- A debate that once engulfed the NBA has now completely evaporated. What happened to Ben Simmons vs. Brandon Ingram? Both rising stars appear to be doing just fine without it.
It’s been 18 months since the 76ers flew Brandon Ingram to Philadelphia, two weeks before they selected Ben Simmons over the Duke forward in the 2016 draft. Ingram dined with general manager Bryan Colangelo and head coach Brett Brown at the renowned Parc restaurant in Rittenhouse Square. Joel Embiid, fellow Blue Devil Jahlil Okafor and several other Sixers brass joined midway through the meal. “I hadn’t experienced anything like that,” Ingram remembers. ”I think I had a good chance at being the No. 1 draft pick.” The next morning, he launched jumpers and ran pick-and-rolls at the team’s practice facility, scrimmaging against an array of assistant coaches. Only 10 days later, Simmons took the same court, bounded up and down the floor like Usain Bolt, flashed a handle like Steph Curry and pulverized every rim in the gym. Brandon Ingram, who? “It wasn’t even close,” one Philly staffer reviewed. The overproduced two-minute video the team quickly released clearly captured the organization’s enthusiasm.
And then as abruptly as the Aussie shattered his ankle in training camp, rendering him inactive for the entire 2016-17 season, the Simmons vs. Ingram debate that once engulfed the NBA completely evaporated. With Simmons the runaway favorite for this season’s Rookie of the Year, and Ingram entrenched in his second season, it’s as if the duo never played a freshman collegiate season under constant comparison. Lonzo-mania in L.A. and Embiid’s personification of The Process in Philadelphia has further distanced the pair. Two players who once seemed destined for a lifetime of juxtaposition, couldn’t be less so. How is that possible, this soon?
When Ingram’s icy, last-second triple sank the Sixers on Dec. 7, there was hardly a murmur about the No. 2 pick exacting revenge on Simmons’s home court. Philly’s 6’10" franchise point guard doesn’t even view Ingram as a barometer. “I’m my own player,” he told The Crossover's Front Office. He’s aware of Ingram’s greater success as a sophomore. He’s happy for his former counterpart. But Simmons has his eyes on LeBron James and Kevin Durant and James Harden. He’s chasing the game’s MVPs, fully expecting to call them peers. Soon. Before his first lengthy west coast road trip in November, Simmons was asked how he was preparing for the five-game, week-long journey. “I packed my suitcase,” he said matter-of-factly. Then he laughed, adding “I moved to America by myself as a kid. One week on the road is no big deal.”
Four days after his game-winner, Ingram sat on the Madison Square Garden scorer’s table following the Lakers’ morning shootaround. Has he been following Simmons’s rookie rampage? “It’s all over ESPN,” he smiled. But the guy he first met at the McDonald’s All-American game, who he filmed draft commercials with and starred in photo shoots alongside, doesn’t ever really cross his mind either. “Right now I’m trying to make my own name and be my own self,” Ingram explained. “I take things from small players, big players, whether it’s Giannis, KD, DeMar DeRozan, anything from anybody that I can add to my game and use my length.”
It just doesn’t feel that simple. Length plays a key role. It was, and always will be, the obvious trait that bonded them. Despite the league shifting towards a smaller, perimeter-based offensive style, both Simmons and Ingram harbored exceptional size for their respective positions. They boasted equal potential for defensive versatility that could fully weaponize the heavy-switching schemes becoming popularized on defense. Just days after the historic, small-ball 2016 Finals culminated with that epic Game 7, Philly chose between two gigantic physical specimens seemingly in direct contrast to the personnel who highlighted that series.
Yes, their stylistic differences are obvious. Simmons prefers to whizz no-look passes while Ingram favors slithering through defenses off the bounce. But those disparities further colored the 2016 discussion. Simmons played for a relatively nondescript LSU program while Ingram starred for a highly-ranked Duke team. Ingram helped lead the Blue Devils to the Sweet 16 while Simmons and the Tigers declined their invite to the NIT. Ingram’s father skipped the first weekend of the NCAA tournament because he didn’t want to skip work. Simmons’s family employed a camera crew to follow him around campus and produce a documentary. They’d be drafted by teams located on opposite coasts. You can’t script more consummate foils.
Everyone involved seems to have moved on. Perhaps, simply, both players have blossomed into early-idealized versions of their projections and everything has merely worked out as intended. Ingram has gained mass and significantly improved his shooting efficiency across the board, most importantly converting 34.8% of his three-pointers while scoring 16.3 points per game. He’s a natural fit alongside Lonzo Ball, the perfect freakish wing who can wreak havoc off of the point guard’s outlet passes. “He really has a game that almost reminds you of like a young Durant,” Brown said. “He’s that long and he’s got the skill package where he can dribble and pass with his height out of pick and rolls.” Simmons has found little friction against NBA defenses, despite entirely lacking an outside jumper. He’s the only rookie in NBA history to average 17 points, 8 rebounds and 7 assists besides Oscar Robertson in 1960-61. “To be able to physically do what he’s doing right now for his first time playing is really impressive,” Lakers coach Luke Walton said. “He’s got great feel for the game, scores, passes, rebounds, all of it. I’m a fan of the way he plays basketball.”
Of course, they’re both still works in progress. Ingram’s physical maturation remains underway and his proficiency is far from Durantian. Simmons’s shooting stroke—and hand—could one day carry a dire question mark. Only a year and half removed from their draft, both players appear on course, however. It’s admittedly early. But it’s interesting to flashback for a moment, though, and consider how the Simmons vs. Ingram debate has aged now that both players find themselves in ideal situations to develop and prosper. As Lakers center and Australian legend Andrew Bogut said, “those two guys are the future of the league.”