As the NCAA Tournament begins in earnest, here’s the obvious story: Ben Simmons won’t be participating. And if you’re sitting at or near the top of the NBA draft order, this should scare the life out of you.
Let’s say you’re the Philadelphia 76ers, whose recent run of high draft picks has landed them right back in the lottery. That’s the equivalent of a real lottery winner blowing the jackpot on more scratch tickets. (Is there ever any real benefit?) Or let’s say you’re the Boston Celtics, and own the right to Brooklyn’s pick in the upcoming draft. The team desperately needs a franchise-altering talent to infuse a young, intriguing collection of talent from the end of the roster to the coach (Brad Stevens).
What do you do?
Draft Simmons, the consensus No. 1 pick at the start of this college season and a freakish athlete who could blossom into a bona fide star? Or do you go with Brandon Ingram, the 6-foot-9 Duke talent who has long arms and deep range in a league where wing players are all the rage?
Here’s the point:
We have a great debate brewing at the top of the draft, and NBA history is littered with examples of teams that chose both wisely and poorly.
Let’s back up for a moment. Listed at 6-foot-10 and 225 pounds, Simmons already has an NBA body. This season at LSU, he averaged 19.2 points, 11.8 rebounds, 4.8 assists and 2.0 steals to go along with 0.8 blocks. Simmons needs work on his shot, for sure, and critics will note that he has attempted only three 3-pointers in a modern game. He is just a .670 shooter from the free throw line.
But that’s not the real concern. Those worries about Simmons existed before the season. The real concern comes from recent reports that suggest that he lacks intensity and competitiveness, that he is a taller version of Rajon Rondo, that he is missing many of the intangibles that true NBA greats possess.
Should Simmons end up as the top selection, he would be the first No. 1 overall pick to have missed the NCAA tournament entirely in his draft year since Michael Olowokandi. If that doesn’t make you wretch, it should.
So, again, let’s say your Philly or Boston. For that matter, let’s say you’re the Phoenix Suns or the Los Angeles Lakers, or whatever team ends up with the top overall choice. What do you do? If you take Simmons and he proves to be heartless, gutless or any combination thereof, you look like a fool. If you don’t take him and he matures, you have missed the boat on a potential franchise-altering talent. And in the NBA, the chance to get the right player in the right year lands in your backyard as often as a satellite.
How would you feel, after all, of you drafted Anthony Bennett (Cleveland)? Or if you chose Sam Bowie over Michael Jordan (Portland)? Or if you selected Kwame Brown (Washington)? You’d want to heave yourself off the top of a building because, effectively, you just threw your franchise off the same roof.
Me? I’d take Ingram first in this year’s draft. For many of us, intangibles are just too critical in a world — and league — where competitiveness, work ethic and intensity are just too important. People usually are who they are. And while they can grow up, mature and develop, they don’t often change.
If you disagree, so be it. Ben Simmons would undoubtedly come down on your side. Maybe the two of you can make plans to watch the rest of the NCAA Tournament together.
Tony Massarotti is an avid Boston sports fan and has covered sports in Boston for more than 15 years for both the Boston Herald and Boston Globe. He now serves as a co-host on afternoon drive on 98.5 The Sports Hub in Boston. He was a two-time Massachusetts Sportswriter of the Year as voted by his peers and has written four books, including “Big Papi,” the New York Times-bestselling memoirs of David Ortiz. You can follow Tony @tonymassarotti.