Philadelphia 76ers Face Difficult Decision on Draft Day

After three years of tanking, Philly was finally awarded with the opportunity to kick-start the NBA Draft.

While Philadelphia may already possess its franchise player in a hopefully healthy Joel Embiid, the 76ers have a golden opportunity to capitalize on former GM Sam Hinkie’s Process.

During the last two drafts, the City of Brotherly Love selected centers at No. 3 overall. Both Embiid and Jahlil Okafor drew consideration at No. 1, the former falling due to injury concerns and the latter due to the emergence of unanimous 2016 Rookie of the Year Karl-Anthony Towns. Towns is the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, so help me God, and Hinkie would still have his job had the Sixers won the lottery last year instead of the Timberwolves.

Meanwhile, despite concerns about Okafor’s offense translating to the modern NBA, his undeniable flaw is defense. Jonathan Tjarks recently compared centers to catchers in baseball, with the idea being there are so many defensive qualifications that a home-run hitter is not particularly valuable if he’s lacking on D.

Embiid and Nerlens Noel have each displayed innate instincts on D. If nothing else, Noel is a savvy defender capable of swiping steals, swatting shots, and catching alley-oops. His offensive game is as weak overall as Okafor’s defense, but that still leaves Noel in an elevated echelon as far as I’m concerned. As a result, the 76ers will probably have a hard time moving Okafor, especially if they’re hoping to nab something special like Boston’s No. 3 overall pick. That trade rumor has been floating around for months, and while Okafor could eventually turn into a decent defender, I’d rather take my chances on someone else in the draft unless Noel is on the market. In my opinion, it’s going to be tough for the Sixers to trade Okafor for a wing or guard and get the kind of return that one would wish to receive when dealing a recent No. 3 overall pick. Bill Simmons might be willing to pull the trigger, but I doubt Danny Ainge feels the same way. Think about it this way: Jared Sullinger got destroyed by the Atlanta Hawks, and was basically unplayable. As the league continues its shift to space-and-pace and spread pick-and-roll, Okafor’s defensive shortcomings will stick out like Sullinger or any other slow-moving, offensive-oriented big man who doesn’t adequately protect the rim.

So, if you’ve made it this far, you’re probably asking yourself by now: why is this dude talking about the Sixers’ plethora of centers when this is a pick-related piece? The answer is simple: at some point, you have to start thinking about fit—no matter how bad the squad. Even if we assume LSU’s Ben Simmons will try harder and shake off bad habits to become a solid defender, his lack of outside shooting could haunt him in the NBA. Simmons is certainly an excellent athlete, but I don’t get the feeling he’s as freakish as Giannis Antetokounmpo. Still, Simmons possesses great vision as a passer, and his combination of size and handle is tough to find.

But Brandon Ingram is a much more versatile, interchangeable, and well-rounded prospect who also happens to be a year younger than Simmons. 76ers’ coach Brett Brown, who, like Simmons is from Australia, has helped Noel and Okafor improve their free-throw shooting. Nevertheless, expecting Simmons to become a reliable scorer from outside of the paint could be a setup for serious disappointment. It wasn’t long ago that many Philly fans were drooling over long-armed Rookie of the Year Michael Carter-Williams, and it looks like he’ll be a reserve guard next season unless he can learn how to sink a perimeter jumper.

Even though Embiid essentially fell into the Sixers’ laps, the pick was still considered somewhat risky due to his back and foot problems. Even as new videos of his workouts are released on a weekly basis, there is still a small cloud of doubt about whether the Cameroonian center will be able to survive the rigors of 82-game regular seasons.

When I met Embiid at the U.S. Open last Fall, I made sure to let him know that my friends in Philadelphia were wishing him well and hoping to see him suit up soon. His reply: “Just tell ‘em they gotta wait one more year.”

Here he was, a million miles from home, on the verge of missing his second straight season to begin his pro career, and he was cooler than a cucumber. Embiid is the lone potential superstar on the roster, and quite frankly, his soft touch from the perimeter means that he’ll likely be an excellent pairing with either Ingram or Simmons.

All signs point to Embiid being ready to suit up once the 2016-17 season begins, and the No. 10 overall pick from that same year, Dario Saric, is likely primed to do the same. Ultimately, I’m unconvinced that Saric or Simmons will ever be reliable outside shooters in the NBA. Jerami Grant has shown elite athleticism, but he is also a long-shot to develop the long-ball. Should the Sixers select Simmons, it will almost assuredly be another 50-60 loss season provided Philly doesn’t snag a starting point guard plus a rotation 3-and-D player this summer.

Personally, I’m much more intrigued about Ingram’s potential fit. The idea of running a starting five of Embiid, Saric, Robert Covington, Ingram and Ish Smith (or hopefully any serviceable PG) allows guys to stay in their respective lanes.

Can you imagine a roster with Noel, Okafor, Saric, Simmons, and Grant? It would be nearly impossible to construct lineups with less than two non-shooters, which is sure to shrink the court on offense. There’s also a chance the mix of players could be troublesome enough that they end up making each other worse rather than gelling and helping one another improve. This is exactly the dynamic we saw between Okafor and Noel, who couldn’t co-exist well on either end this year.

Philadelphia has already taken so many risks that playing it safe might be the smartest move here. With that being said, if Simmons becomes a top-level talent, he and Embiid could conceivably be among the best one-two punches in basketball as the point forward and five-man. That’s what makes this such a difficult choice, and one that Philly will likely think long and hard about. Picturing Simmons running the screen-and-roll with Embiid is exciting to anyone with a pulse, and an inverted offense with Simmons posting up is also an interesting proposition.

At the end of the day though, if you’re asking me: I’m much more confident in drafting Ingram than Simmons. I think he immediately makes everyone around him better without forcing teammates into positions where they may never be comfortable. “Best Player Available” is a mantra that is often repeated over and over, but usually we have no clue who that will be until years from draft day. Okafor entered his freshman year at Duke as a near-consensus top pick, but by the time the draft rolled around, few folks felt he’d be better than Towns. I’m in no way saying that Ingram will be on Towns’ level, but to be fair I think KAT is going to win multiple MVP’s. What’s interesting to me is that Simmons began the year as the consensus No. 1 pick only to see Ingram enter the conversation as the draft drew closer, which is fairly similar to what happened last year.

Standing at 6-9 with a 7-3 wingspan, Ingram boasts unbelievable physical advantages similar to Kevin Durant, and he is a prototypical player in the modern NBA. He needs to get stronger and better on both ends, yet that seems like more of a given than Simmons learning how to swish shots from outside the paint. It’s not going to be as easy for Simmons to reach the rim in the NBA as it was in college without proving he can knock down shots, and despite his 6-10, 240 lb. frame, his 7-0 wingspan is not quite as long as Ingram’s. There are absolutely no shortage of reasons for taking either guy at No. 1, but I’m siding with Ingram here.