Good read on Simmons vs. IngramWarning: Spoiler! (Click to show)
Is Ben Simmons still the No. 1 pick?
Chad Ford: We're nearing the end of the college basketball season. LSU's Ben Simmons has sat atop the Big Board since I published the first one in July. Eight months later, he still looks like the favorite among NBA scouts and executives to be the No. 1 pick.
But he does have competition. Duke's Brandon Ingram has been improving all season, and his combination of elite size and scoring ability at small forward is highly attractive to NBA teams. Factor in Simmons' shooting woes and LSU's struggles to make the NCAA tournament and we might have a legit two-man race for the No. 1 pick.
What do the stats say, Kevin? How close are these two in your projections?
Kevin Pelton: There was a stretch of a few weeks where Ingram had the better WARP projection, before the recent shooting slump that has seen him make just 34.0 percent of his 2-point attempts in February.
However, that's largely because of the nature of my projection system. As we've discussed in the past, it's designed to adjust for fluky, outlier performance that won't likely continue in the NBA.
Because that's tied to positional averages, my projections don't believe anyone can truly be as good at both rebounding and playmaking as Simmons has been this season. As he continues to prove his performance is no fluke, Simmons' projection will improve with the same level of play.
When we look at unadjusted stats on Sports-Reference.com, the difference between Simmons and Ingram in terms of production becomes much wider. Simmons has the sixth-best score among freshmen in box plus-minus (a form of statistical plus-minus akin to what helps inform ESPN's real plus-minus) in the Sports-Reference.com database back through 2010-11, behind Anthony Davis, Karl-Anthony Towns, Joel Embiid, Nerlens Noel and Cody Zeller. By contrast, Ingram's BPM ranks 51st among freshmen over that span -- very good, certainly, but not elite.
Whose skills are more unique: Ingram's or Simmons'?
Pelton: Are there reasons scouts believe that Ingram can close that gap in the NBA?
Ford: I think in January, when Ingram was shooting the ball at a much higher clip, the thinking was this: The way the league is evolving, Ingram's shooting ability at his size might trump Simmons' passing and rebounding skills.
In a league where the Warriors are flirting with the best record ever, having an elite shooter, especially a 6-foot-10 one like Ingram, is a rare and valuable commodity. However, I think they might be underestimating just how gifted Simmons really is. Ingram projects as a good shooter. Simmons projects as an elite rebounder and passer.
Can we estimate the relative worth of these skills in a forward?
Pelton: That's tough because there's not really a big sample to draw from in terms of elite rebounding and passing, is there?
Before applying the regression factor, Simmons' LSU stats translate to an NBA equivalent of a rebound rate near 15 percent and an assist rate near six per 100 plays. There's precisely one NBA player who can meet both of those standards this season: Joakim Noah. Draymond Green (14.5 percent rebound rate) and Blake Griffin (13.5 percent) are close.
This is sort of making the argument for Simmons, right?
I think one factor that works in Simmons' favor is the growing value the NBA puts on passing out of big men, with Green as a primary example. The playmaking 4, as popularized by ESPN's Zach Lowe, has become nearly as important as the stretch 4.
To me, the biggest opportunity for offenses in the game today is when a guard gets trapped on the pick-and-roll and throws to the screener, who then has to make a play with a man advantage (there are four offensive players involved and just three defenders). When executed properly, this tends to lead to dunks and wide-open corner 3s.
Nobody is better at this than Green. Well, guess who Simmons' best comparison is via SCHOENE? Draymond Green, and nobody else is particularly close.
Who are comparisons for Ingram and Simmons?
Pelton: I know they have very different body types and motors, but have you heard anyone else draw the Green comparison?
Ford: Yes. And I believe this is why the overwhelming majority of NBA folks think Simmons will be the No. 1 pick. What if Green were 6-foot-10 and athletic? Players that perform like Simmons rarely have his size and athletic abilities.
That said, how much will his lack of shooting affect Simmons' ceiling in the NBA? Green was a career 36 percent 3-point shooter in college and has shot 34 percent in the NBA. Simmons won't even take midrange jumpers right now. Would Green be as effective if he lacked a serviceable jumper?
