The first in a five part series. Come back daily to see which other players to check out this school year.
Oh, August. For a MLB-averse sports lover like me, August can be truly painful. Basketball folks are so desperate for anything news-worthy that Kobe's qualifications for Team USA were somehow turned into a controversy this week (No, he should not be on the team). There's not really a whole lot going on in the basketball world, and what little there is hardly gets my blood pumping.
So I'd like to take a little time to start thinking about how to best watch the upcoming college basketball season. The 2016 draft is an important one for the Sixers - with the potential for 4 first round picks, it could be the final draft in which their own pick is in the Top 5. To prepare, here's a cheat sheet about the players to whom we should most be paying attention this year, starting, today, with the players most likely to be selected in the Top 5.
Ben Simmons, SF/PF, LSU Tigers
DX: 2, ESPN 1, RSCI: 1
6'10 with shoes, 6'11 wingspan
Age: 19.1 years old
Why to be excited: Simmons, to this point, appears to be the crown jewel in the draft. He's the most talked about prospect in the age group, was the top-ranked 2016 recruit, and seems to be exactly the type of versatile forward who would thrive in the sort of hybrid role that has become so key to many NBA teams. Roy wrote a wonderful piece about his journey to America and his future potential.
Simmons has incredible vision for any player, but especially for someone sporting the height that he does. More than any other wing player of the last few years, Simmons' greatest attribute is his willingness to share the ball, and his ability to find the right player in any situation. When you watch him live, it's the cross-court skips to a shooter only he could have seen, or the dimes in transition that truly stick out. Given his ball handling ability, he projects to be a scary weapon in a spread pick-and-roll offense, whether operating as the primary initiator, screen setter, or secondary creator. His defensive versatility also excites - in high school, he showed the ability to guard 1-4 effectively.
Why to be worried: Simmons is old. He turned 19 well before even arriving on a college campus, and spent the last year beating up on kids a year younger than him. This isn't talked about frequently, but it's a big deal. He'll still be a good NBA player, but, for all intents and purposes, he'll be the same age as your typical college sophomore during his freshman season. His achievements should be viewed through that prism.
In terms of NBA projection, his biggest warts are his wingspan and very iffy jump shot. Simmons has fantastic size for a wing, but he projects best as what Zach Lowe has called the "playmaking 4." For a power forward, his wingspan and standing reach are sub-par, and that may limit his defensive potential. His jumper, meanwhile, could use some work...
What to watch for: His jump shot, defense, and half court play. The jump shot is self-explanatory. On defense, pay attention to his switches onto smaller, quicker players, to see how easily he can contain them. And while Simmons is compelling as a creator, the majority of his success came in transition against top high school competition. Watch his play against set defenses to see how successfully he can break them down.
Skal Labissiere, PF/C, Kentucky Wildcats
DX: 1, ESPN: 2, RSCI: 2
7'0 with shoes, 7'2 wingspan
Age: 19.4 years old
Why to be excited: Labissiere is the most likely candidate to challenge Simmons for the first overall selection. He's a springy big man with a strong jump shot and good defensive instincts. As a shot blocking big with a good shooting touch, he provides rim protection and floor spacing, quickly becoming a dream combination for NBA big men. Here's Roy's pieceon Labissiere from earlier this summer.
Why to be worried: Labissiere is old for a freshman, too, but even more so than Simmons. Had he been eligible for the 2015 draft, he would have been older than 6 players taken in the first round. Again, this matters when comparing him to his peers.
More importantly, his strongest attributes are good, not great. He's a good shooter, but not a great one. He's a strong shot blocker, but with merely average measurables, it's unclear how well that might translate to the NBA. He's athletic, but not a freak. Will he be good enough at any single skill or quality to be worthy of the top pick?
What to watch for: Will Cal let him shoot? Karl Towns was billed as a great shooter, but was rarely allowed to operate outside the paint. Will Labissiere have the same leash, or will he be allowed to step out and let it fly? If he does, pay attention. Also, watch his defense, especially for his ability to play the pick and roll. While the Sixers are clearly committed to BPA no matter what, Labissiere would help his case here if he were able to play the 4. Foot speed will be integral to his ability to do so.
Jaylen Brown, SF, California Golden Bears
DX: 3, ESPN: 3, RSCI: 4
6'7 with shoes, 7'1 wingspan
Age: 18.8 years old
Why to be excited: Brown is probably the best athlete in this draft. He's explosive and strong, with a body ready for the NBA today. In addition to his strength, 7'1 is an outstanding wingspan for a wing player. Given that length, Brown could easily turn into an elite perimeter defender. Read Roy's article on him here.
