Ben Simmons is the runaway favorite to be the No. 1 pick in the 2016 NBA Draft by the Philadelphia 76ers and ESPN’s Chad Ford says there’s no chance the team passes on the opportunity to take the former LSU standout.
“When you get the chance to draft a 6-foot-10, 240-pound point guard with elite court vision and who’s an elite athlete, you just don’t pass that up,” Ford said on a conference call on Friday. “You watch what LeBron (James) is doing right now in the playoffs and there’s just no answer for players who have those elite physical skills and then have guard basketball skills. I think the Sixers will really try to figure out how to play him at point guard and how to get the ball in his hands because that’s what he is and how he’s comfortable.”
Simmons, 19, is an Australian native who spent just one year with the Tigers, but earned consensus first-team All-American honors as a freshman. He averaged 19.2 points, 11.8 rebounds and 4.8 assists at LSU.
“He has been the frontrunner from Day 1,” Ford said of Simmons. “There was a lot of debate in the Sixers’ front office about Brandon Ingram and even a little bit with Kris Dunn. At the end of the day, they feel like Simmons has the highest upside. He’s the best talent in this draft and they’re going to figure out how to make it work.”
After Simmons, three Kentucky players are battling to find a spot in the first round, led by Jamal Murray, whom Ford considers to be a sure-fire, top-10 pick.
“Murray will go three to seven,” Ford said. “He’s got a pretty narrow range right now, he’s in the mix literally with every single one of those teams except maybe the Phoenix Suns. It’s a little bit fluid there because he’s battling guys that are in the same tier with all of them very different in what they do.
“It’s going to come down more to team need than necessarily ranking talent. Murray has the ability to be the best perimeter scorer in this draft. I think he’s going to be a 20-point-per-game scorer in the NBA and one of the best shooters in this draft. Defensively, there are concerns there.”
Murray led the Wildcats with 20 points per game as a freshman during the 2015-16 season. Ford says another Kentucky freshman, Skal Labissiere, has a chance to be a top-10 pick, even though he averaged just 6.6 points and 3.1 rebounds per game.
“I put (Labissiere)’s range right now at about 7 to 13,” Ford said. “The Orlando Magic at 11 look like the most likely spot for him to land. His ability to shoot the ball, to stretch the floor, to protect the rim are elite, but the question is can he play basketball? Does he have a feel for the game?
“When you get to that portion of the draft, where most of the players aren’t sure things and are mostly rotational players, you start to look at Skal and say, ‘Look, if Skal hits, he could be Channing Frye. He might be better than Channing Frye, and if that’s the case, he’s worth gambling on.”
But lost in the mix a bit is Tyler Ulis, the 2016 SEC Player of the Year. Working against Ulis is the fact that he’s just 5-foot-10 and 150 pounds, as well as a hip injury that has concerned some NBA teams.
“The feedback I’ve gotten from teams is they’re aware that there’s an issue and there’s varying degrees, depending on doctors, on how concerned teams are,” Ford said. “I don’t think it’s going to torpedo his draft stock.
“Teams are all over the board on him just because of his size. There’s not a lot of precedent for guys that size excelling in the NBA. He has elite court vision. He is probably the best passing point guard in this draft and I think that intrigues some people.”
Helping Ulis is the fact that there are few point guards with first round prospects, according to Ford. One of the only others is Vanderbilt’s Wade Baldwin, although he is considered a polarizing player among NBA teams.
“There’s real questions about his feel as a point guard, getting other players involved, making players better,” Ford said of Baldwin. “The coaching staff at Vanderbilt weren’t as complimentary to Baldwin as they could been about what they thought about coaching him and his leadership on the court. Some teams look at that and say, ‘Look, he’s just a super competitive guy.’ Other teams get a little squeamish about that.”
The 2016 NBA Draft begins on Thursday, June 23 with the 76ers owning the first pick, followed by the Los Angeles Lakers at No. 2.