And if a bigger, more athletic Draymond Green is the best current comp for Simmons, what about Ingram? Rick Pitino compared Ingram to Kevin Durant last week (before Louisville held him to three baskets and forced 10 turnovers from Ingram). That's seems overly optimistic, though.
Last time we discussed Ingram, I felt like Paul George was a better comp. I still like that one. You were leaning toward Giannis Antetokounmpo.
Where do you see him now?
Pelton: Well, I think Blake Griffin is an interesting example in that regard. He was an even worse free throw shooter than Simmons in college and early in his NBA career before developing into a solid midrange shooter, albeit not a 3-point threat.
Griffin's shooting isn't really an issue when the ball is in his hands, but we've seen the last couple of years how much better Chris Paul-DeAndre Jordan pick-and-rolls work with a spacer at power forward rather than Griffin.
As Griffin's example shows, shooting is not a fixed thing. The same is true of Green, who made two 3-pointers in 17 attempts his first two seasons at Michigan State before making 89 as an upperclassmen. A lot of Simmons' future will be tied to how much he can develop as a shooter.
That same question also applies to Ingram, despite his success beyond the arc. He looms as one of the most interesting test cases yet for my research finding that college free throw percentage predicts NBA 3-point percentage as well as college 3-point percentage.
As good a 3-point shooter as he has been (40.8 percent), Ingram has only been marginally better at the foul line than Simmons (67.5 percent to 67.2 percent). Ingram's attempted more 3s than free throws, so this isn't exactly Justise Winslow hitting 41.8 percent of 3s in a smaller sample (110 attempts) last year at Duke. Still, 3-point percentage tends to be volatile over hundreds of attempts and Ingram may just be riding a hot streak beyond the arc.
Ingram's statistical similarity to George has declined as the season has gone on, and I do think the 3-point ability he has shown distinguishes him from Antetokounmpo.
Intriguingly, SCHOENE now favors another Milwaukee wing: Khris Middleton. Ingram is much bigger than Middleton, but I remember how much Middleton reminded me of Durant when I first saw him play in college. And a "rich man's Middleton" is probably fairer to Ingram as a comparison than players as good as Durant and George.
Can Ingram still pass Simmons?
Pelton: Let's wrap up by posing this question: What could Ingram do the rest of the season to jump Simmons on draft boards?
Ford: It will be interesting. LSU is unlikely to play in the NCAA tournament unless they win the SEC tourney. In other words, Simmons' run is almost over, and it's shown.
His lackluster game on Saturday drew a ton of criticism. Some are raising questions about his competitiveness and the poor performance of his team. But the large majority of NBA folks I speak with think that's nonsense.
He had poor body language in a game where he was taken out of the starting lineup for academic reasons. It happens. Overall, scouts rate his character very highly. It's a selling point, not a detraction, for those who have done their homework.
Nevertheless, it creates an opening for Ingram. If he gets hot in the NCAA tournament -- especially if he starts hitting 3s and Duke can return to the Final Four -- the drumbeat for Ingram to go No. 1 will be loud.
While scouts swear the tournament doesn't really affect their scouting reports, there is plenty of evidence to say that it does. We always underestimate the power of psychology in the draft.
I know you won't be swayed by any of that, Kevin. Your model doesn't weigh the tournament any differently than the rest of the season. So, from an analytics standpoint, is Simmons the clear No. 1 regardless of how the next few weeks play out? Or is this a real two-man horse race for the No. 1 pick?
Pelton: I don't know about the clear No. 1. As I said when we started, their NBA projections aren't that different because of the regression factor.
Still, the challenge for Ingram from a statistical standpoint is that his strongest current skill -- 3-point shooting -- is also the one that's most likely to regress. We don't often see players have a "hot streak" in terms of rebounds, steals and blocks, but those are the skills where Ingram really has room to improve his projection.
So I'd be surprised if Ingram ends up surpassing Simmons in my projections.