Jahlil Okafor or Karl-Anthony Towns? SI roundtable debates NBA prospects
With the NCAA tournament coming to a close and the 2015 NBA draft around the corner, SI.com's basketball experts examine the biggest question that will bridge the two events...
Who is the better NBA prospect? Duke's Jahlil Okafor or Kentucky's Karl-Anthony Towns?
Luke Winn (CBB senior writer): Towns. As much as I love Okafor, who's the most advanced freshman post scorer I've ever seen in college basketball, Towns has the higher ceiling and is more of a fit for today's NBA. He's still growing into his body and can get much stronger. His 81.7% free-throw shooting—with good form—suggests potential to stretch the floor in an NBA offense. And his defensive impact around the rim projects to be much greater than Okafor's. If I were building the ultimate college team to play this week, I'd probably take Okafor over Towns, but if I'm drafting for 3-4 years down the road, I'm taking Towns.
Chris Mannix (NBA senior writer): Okafor. Look, I love Towns. He’s long, has pillow soft hands and post moves of a five-year NBA veteran. But true centers are an endangered species and Okafor has 15-year franchise pivot potential. At 19, Okafor is something of a post prodigy himself. He can face up and take lumbering centers off the dribble or turn and back down smaller ones. Is he consistent? No, but he’s a teenager. Too often we tag freshman with unrealistic expectations. Take a look at Tim Duncan’s first year numbers at Wake Forest; that’s second-round pick stuff. This debate has been sparked by back-to-back subpar games against Utah and Gonzaga, but if you step back—Okafor can do that, too—and look at the big picture, Okafor remains the clear top choice.
Lee Jenkins (NBA senior writer): Okafor. You just don’t find young big men with advanced footwork, a soft touch, and refined post moves very often. They usually develop back-to-the-basket skills later in their career. When one does come along, you take him, just like the Spurs took Tim Duncan two decades ago. Towns is obviously a superior rim protector, and probably a better all-around player at this point, but there are a lot of good rim protectors in today’s NBA. There are not many unstoppable interior scorers. Towns could easily become an All Star center. But Okafor, with his diverse offensive skill set, could become a transformative low-post presence.
Phil Taylor (NBA/CBB senior writer): Towns. There’s a lot to love about Okafor’s combination of strength and footwork in the low post. He’s a more polished scorer than many NBA centers right now. But he isn’t particularly active in defending either the rim or the pick-and-roll, and he doesn’t chase rebounds with the ferocity that you’d like to see from a big man. He’ll eventually get his 20 points per game, but he may never be anything more than a so-so defender. Towns, meanwhile, is still developing his offensive game, but he’s doing it fast. He doesn’t have Okafor’s power, but he has a nice touch around the basket and a decent jumper. He’s also an 80 percent free throw shooter to Okafor’s 50 percent, which is no small factor (get ready for Hack-a-Jahlil). But Towns’s real edge is on the other end of the floor, where Okafor will probably never match his shot-blocking or rebounding ability. Okafor might make a more immediate impact, but winning teams have big men who can provide solid interior defense as well as score. Towns is more likely to fit that description.
Ben Golliver (NBA writer): Towns. To me, the determining factor is how much of an ideal centerpiece Towns is due to his offensive versatility, intelligence and length as a defender. On offense, Towns should find success in lots of ways: as an interior scorer, spot-up shooter and passer, pick-and-roll menace, and potential three-point threat. It shouldn't matter whether your second-best player is a ball-dominant guard, a sharpshooting wing or a low-post big man, Towns should be able to function well with any and all of them. He should also pair nicely on defense with a traditional center in jumbo lineups or with a spread forward in a more open approach.
Okafor looks destined to be a premier low-post scorer at the next level, one capable of being the focal point on an elite offense. However, his paint-bound approach and the legit questions about his defensive abilities strain the types of players that will work best with him. In the frontcourt, Okafor will need help protecting the rim and stretching the floor, which is a difficult combination to find in the same player. And, as we've seen with Al Jefferson and others, low-post scorers require lots of shooters surrounding them to fully thrive, not to mention a point guard that is wired to regularly feed the beast down low.
Matt Dollinger (NBA editor): Towns. The list of reasons to love Towns is almost as long as the Kentucky freshman himself. While one year of schooling under Mike Krzyzewski isn't exactly two semesters at the University of Phoenix, Towns has had an NBA education second-to-none. Last summer, he played for the Dominican men's national team and went against Team USA in Madison Square Garden. This year, he's spent a season under John Calipari, who has helped groom 15 first-round picks since 2010 alone. Towns has also benefited from practicing daily against Willie Cauley-Stein, one of the best defensive centers in college basketball in recent memory, along with a host of other future NBA big men. When we compare Okafor and Towns, most people acknowledge that Okafor is the more polished prospect while Towns possesses the higher ceiling. If this is the raw version of Towns, then Anthony Davis won't be the only Kentucky big man giving NBA opponents nightmares for the next decade.
David Gardner (CBB producer): Towns. As recently as the beginning of the NCAA tournament, Jahlil Okafor seemed like a lock for the No. 1 pick, but Towns's performance during Kentucky's run has reignited a debate that I believe will end with Okafor's name being called first. As Luke Winn wrote in his Power Rankings this week, Towns has surpassed Okafor as the most impressive post-up player in college basketball. And he has always been the better defender. His block percentage (11.7%) is 16th in the country. Okafor's (4.5%) is 245th.
Very rarely do big men improve from average collegiate defenders to elite NBA defenders; offensive improvement is much more common. Neither player is a bad pick—the team picking second will have the easiest decision in the draft—but Towns's combination of solid defense and improving post dominance make him the No. 1.
DeAntae Prince (NBA producer): Okafor. Kentucky big man Karl-Anthony Towns is a premiere talent equipped with the skill and build NBA general managers rarely pass up. He might even be the No. 1 pick come June, but Jahlil Okafor will forever possess skills that Towns cannot be taught. His agility and natural feel for the game are rare qualities for a 19-year-old, 6’11" prospect, and he fits the flow of an NBA game with an increased pace. Team Towns is a safe space to occupy at the moment, but the Okafor bandwagon is the better long-term bet.
Chris Johnson (CBB writer): Okafor. The Okafor-Towns debate can be framed as a commentary on team-building preference. Okafor is a traditional, back-to-the-basket center who does most of his work on the blocks. Towns is comfortable stepping away from the paint to knock down jump shots or backing down defenders for close-range looks. Pairing Okafor with another post-oriented big man with limited range could be unwieldy, while Towns theoretically offers more flexibility as a frontcourt cornerstone. The Kentucky star is also a superior shot blocker and rebounder, which strengthens his case. Still, Okafor’s ability to score around the basket will draw defensive attention from shooters on the perimeter and create more driving lanes. In a very close decision, I side with Okafor, whose combination of size, strength and polish is too valuable to pass up.
Results: Towns edges Okafor, 5-4.