The last time the Philadelphia 76ers had the No. 1 NBA draft pick in 1996, they chose feisty point guard Allen Iverson, who was elected to the Hall of Fame two months ago. On Thursday night at Barclays Center, the Sixers chose cool, multi-faceted freshman point forward Ben Simmons of LSU, who grew up in Australia but understands all about the Iverson legacy.
“A lot of people don’t know that I actually had a poster of Al in my room when I was young,” Simmons said. “It was a big diamond-cut poster of him with the braids. I remember him being a smaller guy with braids and cornrows. I used to have cornrows when I was younger. He was one of those players that fought every day.”
The 76ers indicated before the draft that they would take Simmons over Duke forward Brandon Ingram, who went to the Lakers with the No. 2 pick, but when it became reality, Simmons felt a sense of relief as he fulfilled lifelong high expectations for his prodigious talent.
“It’s a weight off my chest,” Simmons said. “I’m glad I’ve made history, not only for myself but my family and Australian basketball. It honestly feels like all this pressure has hopped off me . . . I’ve been wanting to do that since I was 5, 6, 7, and I’ve finally accomplished that.”
Simmons lacks three-point range but can do everything else, as he showed while averaging 19.2 points, 11.8 rebounds and 4.8 assists at LSU. He said the 76ers are comfortable with him handling the ball as a point forward.
Some believe the Lakers and new coach Luke Walton got the player with greater potential in Ingram, whose 6-10 height belies his small forward skill set. His arrival coincides with the retirement of Kobe Bryant, suggesting the Lakers might have found their future leader.
Speaking of succeeding Bryant, Ingram said, “You kind of feel the pressure, but it’s a good pressure. It gives you motivation and the potential to be someone like Kobe Bryant and some of the greats in the league.”
Every mock draft was perfect for two picks, and then the usual twists and turns ensued. Many pegged Providence point guard Kris Dunn as the third selection by Boston, but the Celtics opted for California forward Jaylen Brown with the first of their eight picks. After Phoenix chose Croatian forward Dragan Bender at No. 4, Dunn was snapped up in the fifth spot by Minnesota. That caused Kentucky guard Jamal Murray to land seventh with Denver after New Orleans, at No. 6, grabbed high-scoring Oklahoma guard Buddy Hield.
Murray felt he should have gone higher, saying, “I always believe I’m the best player, and when a team really sees the No. 1 choice like Denver did, then I just want to play for them more.”
A few minutes after Murray was chosen, his teammate at Orangeville Prep in Canada, 7-1 forward Thon Maker, became the surprise selection by Milwaukee at No. 10. Maker, a native of South Sudan who played in Australia before going to Canada, was not invited to the green room but made his way out of the stands to the podium. Just outside the interview room, he and Murray shared a joyful hug.
During the first round, Phoenix traded the 13th and 28th picks plus Bogdan Bogdanovic to Sacramento to acquire Washington forward Marquese Chriss with the No. 8 pick.
Oklahoma City pulled off a major deal by trading forward Serge Ibaka to Orlando for Victor Oladipo, Ersan Ilyasova and the No. 11 pick, Gonzaga power forward Damontas Sabonis.
Fifteen of 30 first-round picks were international players.