018 draft prospect Marvin Bagley III is shooting a solid 36 percent from 3, but like Winslow has shaky mechanics, lacks range, and shoots a low free throw percentage. Texas center Mo Bamba gets labeled “Rudy Gobert with a 3,” but at only 26.5 percent from downtown this season with an inconsistent, funky shooting form, he’s going to have to improve his shot selection and revise his mechanics, much like Johnson. Bagley and Bamba are centers and have interior scoring skills that give them a chance to thrive even without a jumper. Johnson doesn’t have a secondary skill yet. Winslow does.

Winslow is quietly developing into an interesting player because of his passing ability, so the Heat use him as a both a screener and ball handler in the pick-and-roll.

Winslow is a sturdy screener with a good feel for making the right decision on the roll. The Heat have Hassan Whiteside setting most screens, but they could play more lineups with Winslow at the 4 or 5.

Winslow has always had a great first step and a natural feel for passing, and in the pros he’s learned how to use hesitations to create space. He still can’t shoot off the dribble, and his at-rim finishing is an eyesore, but the feel is there for Winslow to make an impact as a playmaker.

Let’s play a quick game. Who is Player X from the chart below?

Name That Player: Justise Winslow vs. ...

Player Height Weight Wingspan Reach Points Per Possession
Player Height Weight Wingspan Reach Points Per Possession
Winslow 6'7" 225 6'10" 8'8" 0.8
Player X 6'7' 230 7'1" 8'9" 0.86

Any guesses?

It’s Draymond Green!

It sounds sacrilegious, but Winslow — who has a similar body type, strengths, and weaknesses — is being used like Draymond Lite. Winslow, 21, would’ve been a senior right now had he stayed all four years at Duke. Green played four years at Michigan State, then made a minimal impact as a rookie. It wasn’t until his third season, at age 24, that his abilities became obvious.

Winslow’s defense would have to reach an even higher level to come close to Green’s, but his passing vision and versatility fit the Draymond mold. Johnson shares Winslow’s youth and potential, but lacks the intangible qualities that the Heat forward displays. Teams shouldn’t offer six draft picks for Winslow, but he’d be near the top of my trade target list for young players who are perceived as underperformers.

Stats current through Saturday, March 3.