As the college basketball season tips off, SI.com examines the top 20 prospects for the 2016 NBA draft.
In a recent conversation with an NBA team’s scouting director, I mentioned that I was torn on who to rank No. 1 in my first Big Board of the season. His response: You’re crazy if you don’t go with Ben Simmons. “His talent level is off the charts,” he said. “It’s effortless. He steps on the floor and within minutes you know he’s the best player out there, no matter who he is playing with or against.”
Several similar conversations yielded the same answer. Scouts love Brandon Ingram, the smooth Duke forward. They are tantalized by Skal Labissiere, the most skilled power prospect in the draft. But if they had No. 1? Simmons. Simmons. Simmons. Said one college scout, “It’s not even close.”
OK, got it. Simmons at No. 1. And everyone else? Let’s find out. Here’s SI.com’s first Big Board for 2016:
Comparisons for Simmons have been overwhelming. Lamar Odom. Paul George. Even LeBron James. He’s that good. Simmons is an irresistible talent, long and lean and getting bigger by the day, with natural playmaking instincts. NBA scouts have been fawning over Simmons all summer, with several projecting him as a next generation of stretch-four; strong and versatile enough to defend the position and a matchup nightmare for anyone that tries to guard him. LSU was an unorthodox choice—the school has no recent history of success, winning only one NCAA tournament game since 2009—but that won’t hurt Simmons pro prospects. It’s likely nothing will.
Ingram is a fascinating shooting prospect with great length and (hopefully) the ability to fill out a slender frame. Ingram has near picture perfect form on his jump shot, and NBA execs will be watching how his three-point shot develops closely. Ingram has shown the potential for a nice off the dribble game, another skill scouts are optimistic he can develop.
Kentucky fans—and many NBA scouts—breathed a sign of relief when Labissiere was cleared to play by the NCAA last month. Opinions are divided on Labissiere. There is a dynamic, Kevin Garnett-like talent (especially offensively) there. But multiple scouts have raised questions about Labissiere’s motor, citing examples of sequences in games he appeared to cruise in. He’s not especially athletic, either. John Calipari has earned a reputation of getting the most out of his freshmen, so perhaps Cal will spark something in him. But Labissiere strikes some scouts as the type of heavily hyped player who could slip on draft boards quickly.
Bender is the latest in the line of perimeter-oriented European big men prospects. Bender checks all the measurement boxes—7’0”, 7’2” wingspan, 9’3” standing reach—and while he’s not especially athletic, he showcased two-way potential in Europe last season. His NBA skill is his shooting though, and several scouts say he has the offensive skills to be a dominant stretch-four at the next level.
Murray was brilliant at the Nike Hoop Summit last spring, and has been rising on several scouts boards since. Slightly undersized for a two-guard, Murray has showcased dazzling one-on-one ability, a skill NBA scouts drool over. There is some thought that Murray can be developed as a point guard, but that won’t happen at Kentucky, which is two-deep at the position. Still, natural scorers like Murray will be always be coveted.
Dunn was in the lottery mix last year before stunning many by pulling out of the draft. Dunn is a tremendous athlete with an explosive first step and rapidly developing passing ability when he gets to the paint. His age—Dunn will be 22 in March—is going to come up, but if Dunn improves his ball handling and three-point range from last season, he’s going to be hard for a point guard-starved team to overlook. Teams might start getting over fears of drafting older prospects with recent late first round success stories, most notably Utah’s Rodney Hood.
Brown is an athletic, physically gifted forward with great size for his position. He’s a scorer (he averaged 28 points per game last season) and scouts have praised his ability to attack the basket and score off the dribble. He’s not much of a jump shooter yet, but if he develops a reliable shot this year he’s the type of player who will move up draft boards quickly.
Poeltl was in the lottery mix last spring before ultimately deciding to return to Utah for a second season. Defense is Poeltl’s calling card; he’s a lean 7-foot with nice technique and potential to be an impact shot blocker. Offensively, Poeltl wasn’t much more than a paint player last season, and scouts will be looking to see if his game evolves at all in his second year.
