-- Kevin Pelton: Ben Simmons remains a flashpoint. In the wake of LSU's lopsided loss to Texas A&M in the SEC tournament, questions have been raised anew about Simmons' poor outside shooting, his effort and his maturity.
ESPN's Seth Greenberg, among others, has said this week that Simmons is no longer the No. 1 prospect.
Since Saturday's game, you've had a few days to connect with teams and get their thoughts. Have any of them moved Duke's Brandon Ingram ahead of Simmons?
Chad Ford: Not really, and I spoke with a number of general managers for teams projected to be in the lottery.
I chose GMs instead of scouts because in most cases the GM is the final decision-maker. Most GMs by now have a very good handle on the top prospects.
Most of them acknowledged that they had concerns about Simmons. They had a lot of questions. He is no longer the lock that he was in say, November or December.
But I couldn't get any of them to go so far as to say that they have replaced Simmons as the No. 1 player on the board. The closest I got? "Too early to tell" from one GM, and "Hung jury inside our group" from another.
A couple were adamant that Simmons was the only player in this draft who was worthy of the No. 1 pick.
"Sure, I've been disappointed," one said. "We have some concerns about him. But if it's not Simmons, who is it? I don't feel like there's a strong No. 2 option in this draft. There's no obvious guy that is clearly ahead of him."
So maybe that's a question we should tackle, Kevin. If Simmons were not the No. 1 pick, who would be? What do the numbers say?
Pelton: It's probably Ingram, but I don't see him as a No. 1-caliber prospect. In fact, only once in the past nine drafts would he qualify as the second-best prospect, according to my projections. (That would be in 2012, when there was a huge drop-off after Anthony Davis.)
In terms of my statistical projections, Ingram is not far ahead of Jamal Murray.
Some of the discrepancy may be that I'm putting a lot less stock in Ingram's 41.3 percent 3-point shooting than many scouts. As we've discussed, 179 attempts just doesn't tell us that much about Ingram's ability to shoot the NBA 3. Furthermore, his sub-70 percent free throw shooting is worrisome given that college foul shooting tends to predict NBA 3-point shooting about as well as college 3-point shooting.
Ironically, in this case I'm paying less attention to the numbers because of the tendency of 3-point field goal percentage to be a bit random.
Can anyone else challenge for No. 1?
Pelton: Any other prospects for the top pick?
Ford: Ingram is the only guy I'm hearing is seriously in the mix. Of all the NBA GMs I've spoken with, none of them mentioned anyone other than Ingram as a candidate.
Like you, a number of them are concerned he's not a No. 1-caliber prospect. Everyone likes him a lot. But lots of teams aren't in love.
His very thin frame is the biggest issue, though a couple have raised skepticism about his long-term shooting percentages.
I think Dragan Bender would've been a legitimate option had he played a bigger role at Maccabi Tel Aviv. Scouts want to see whether he can be the next Kristaps Porzingis, but there just isn't a lot of evidence to know whether he's really better than Simmons and Ingram.
One GM told me, "I feel like taking Bender first would be us saying we'll take the unknown over the known. But that's ridiculous. [Simmons] is the No. 1 guy. I really like Bender but there are a lot of holes in the data."
Murray is interesting too. He has been amazing. But he too has his weaknesses. He's not an elite athlete. It's unclear whether he's a real point guard. There are no perfect prospects in this draft. That gets us back to Simmons.
How much should we be concerned about his weaknesses? The lack of shooting? The perceived passiveness? The concerns about his maturity?
Some of the criticism seems like a backlash to how highly some NBA people thought of Simmons before the season. The numbers tend to be more impartial.
How serious are the concerns about Simmons?
Ford: How big are the concerns? Do they outweigh the strengths?
Pelton: Other than maybe the shooting, the concerns don't show up in the numbers. His other weakness in my projections is turnover rate, and that's not a problem given everything Simmons does with the basketball -- that's to be expected when he's trying to make plays.
If anything, the concern is that he's not aggressive enough. I have questions about Simmons' impact on floor spacing and his energy level on defense too, but because we don't have SportVU numbers or real plus-minus for college, they're much more difficult to evaluate objectively.
The other issues seem relatively trivial to me. At the NBA level, there's no relationship between improvement in the second half of the season and future development. Also, the biggest reason Simmons hasn't improved is he started so much better than everyone else.
And even in the NBA, the importance of clutch play -- and its consistency from game to game and year to year -- tends to be overrated. I think these are cases where our eyes can be deceiving.
Something you brought up over the weekend was the similarity of these questions to those asked about Andrew Wiggins. That's particularly interesting to me because in Wiggins' case his numbers were raising red flags. Do you think he got more benefit of the doubt than Simmons is?
Ford: Though it didn't stop teams from seeing him as the top pick once Joel Embiid broke his foot, scouts did have those concerns about Wiggins: lack of aggressiveness, unwillingness to take over a game, poor shooting.
