The NBA draft specializes annually in suspense, but on Thursday night its arrival will be delayed, overtaken by an initial spasm of predictability. Super-sized, hybrid playmaker Ben Simmons already knows the Philadelphia 76ers plan to select him with the first overall pick, according to widespread reports, which validates scouting reports and expectations Simmons created since early in his high school career. Speaking to reporters Wednesday in New York, inadvertently draining any remaining sliver of drama, Simmons referred to the 76ers as “we.”
Simmons’s selection will leave the Los Angeles Lakers, picking second, with only one plausible choice in the form of Duke’s Brandon Ingram, another cross between pterodactyl and point guard. It is a two-player draft at the top, and everybody already knows which order they’ll be taken. At that point, intrigue will burst through the wall and leave behind a Boston Celtics-shaped hole.
In the analysis that takes place in years to come, this draft may well be about Simmons and Ingram, two players who fit perfectly into the NBA’s drift toward position-less basketball. In the immediacy of Thursday night, it will be shaped by the Celtics, who own the third pick, a war chest of additional choices, a desire to land a star player who can vault them into serious contention and, in Danny Ainge, a hoops czar ever-willing to be bold.
Given the Celtics’ motivations, their assets and their president’s propensity for big swings, nobody knows what will happen after the first 15 or so minutes Thursday night. The Celtics have given no hints, even via the league’s notoriously chatty grapevine, of which players they like. Washington’s Marquese Chriss, Cal’s Jaylen Brown (who visited Boston for a second workout this week), Providence’s Kris Dunn and Europe’s Dragan Bender all seem logical possibilities.
But it’s anybody’s guess at which player will come off the board – or even which team will be making the pick, given the Celtics’ ability to swing a trade. The Celtics own the draft, almost literally, with eight of the 60 picks, three of them in the first round. They also have a haul of future first-rounders gleaned from past trades that they could use to entice, say, the Chicago Bulls into trading Jimmy Butler or the Sacramento Kings into dealing DeMarcus Cousins.
If something goes boom Thursday night, it will be Boston making the sound. The first two picks, though, will provide only tepid applause.
Simmons arrived at LSU as the seeming surefire first overall pick, a 6-foot-10 specimen with a point guard’s skills, heralded by some as the most physically advanced prospect since LeBron James or Kevin Durant. He punched up monster numbers – 19.2 points, 11.8 rebounds, 4.8 assists and 2.0 steals per game – with little assistance from a bad LSU team. His passing ability for a big man drew the James nods; his rebounding punch as a freshman drew comparisons to Durant.
Page 2 of 2 – As it tends to go for elite prospects, though, Simmons’s star dimmed during the college season. From the perspective of a league that now revolves around three-point shooting, Simmons’s aversion to outside shots provided a red flag – he attempted only three three-pointers all season and made one. His defensive commitment often wavered. The Tigers finished 19-14 and failed to qualify for the NCAA tournament, and as losses piled up, Simmons’s external ambivalence raised questions about his competitiveness.
Those concerns could be dismissed as nitpicking – James required a couple NBA seasons to develop his three-point shot, like a lot of players with size. LSU turned out to be a terrible situation run by an overmatched coach. Durant didn’t win an NCAA tournament game at Texas.
Ingram’s rise also challenged, for a time, Simmons’s reputation as the clear-cut top pick. Ingram, who doesn’t turn 19 until September, is 13 months younger than Simmons. Though not as physically imposing as Simmons, Ingram’s game will fit more immediately into the modern NBA. He played, and guarded, all five positions at Duke, although he’ll lack the bulk to guard NBA big men down low right away. (Ingram told For The Win he’s eating six meals a day to add girth.) He frequently played point guard, showed the ability to post up and shot 41 percent on three-pointers, of which he attempted 5.4 per game.
Ingram played well enough in his lone college season to briefly challenge Simmons’s status as the consensus top choice. But now the draft is here, and the drama at the top is missing. Lurking close behind, though, will be chaos, the kind the NBA draft seems to always provide.