Why to be worried: It's unclear whether he's actually any good at basketball. He had poor showings at both the Nike Hoop Summit and McDonald's All-American Game, and while these are just two games, he didn't show any flashes of skill or creativity in either. At the moment, his skills and feel are considerably behind his physical tools. While his tools alone should be grounds for him to be a lottery selection, Brown needs to display much better basketball ability if he wants to be taken seriously as a candidate for the first selection.
What to watch for: How will he fit in at Cal? It was a coup for Cuonzo Martin to grab Brown and Ivan Rabb, and the Golden Bears now have four prospects eyeing the first round (Brown, Rabb, Tyrone Wallace, and Jabari Bird). Will there be enough touches for all of them? Beyond fit, monitor Brown's shooting - it has not looked good, and that includes free throws - and his passing instincts. He should make a living at the rim, so watch to see what his finishing is like once he gets there.
Brandon Ingram, SF, Duke Blue Devils
DX: 4, ESPN: 4, RSCI: 3
6'10 with shoes, 7'3 wingspan
Age: 17.9 years old
Why to be excited: Um, did you look at those measurements?!? If you didn't, go back and look right now, and then tell me how many wings in the NBA can match his height and length. (The answer is one. Kevin Durant. Ingram won't be Durant, but that's how unique his packaging is.) In addition to his go-go gadget arms, Ingram can really shoot it and appears to have a good feel for the game. Add to that his young age for an incoming freshman, and you have a recipe for a high upside prospect.
Why to be worried: Um, have you seen him? If you haven't, go look for a picture of him right now. If you still aren't picking up what I'm putting down, allow me to use myself as an example:
That's me. That incredibly gaunt, terrifyingly frail fellow on the right? Me. And you know what? Next to Brandon Ingram, that incredibly gaunt, terrifyingly frail fellow on the right looks like the goddamn Incredible Hulk.
Ingram needs to put on some muscle. Badly.
What to watch for: How Ingram handles increased physicality at the next level. Also, pay attention to him as an on-ball creator - a lot of his hype has come from his shooting ability and his measurements. Is he actually a viable first option at the next level?
Jamal Murray, PG/SG, Kentucky Wildcats
DX: 6, ESPN: 5, RSCI: N/A
6'5 with shoes, 6'7 wingspan
Age: 18.5 years old
Why to be excited: After a great showing at the 2015 Nike Hoop Summit, Murray reclassified in order to become eligible for the 2016 draft. He followed that up with an even better performance against Team USA at the Pan-Am Games this July. While he did most of his damage in Portland in transition and as a shooter, he showed a lot more to his game this summer.
Most importantly, it looked like he has the skills to play the point guard position in the NBA, as he consistently was able to get into the left side of the paint off of the pick and roll, and regularly made the correct read, getting easy shots for himself and for teammates. He did this against much older and experienced competition. What was perhaps most impressive was his ability to change speeds as he drove - a nuance most young point guards don't learn until they've been in the league for several years.
Why to be worried: He doesn't appear to project as a great defender. At 6'5 and without a great wingspan, he is a bit undersized as a wing defender. But he also lacks great athleticism, preventing him from being quick enough to handle many point guards. While he appears to be skilled enough for his physical tools not to be a major concern on offense, they may lower his defensive ceiling.
What to watch for: How much will he be allowed to initiate offense? With Tyler Ulis and Isaiah Briscoe on the team, it's unclear which point guard will be given primary responsibility for the Kentucky offense. Murray has the ability to play on or off the ball, but it would be far more revealing if he received many reps steering the ship. Beyond that, watch for how impactful of a defender he is against guards and wings.
Dragan Bender, PF, Maccabi Tel Aviv
DX: 5, ESPN: 7, RSCI: N/A
7'1 with shoes, 7'2 wingspan
Why to be excited: First of all, his name. Duh. Anytime someone comes into the NBA with a name like that, BE EXCITED. Second he's another in a long line of skilled European big men, with the ability to score, rebound, and, best of all, pass incredibly effectively. At over 7-feet, he's got great size for a NBA power forward. At only 17 years old, he's already playing for Maccabi's top team this year. And he can drive, shoot, pass, and rebound, which is exactly what you should want from a top power forward prospect.
Why to be worried: Defense. Bender was negligible as a rim protector with Maccabi's B-team last year, and may not prove to be any better going forward. As a 4 rather than a 5, lackluster defense is easier to excuse, but ideally you'd want a Top 5 pick to be a great player on both sides of the ball.
What to watch for: Defense and shooting. As a 17-year-old big man, Bender has a nice stroke and shows promise. If he were to function as a true playmaking 4 in the NBA, it needs to still be better than it is. On defense, just watch to see if he picks up team aspects well, and if he improves as a weak side shot blocker.
Check back tomorrow for other freshman projected near the lottery.