First, great name. Second, Stone is a sturdy pivot with a decent post game, a developing mid-range jumper and the ability to overwhelm smaller centers physically. Scouts say they will be watching two things with Stone: Defense; Stone has shown potential to be rim protecter, but he is far from consistent. And conditioning; Stone dropped 20-plus pounds after arriving at Maryland in August, and NBA teams want to see a player who can finish games as strong as he starts them.
The bottom half of the top-20 has several foreign prospects, none more intriguing than Korkmaz, a potentially elite shooter. Korkmaz was impressive at the Under-19 Championships, leading his team in scoring and connecting on 45% of his three-pointers. Scouts that have seen him love his footwork and his feel for the game; one scout described Korkmaz as having the poise of a five-year veteran on the floor. He’s skinny and will need a lot of work on his defense, but he has outstanding potential as a scorer.
It was an exhibition, and it was against Valley City State University, but Ellenson’s stat line (16 points, 17 rebounds, five assists) earlier this week was impressive. Ellenson is a stretch-four prospect with three-point range and a knack for rebounding and a willingness to mix it up underneath. He’s a developing ball handler who with some nice moves in the post. He’s someone who could rise quickly.
Diallo’s college career is in a holding pattern while the NCAA investigates his eligibility. On the floor he’s a relentless, high-motor forward who runs the floor extremely well and can finish in traffic. He’s unpolished offensively, with one scout comparing Diallo to a “bull in a china shop." The physical tools are impressive though, and (hopefully) a year working with Bill Self will add a few layers to his game.
Smallish hybrid guards tend to scare NBA teams, which is one of the few knocks on Newman right now. Newman thrives in transition but can score off the dribble and has looked comfortable in the pick-and-roll, one of the NBA’s bread-and-butter plays. It’s likely Newman will play some point guard with the Bulldogs and league execs will watch closely to see if he has the skill set to play the position at the next level.
With Jerian Grant gone, there is a huge opportunity for Jackson to improve his draft stock this season. Jackson is a dynamic athlete and a strong playmaker who loves to play in transition. He can shoot the three (42.9%) and will likely get more trips to the free throw line this season. His assist numbers are a little low but, again, he will have more chances to swell his stats with Grant out of the mix.
Jones is a strong big man who moves well and plays above the rim. He plays with energy and projects as a solid shot blocker. Scouts say Jones had one of the better summers of any returning prospect, and several are eager to see if he added anything to what was a rudimentary offensive skill set.
Hayes is another prospect who, with the departures of Frank Kaminsky and Sam Dekker, will get plenty of opportunities to improve his stock. Scouts love the strides Hayes took last season, particularly his development into a solid three-point shooter (39.6%) after not attempting a single three as a freshman. He’s something of a tweener, but smaller power forwards are popping up all over the NBA. Some scouts believe his perimeter skills will make it possible for Hayes to transition to small forward down the road.
One number defined Jackson last season: 30.7, his shooting percentage from three-point range. The NBA has little use for wing players with no range, so Jackson will have to significantly improve that number this season. Everything else is there: Jackson can handle the ball and hit the mid-range shot while rarely forcing his offense. He’s a willing passer who improved as a defender towards the end of last season, though he has room to grow in that area, too.
LeVert wasn’t exactly surging up draft boards when a broken foot ended his season last January, but he likely would have been a first-round pick if he left Michigan. That said, he’s been a 40% three-point shooter the last two seasons and can play multiple positions. He's also a willing passer—and maybe too willing. Scouts last season hoped he would thrive in a more prominent role, but any improvements were nominal. A more aggressive season could push LeVert into the lottery mix.
Pope is ridiculously long with good athleticism, nice ball handling skills and range from beyond the three-point line (41.7% last season). Consistency issues plagued Pope as a freshman, and NBA scouts are eager to see what Pope does in an enhanced role with the Aztecs this season. Shooting is a sought after commodity and Pope looked comfortable firing from all over the floor last year. If he looks that way more regularly he will move up into the lottery.
Qi is a rare stretch-five prospect with impressive length and range that extends beyond the three-point line. Scouts love his potential as a shot blocker but are terrified by his size; he weighed in at just 209 pounds at the Hoops Summit. His body type doesn’t suggest someone that will fill out much, either. Still, he’s highly skilled and someone will take a chance in the first round and hope he gets stronger, if not bigger.