Could Duke's Brandon Ingram become the No. 1 pick in the 2016 NBA draft with a strong March Madness showing?
This story originally appeared in the March 14, 2016, issue of Sports Illustrated. It has been updated to reflect recent college basketball developments. Subscribe to the magazine here.
Every college basketball team begins the season with one goal: To qualify for the NCAA tournament. That's why, despite some incredible individual performances, Ben Simmons's collegiate career will ultimately be remembered as a failure. His LSU team was never able to string together more than three straight wins and, after losing to Texas A&M 71–38 in the SEC tournament semifinals on Saturday, decided not to participate in the postseason. They would not have gotten an invite to the Big Dance.
Will missing out on March Madness harm Simmons's chances of being the first player selected in June's NBA draft? Since the 2005-06 season, the first for which the NBA's one-and-done rule was in effect, eight freshmen have been the No. 1 pick. Each one had played in the NCAA tournament, with four reaching the Final Four, and one, Kentucky center Anthony Davis in 2011-12, leading his team to the national title. Both Memphis guard Derrick Rose in 2008 and Kentucky center Karl-Anthony Towns last year used tournament performances that were superior to their regular-season play to help vault themselves ahead of fellow freshmen challengers and become the No. 1 picks in the draft.
"Normally, if you're good enough to go No. 1 overall, you elevate your team to the tournament," says an NBA scout. "Being a winner is important."
For much of the past two seasons Simmons, a 6' 10", 240-pound point forward, has been the No. 1-in-waiting. The Melbourne, Australia, native was the consensus top prospect coming out of high school, according to rscihoops.com, and he has done nothing to diminish that exalted status. He recorded 23 double doubles at LSU—best among major-conference players—and averaged 19.2 points and 11.8 rebounds per game. But the Tigers' struggles this season—they went 19–14 overall and 11–7 in the SEC, and they were not ranked since late November—has allowed a star from a contending team to emerge as a candidate for the first pick: Duke freshman forward Brandon Ingram.
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Ingram and Simmons have disparate styles. Simmons has superior court vision, is a terror in transition and has a precocious feel for the game. The 6' 9", 190-pound Ingram has more modest numbers than Simmons—he averages 16.8 points and 6.8 rebounds—but he boasts something Simmons sorely lacks: a reliable jump shot. Simmons has only taken three three-pointers this season (making one), while Ingram has been a 41.3% shooter on 5.4 attempts per game. In the modern NBA, where three-point shooting is more frequent and more important than ever, Ingram's jumper elevates his stock.
While the Tigers have struggled, the Blue Devils have surged. After falling out of the AP Top 25 in February for the first time since 2007, Duke won seven of its next 10 games and was slotted as a No. 4 seed in the NCAA tournament. Starting with the opening matchup against UNC-Wilmington, Ingram will have a chance to showcase his skills on college basketball's brightest stage and against some of its best competition.
"Any time you get a chance to play in the biggest games, it's going to help you," says Jonathan Givony, who runs the NBA draft website DraftExpress.com. "Simmons is probably the favorite to go No. 1, but people who are saying it's a consensus don't really understand how this process works."
Neither Givony nor the two NBA scouts who spoke to SI said that they would be surprised if Ingram ended up leapfrogging Simmons in June. After all, if the NCAA tournament has a reputation for anything, it's for producing unexpected results.