Ben Simmons or Brandon Ingram?
This is the debate taking place amongst the front offices and fan bases of the Philadelphia 76ers and Los Angeles Lakers, who hold the No. 1 and No. 2 picks in the 2016 NBA Draft, respectively.
For Philadelphia, there is an actual decision to be made, seeing as they have to choose between the consensus top-two prospects in this year’s draft class. Meanwhile, the Lakers can sit back and simply draft the player that the Sixers don’t, unless another prospect sneaks in and steals their attention, a possibility with the unlikeliest of odds.
Philly is reportedly leaning heavily towards taking Simmons, leaving the Lakers with Ingram, the 18-year-old product from Duke that impressed in his interview with general manager Mitch Kupchak and the rest of the Lakers’ entourage at the NBA Draft Combine in Chicago last week.
Although Simmons is viewed by many as the best prospect in this year’s draft, Ingram offers a skill set that fits seamlessly in any offense at the small forward position. If the Sixers end up taking Simmons and the Lakers pick Ingram right after, what does it mean for Los Angeles? A major impact, both on and off the court.
On the court
It is no secret that the two glaring holes in the Lakers’ roster at this point in time are the small forward and center positions. Kobe Bryant is retired and Nick Young could be on his way out this summer, leaving the Lakers with just Anthony Brown at the three. Brown showed promise on the defensive end last season but struggled to knock down shots, something he had a reputation for when he was drafted No. 34 overall last June. He may develop into a nice three-and-D guy off the bench one day, but clearly won’t be a starting option, barring drastic improvement.
That’s where Ingram comes in. The NBA has a bevy of talented small forwards with imposing athletic ability, and it has been seven years since the Lakers have had one of their own with Trevor Ariza in 2009. Ingram is not necessarily an exceptional athlete, but possesses solid athleticism, combined with a 7-foot-4 wingspan tacked onto his 6-foot-9 frame. His physical tools provide him with advantages that most players can only dream of.
Defensively, that length helps Ingram erase some mistakes he might make when attempting to keep a ball-handler in front of him. In college, players that got a step on Ingram still had to be wary of him lurking, because his ridiculously long arms allowed him to recover and still block or alter shots. If he commits himself to that end of the floor, Ingram could utilize his physical tools to become an elite-level defender that is able to guard multiple positions, something the Lakers are in desperate need of.
As tantalizing as Ingram’s defensive upside may be, his versatile offensive game is what makes him such an enticing prospect. He will obviously need to add considerable weight and strength, but then again, the vast majority of teenage prospects need to when they are entering the NBA Draft. Despite his rail-thin frame, however, Ingram showed on several occasions his ability to finish through contact when he attacked the basket.
Unlike Simmons, Ingram also offers the innate ability to efficiently knock down shots from the perimeter. Ingram took 195 three-point attempts and connected on 41 percent of them this past season. With new head coach Luke Walton in the fold, he will want to utilize floor spacing and ball movement. This is where Ingram can provide a major offensive threat alongside D’Angelo Russell and Jordan Clarkson.
The three-headed attack on the perimeter can offer space for each other and Julius Randle to work with, especially if they want to attack the paint. And speaking of Randle, Ingram’s length can offer him additional support on the glass, both offensively and defensively. Those two combined with an effective rebounder at the center position could help on the defensive glass while creating extra possessions by snagging offensive rebounds.
Walton’s system will also implement plenty of pick-and-roll usage, another piece of the offense that Ingram can excel in. His ability to pop out and knock down shots from the perimeter could make him a dangerous option out of that type of set with Russell and Clarkson. Ingram won’t be limited to just being the screener, though. His assist numbers were nothing to marvel at this season, but that does not mean he lacks vision or playmaking ability. As a ball-handler out of pick-and-roll sets this season with Duke, Ingram’s passes led to an astounding 1.32 points per possession.
In scenarios where the offense breaks down, Ingram may provide a bit of a safety net on those particular possessions. For two decades, we all watched Bryant bail the Lakers out of countless possessions late in the shot clock with his natural ability to score in an isolation setting. Ingram showed during his lone season at Duke that he has similar qualities in his game. He scored 0.94 points per possession when the Blue Devils cleared out for him, isolating him against a single defender.
Another thing that scouts and fans should like about Ingram was the fact that he stepped up and played well in the NCAA Tournament. In Duke’s three tournament games, Ingram averaged 23 points and 6.3 rebounds.
Ingram is not a perfect prospect by any means. He still has facets of his game that need work, but he already offers an extremely polished product at the age of 18. The natural scoring ability, sharpshooting and defensive potential are a few of many reasons he could make a major impact for the Lakers as a tremendous fit alongside the cornerstones already in place.
Off the court
Ingram’s potential future teammates are not the only ones that would benefit from his arrival in Los Angeles. Seeing as he would instantly provide a long-term solution at the three, it could shift the plan of attack for the Lakers in free agency. Kupchak, Jim Buss and the rest of the front office will undoubtedly still take a swing at landing Oklahoma City Thunder superstar Kevin Durant this summer, no matter how slim the chances are. But when it comes to other high-priced wing players on the market, the Lakers would not have to worry about pursuing them.
Players like DeMar DeRozan and Harrison Barnes will demand a maximum contract this summer, or close to it. While Barnes — a restricted free agent — is still just 23 and DeRozan is a two-time NBA All-Star, a strong case can be made against both players making a substantial amount of money over the next four seasons. Barnes has really struggled throughout most of this season, especially with a golden opportunity to step up this postseason while back-to-back league MVP Stephen Curry was out with a knee injury. DeRozan has had his share of postseason struggles, but is coming off a fantastic regular season. The primary issue with him, though, is his inefficiency from the three-point line and his knack of being a ball-movement killer. That is quite literally the opposite type of player that Walton needs for his system to truly revitalize the young Lakers.
Naturally, Ingram would make around $5 million in each of his first three seasons, giving the Lakers not only a promising young player, but immense salary cap flexibility at the same time. This would allow the Lakers to use what could be an excess of $60 million in cap space this summer to target marquee centers in free agency such as Al Horford and Hassan Whiteside. Horford’s ability to stretch the floor would be a tremendous offensive fit alongside Randle and the rest of the youngsters, while Whiteside would give Los Angeles an outstanding defensive anchor and athletic rim protector.
Even if the Lakers were able to lure either of those two to Los Angeles, they would still have a massive amount of money to solidify the depth of the roster. If not, they could always save a large portion of it for next year’s free agency class in the summer of 2017, which could feature prominent free agents such as Stephen Curry, Russell Westbrook, Blake Griffin, Chris Paul, Gordon Hayward, Serge Ibaka, and possibly Kevin Durant again, if he elects to sign a two-year deal with a player option after the first season, a la LeBron James.
Also of note, the salary cap is expected to take another colossal leap to a projected $110 million, up from this summer’s projected $90 million, as a result of the NBA’s latest television deal. So next year, virtually every team will have salary cap space to use once again.
If the 76ers have a change of heart and select Ingram with the top pick and Simmons falls to the Lakers at No. 2, Los Angeles would be getting a prospect with potentially even greater superstar upside, but would still have holes at the small forward and center positions. However, with Ingram, it opens up a plethora of options for the Lakers both on and off the court. There is still a month left to go, but if Ingram ends up wearing a purple and gold cap on stage next to NBA commissioner Adam Silver on June 23, it will be another significant step forward in the rebuilding process for the Lakers.