What If Ben Simmons Falls to the Los Angeles Lakers at No. 2?

Michael Pina@@MichaelVPinaFeatured ColumnistJune 3, 2016

ADVANCE FOR WEEKEND EDITIONS, FEB. 27-28 - FILE -In this Feb. 23, 2016, file photo, LSU's Ben Simmons watches from the bench in the closing minutes of an NCAA college basketball game against Arkansas in Fayetteville, Ark. Simmons, presumptive No. 1 pick in the NBA draft, may never get a chance to showcase his talent on college basketball's biggest stage. That's because a late-season swoon has knocked LSU off the NCAA Tournament bubble. (AP Photo/Samantha Baker, File)
Samantha Baker/Associated Press

With the second overall pick in the 2016 NBA draft, the Los Angeles Lakers will likely select whichever franchise-altering prospect the Philadelphia 76ers don’t: Louisiana State University’s Ben Simmons or Duke’s Brandon Ingram. 

Either way, they’ll acquire a building block, someone potentially talented enough to lead the organization to sustained championship contention for the next decade. 

Based on their projected strengths and weaknesses, both prospects are compatible with Los Angeles’ current roster as well as the new offensive and defensive principles incoming head coach Luke Walton should look to instill.

Mic Smith/Associated Press

If it’s Ingram, great. He can plug in at small forward and play alongside Julius Randle, D’Angelo Russell and Jordan Clarkson in a traditional starting lineup on opening night. The 6'9" forward's outside shot and length (7'3" wingspan) make him a natural solution for some of L.A.’s ongoing problems. 

If the Sixers choose to add three-point shooting and wing versatility to their crowded frontcourt and Simmons falls to Los Angeles, the Lakers will get a generational sensation who, on paper, overlaps Randle’s skill set at the same position. Presumably, the Lakers would eventually have to move the latter for a more complementary piece; someone who can defend the rim and/or better space the floor.

Randle shot 22.9 percent on mid-range jumpers last season and 27.8 percent behind the three-point line. Simmons went 1-of-3 beyond the arc in college, which ingrained doubt about how he’ll do in a league that values outside shooting more and more every day. 

But talk to those who know Simmons best—the coaches and administrators who spent a year watching him in the gym before, during and after practice—and they’ll tell you he can slide right into just about any situation and thrive. 

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“He’s a better shooter than people know,” LSU director of basketball operations Charlie Leonard said. “People perceive it as being a big flaw in his game, but it’s not. It’s just not something that he’s had to focus on. I just think that being on the professional level, where it’s your job every day, guys that are perceived to have holes in their game usually fill them very quickly.”

For all the potentially unfounded criticism surrounding that jumper, Simmons’ strengths are rare. He’s a 6’10” phenom who handles the ball and passes like a point guard, can barrel his way toward the rim anytime he wants and creates mismatches all over the floor, both in the half court and transition.

He averaged 19.2 points, 11.8 rebounds, 4.8 assists and 2.0 steals per game as a freshman. He shot 56.0 percent from the floor, 67.0 percent from the free-throw line—where he lived—and posted a 29.0 player efficiency rating with a 26.4 usage rate. The latter number wouldn’t have even placed in the NBA's top 30 this past season. 

And still, critics harp on the jump shot because it, in theory, unlocks so much for everyone else. But just as Randle will spend a majority of his summer in the gym working on his perimeter game, so will Simmons.

BILL FEIG/Associated Press

“Mechanically, his shot is fine. But he’s just so unselfish, he doesn’t look to [shoot]. He can drive by anyone there is in basketball that’s guarding him one-on-one,” Tigers associate coach Brendan Suhr said. “Everyone wants him to take three-point shots, but why would you take a three-point shot? You’re bailing a guy out if you did. There’s no one that can stay in front of him defensively, and that’s an incredible gift to have as a 6’10” player.”