Here is one scout on Wiggins, excerpted from Ryen Russillo's NBA Draft Confidential:
"Don't trust his shot. ... I think he is a content player. That's not Bill Self's fault -- he didn't tell him not to shoot. ... What's he going to do as an offensive player?"
In some ways, Wiggins too was a victim of hype. The expectations became so huge for him that when he didn't score 20 every night as a freshman, people wondered loudly about how good he could be. Say what you will about Wiggins, but he hasn't been passive or unable to score in the NBA.
There's a natural backlash when 18-year-olds get compared to NBA greats. We see their very real flaws at 18 or 19 and see the Hall of Fame careers on the other end and we forget that at 18 or 19, Hall of Famers had holes too.
"[W]hat about his poor shooting percentage (40 percent)? He didn't make a jumper until later in the third quarter and then celebrated by banging his fist into his chest.
"Yes, James has good hands, quick feet, extraordinary hops, and a lively body. Yes, he's also an outstanding passer. But his defense is atrocious. ... He always looks for the easy way out, making perfunctory swipes at the ball, and gambling on every entry pass.
"In high school, LeBron James might be a man among boys -- but in the NBA, he'll be a boy among men. Skilled, experienced, powerful, and above all, ruthless men."
"A note to long-suffering Cavaliers' fans: Don't get caught in the LeBron James pipe dream. The best King James can ever be is an average NBA player."
Before you dismiss that as one observer getting it wrong, remember there were many clamoring for Carmelo Anthony to go No. 1 after he led Syracuse to a NCAA title. Anthony was deemed more ready for the NBA, he had great charisma and he seemed like a winner.
I'm not saying that Simmons will become LeBron. Or even Wiggins. But people always wring their hands about No. 1 picks. We want them to be completely polished when they enter the draft, and most of the time they are not.
Should Simmons actually drop?
Ford: So Kevin, what do you think? Is there really a strong case for moving Simmons down our board? The numbers don't seem to suggest it. While some NBA teams seem to be more anxious than they were a few months ago, I don't hear them jumping off the bandwagon.
So what would need to happen to justify someone else -- such as Ingram, Bender or Murray -- going ahead of him?
Pelton: I don't think it's possible for him to drop to No. 2 in my personal rankings. A key reason for using statistical projections is that they aren't susceptible to recency bias.
They also don't overweight NCAA tournament performance. A game isn't more important to a player's NBA potential simply because people are paying closer attention than they are to a Tuesday night game in February. There's no way anything that happens over the next six games can change things that dramatically.
Simmons isn't a sure bet. As you say, nobody is at age 19. But there's no question in my mind he's got the most upside of anyone in this draft. Agree?
Ford: I do think it's possible that Simmons won't go No. 1, especially if Ingram has a big tournament. As much as you are right about why using statistical projections protects you from prejudices, you also know that psychology plays a role here, and Simmons' poor finish combined with a strong one for Ingram could sway it.
Don't get me wrong. I like Ingram a lot. I think he has a chance to be special too. I'm not knocking him, or Bender or Murray.
But the No. 1 pick? I still think it should be Simmons.
I'm with you on a couple of other points. One, Simmons isn't a sure bet. No one is at 19. Development, character, health -- there are lots of things that can derail a prospect.
In fact, when I asked one GM whether he was worried about the character concerns that seem to be creeping up about Simmons, he said, "I'm worried about 19-year-olds coming to the NBA. [Jahlil] Okafor had very high character reports" before finding off-court trouble as a rookie.
It's a tough league and a tough business for teenagers to be thrown into while making tens of millions of dollars.
The second point is that I do believe Simmons has the most upside of anyone in this draft. While I know, given the Golden State Warriors' success, that the chance to draft a long, athletic shooter like Ingram seems incredibly sexy, shooters aren't the only players who are excelling in the NBA right now.
Russell Westbrook of Oklahoma City is a perimeter star shooting under 30 percent from 3-point range for the second straight season. Yet were it not for a crazy season by Stephen Curry, Westbrook would be one of the leaders for league MVP.
Another budding star, Giannis Antetokounmpo of Milwaukee, just put up four triple-doubles in his past 12 games. Giannis has shot 35 percent, 16 percent and 21 percent from 3 his first three years in the league.
One GM went so far as to compare the two.
"Every time I see Simmons, I think he could be another Giannis," he said. "I think they bring a very similar skill set to the game.
"Simmons is more advanced for his age, but if you are watching what Giannis is doing right now, I could see Simmons -- if he reaches his ceiling -- putting up similar numbers. Simmons is stronger, a more explosive athlete, a better rebounder and an even better passer than Giannis.
"He doesn't have Giannis' length, which is an issue. And I think Giannis was a better shooter at the same age.
"But I could see them playing the same game. The minute Giannis could start hitting a 15-foot jump shot, he was an superstar the next day. The minute Simmons starts hitting that shot too, and I believe he can, he'll be one too. No one else in this draft has that sort of potential."
At 19, no one is a sure thing. But at 19, no one is a fully formed player either. With time and hard work, Simmons has the size, athleticism and skill set to become a top-10 player in the NBA.