The NBA Draft takes place Thursday, and with multiple media outlets reporting that the Philadelphia 76ers have already promised Ben Simmons they will choose him first overall, attention slides, as it so often does, to the Los Angeles Lakers.
After a 17-65 season and Kobe Bryant’s retirement, the Lakers find themselves in a unique situation: They need a star. But with almost all mock drafts and reports pointing toward the Lakers selecting Brandon Ingram, it seems like they could be on the brink of making a mistake.
This is not to say the Duke star won’t be a good player in the NBA, only that the Lakers would be passing up a player with more star potential: Cal’s Jaylen Brown.
Brown and Ingram play the same position on paper, as tweeners likely destined to play small forward or be small-ball fours, but they do so in nearly opposite ways. Ingram is a prolific three-point marksman who, at nearly 6-foot-10, can shoot over defenders trying to close him out. His lanky frame — he’s less than 200 pounds — and merely solid athleticism, however, raise concerns about his predisposition to getting injured or outmuscled on defense, along with his ability to finish at the rim, where he made 48 percent of his shots in the halfcourt.
Meanwhile, Brown is about 6-foot-7 and 229 pounds. He thrives at slashing into the lane and leveraging his physicality and elite athleticism into finishes at the rim. Despite not compiling extraordinary numbers on the defensive end in college, Brown’s foot speed, strength and long arms project him as a plus defender guarding 1-4. And in a NBA evolving to prioritize defensive versatility, Brown has an advantage over someone like Ingram, who may struggle if he’s switched onto quicker guards. Brown still has deficiencies to address, including his propensity to turn the ball over when driving into the lane and his disappointing shooting numbers, as he made only 29.4 percent of his threes as a Bear.
While Ingram and Brown each have qualities that stick out as translatable to the NBA, the limitations in the Cal forward’s game are easier to fix. Despite being almost a year younger than Brown, Ingram is unlikely to make up the athleticism gap between the two players. And while his smooth handle and jump shooting appear destined to forever be leagues ahead of Brown’s, that may not be the case.
Ingram’s spot-up shooting gives him the highest floor in this draft class. But, beyond that, he’s got at least as much work to do as Brown does. Even his shooting is not impeccable, as he made only 30 percent of his jumpers off the dribble, making Ingram easier to guard if he’s a ball-handler in the pick-and-roll. His struggles in the paint seem to largely arise from his lack of strength and athleticism, making it harder to finish through or over contact. Thus, Ingram will need to find more creative ways to finish in the lane. He’s young and his production promises great things, but the notion that he’s guaranteed to be better and more polished than Brown is incorrect.
A big reason this idea is so perpetuated is the fact that Ingram’s stats were much better than Brown’s in college. Ingram, however, played in a system that emphasized his strengths, putting him at power forward where he would be guarded by slow players and making it much easier for him to score efficiently and get open shots. Brown was consistently toiling with only one above-average shooter on the court in lineups that clogged the lane and made it next to impossible for him to do what he does best without being met by a mess of defenders.
Brown projects to fit much more smoothly into better spaced NBA offenses. Additionally, shooting is not an unlearnable skill and Brown, who made 39 percent of his threes from the high school line in the games in Draft Express’ database, does not have a broken shot. This is not Michael Kidd-Gilchrist. Players learn how to shoot all the time, and while it is easy to point to the similarly built Kawhi Leonard, there are countless more examples: If Luis Scola can make more than 40 percent of his threes, Brown should be able to knock them down at a league average rate.
Furthermore, the notion that Brown is rendered unplayable without an improved three-point shot is frankly, incorrect. On a team like last year’s Cal squad, sure, adding another non-shooter muddles things up too much. But on a team with more shooting, Brown can leverage making the most of the rest of his abilities into an All-Star career.
Just look at Jimmy Butler, who has turned excellent defense, a strong pick-and-roll game and a solid mid-range jumper into results befitting a superstar, despite making only 31.2 percent of his threes last season. Andrew Wiggins has yet to make more than 31 percent of his threes in a season, but he is thought of as one of the NBA’s next superstars for flashing many of the same skills Brown figures to bring to the table.
On the Lakers, he’d fit in both now and in their longterm plans. He’d be an overqualified third ball handler from the start with the potential to become a cornerstone in the next few years.
Butler is a good ceiling projection for Brown if he fails to improve his efficiency from beyond the arc. If he does, Brown can be a perennial All-NBA selection, and the Lakers should take notice.