Suhr joined LSU’s program last year with more than two decades of NBA experience as an assistant coach, assistant general manager and director of player personnel. He’s worked for the Atlanta Hawks, New York Knicks, Toronto Raptors, New Jersey Nets, Detroit Pistons and Orlando Magic

Up close, he’s seen just about every great player who’s entered the NBA since 1979—Magic Johnson, Isiah Thomas, Dominique Wilkins, Michael Jordan, Larry Bird, etc.—and he’s confident Simmons’ various gifts will immediately translate to the NBA. 

NASHVILLE, TENNESSEE - MARCH 12:  Ben Simmons #25 of the LSU Tigers plays against the Texas A&M Aggies in an SEC Basketball Tournament Semifinals game at Bridgestone Arena on March 12, 2016 in Nashville, Tennessee.  (Photo by Frederick Breedon/Getty Image
Frederick Breedon/Getty Images

“If Ben was on one of the best teams in pro basketball [last season], he would fit in and start with any team in the league. That’s how good he is. Including Golden State. He would’ve started this year,” Suhr said.

“Ben is the fastest player on the floor almost any night he’s playing. He has Russell Westbrook-type speed at 6’10”. There’s no one his size in basketball—maybe the closest is LeBron [James]—that can move as fast with the ball as he can. His passing is Magic-like, and I think that’s what people like about him. The thing that separates him [from] other players is he’s an absolute genius basketball-wise.”

On a team that already has three players who are more than capable of dribbling up the floor after grabbing a defensive rebound (Russell, Clarkson and Randle), Simmons would give the Lakers a complex transition attack. 

Any team that can pummel a retreating defense with myriad options has a distinct advantage when it comes to creating mismatches and finding advantageous situations.

“Everyone compares him to LeBron and Magic. I also think Draymond [Green] is a great one because what Steve [Kerr] and Luke have done with Draymond is, whoever you have on him, he can take advantage of that and he can handle the ball,” Suhr said.

“Ben is very similar except he’s much bigger than Draymond; as fast as Draymond is bringing the ball down the court, pushing it and all that, Ben is even faster. You can have guys like D’Angelo and Jordan Clarkson running off the ball, and he’s handling the ball and there’s no one that can stay with him in the open court, so you don’t know who the heck to put on him.”

It’s a nightmare scenario for any defense and could rekindle thoughts of the Showtime golden age, when Magic ran the show as a positionless visionary in the open floor. 

“I think the versatility of his game is something that, if L.A. is the spot, I think the people in L.A. have a very profound appreciation for versatile players,” Leonard said.

NASHVILLE, TN - MARCH 11:  Ben Simmons #25 of the LSU Tigers waits to rebound the ball during the game against the Tennessee Volunteers during the quarterfinals of the SEC Basketball Tournament at Bridgestone Arena on March 11, 2016 in Nashville, Tennesse
Andy Lyons/Getty Images

Instead of getting caught up in Simmons’ short-term flaws, draft evaluators and fans should realize everything else he'd bring to the table is valuable. Even if he won't fit as traditionally as Ingram would with L.A.'s current core, Simmons is more talented and has a higher ceiling and a higher floor. 

There's so much roster uncertainty in L.A., regardless, but the Australian promises to make those around him better, using a unique skill set that would allow Walton to tinker with different lineups. For example, playing Simmons as the point guard would have a devastating effect.

The league is more open today than it was when LeBron entered it in 2003, and that should only help someone like Simmons adapt. James is a terrific comparison, but so is Giannis Antetokounmpo, who may spend a bunch of time creating uncomfortable situations for smaller defenders as Milwaukee's point guard next season. 

"Of all the guys that I’ve had as young players—I’ve had Isiah, Dominique, I’ve had all the guys with the Dream Team—this is the guy that’s most ready to play in our league at this age," Suhr said. "Whoever gets him is going to get a spectacular person, a winner, an ultracompetitive kid and someone that really understands his role on a team and in a franchise. I think he is just extraordinary, and I think he’ll have an incredible career"

It sounds like the Lakers better hope Philadelphia takes the other guy.

All quotes in this article were obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted.


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