Jahlil Okafor, Karl-Anthony Towns could play for more than a NCAA national title: the No. 1 pick in the NBA draft
INDIANAPOLIS—The 2015 Final Four needs no artificial sweetener. The main course features four heavyweight programs, four coaches who are or will be enshrined in the Hall of Fame and playing styles that are as contrasting as they are intriguing.
But there’s a fascinating subplot to this Final Four that will resonate from Saturday’s semifinals all the way to the NBA draft in June. NBA front office personnel are pining for an NCAA final on Monday night between Kentucky and Duke to showcase the presumptive top two picks in the this year's draft: Kentucky’s Karl-Anthony Towns and Duke’s Jahlil Okafor.
There’s little debate among NBA scouts and front offices that Towns and Okafor will be the first two players selected, leaving us with the potential of a vintage draft debate that echoes well beyond June. The last time an NBA draft narrative revolved around two elite low-post prospects was in 2004 when the Orlando Magic picked high school star Dwight Howard over Connecticut stalwart Emeka Okafor. What makes these draft quandaries so fascinating—think Greg Oden versus Kevin Durant or even Peyton Manning versus Ryan Leaf—is the starkly divergent opinions heading into the draft. Even if in retrospect, as in those cases, the choice should have been obvious.
There's no consensus among NBA personnel about who to pick in the Towns-Okafor debate. The case for Towns picked up speed during SEC play, and his eye popping NCAA tournament has given him a slight edge in some circles. In a quick poll of seven NBA scouts and personnel people this week, Towns received four votes and Okafor got three. It’s a decision that a toiling NBA franchise like the New York Knicks, Minnesota Timberwolves or Philadelphia 76ers would love to make.
Towns, 19, is a 6’11," 250-pound low-post presence at Kentucky who plays power forward and center. He’s averaging 10.1 points and 6.6 rebounds per game, but those modest numbers are due in part to the spoils of Kentucky’s roster.
“To me it’s clearly Towns,” said an Eastern Conference scout. “Okafor is just not athletic. He’s not going to be a rim protector. Towns is more mobile and athletic. I don’t know if he’ll shoot an NBA three-pointer, but he’ll have much better range.”
The debate can be broken down to a few simple factors. Okafor, 19, is a 6’11" and 270-pound true center who will deliver immediate results and has more offensive polish but is a vastly inferior defender. Okafor averages 17.5 points and 8.7 rebounds, with his footwork and post moves considered precocious. They are different players in a lot of ways, as Okafor will play with his back to the basket more and has limited range.
“There’s probably only five to seven guys in the NBA who can play with their back to the basketball like Okafor,” says a Western Conference front office official who contends he would take Okafor at No. 1. “Towns has better upside and could be a better player, but I’d like to think I can get another Towns before I can get another Okafor.”The best comparison for Towns is LaMarcus Aldridge of the Portland Trail Blazers, although Towns will be less perimeter oriented. A few scouts mentioned the Hornets' Al Jefferson when comparing Okafor, with the more pessimistic ones bringing up Carlos Boozer, now with the Lakers.
Looking at their deficiencies, Okafor’s are more concerning. Towns needs to put on 20 more pounds and to become more refined offensively. Okafor needs to improve from the free-throw line, as he’s shooting just 51.1% and is a late-game liability. Towns shoots 81.7% from the line.
More alarming is Okafor’s defense, as his low-post presence belies his imposing size. Okafor’s blocked shot percentage is just 4.5, which ranked him No. 15 in the ACC and hardly portends NBA adequacy. Basketball analyst Ken Pomeroy looked at the 18 college centers drafted in the top 10 in the past 10 years and found that only Blake Griffin, who transitioned to forward in the NBA, had a lower block percentage than Okafor. The average of the centers picked in the top 10 was 8.9. Only one other player of the 18 had a lower percentage than 6.0, and that was Georgetown’s Greg Monroe at 4.9.
“I don’t think it’s a death sentence for [Okafor],” said Pomeroy, who runs the statistical website kenpom.com. “But the one scary thing is that blocking shots isn’t something you really learn. That’s what you are. You can’t teach someone that.”
Towns has a block percentage of 11.7, which puts him in the same stratosphere as the 13.8 Anthony Davis had in 2011-12, his lone season at Kentucky. Davis is the top shot blocker by percentage to come out of college the past 10 years.
“I’m more impressed with how he’s improved defensively than anything else,” Louisville coach Rick Pitino said of Towns.The defensive questions will nag Okafor, as NBA scouts worry about him being a liability in pick-and-roll situations and his presence as a rim protector.
“Okafor is an anomaly, as his offensive skills are really advanced,” says a Western Conference scout. “He’s going to really have to learn how to play defense as much as he likes to play offense.” But the same scout added that he’d still take Okafor because of the risk Towns may not meet his offensive potential. “Developing offensively doesn’t always happen,” he says.
As for college coaches who have seen both players this year, opinions were also split. Notre Dame assistant Martin Ingelsby had the Irish’s scout of Kentucky and played against Okafor three times this year. He also watched Towns torch the Irish’s single coverage—designed to concede two-point shots and avoid three-point shots—for 25 points on 10-for-13 shooting in the Elite Eight.
“I think Towns is a more complete prospect,” Ingelsby said. “He’s more skilled, can step out and make shots and he makes his free throws.”
Buffalo's Bobby Hurley coached against Towns earlier this season and followed him in high school. Hurley also saw Okafor play in person at Duke’s Blue-White basketball scrimmage this fall when he went to visit his daughter, Cameron, who is a freshman at Duke. Hurley may hold the most optimistic outlook of Okafor of anyone SI.com interviewed, as he said that the NBA comparison of Al Jefferson was too low of a career trajectory.
“Obviously [Jefferson] has been an All-Star and had a great career," Hurley said. "But [Okafor] is just bigger and more physical. He’s got touch and hands and feet. For a guy that that size, he’s got great footwork. [Okafor] carries himself like a franchise-type player. When I watched him play that night, it was like watching Tim Duncan or something.”
Okafor and Towns highlight the best Final Four for NBA talent in recent memory. That starts with Kentucky, which could have seven players declare for the draft. Towns will be a top-two pick, 7-footer Willie Cauley-Stein will be in the top 10 and forward Trey Lyles and wing Devin Booker are projected by scouts between 15 and 30. (Don’t be surprised if Lyles surges). Aaron Harrison, Andrew Harrison and Dakari Johnson all could be second-round picks. Aaron Harrison has a better chance to get drafted than his brother or Johnson.
Duke’s Justise Winslow has recently helped his NBA stock perhaps more than any other high-end talent by shooting 7-for-12 from three-point range in the NCAA tournament. Scouts say he’s leapfrogged Arizona’s Stanley Johnson and could end up being picked between No. 5 and No. 8. Duke’s Tyus Jones has been the subject of draft talk, but his size (6’1", 190 pounds) and defensive limitations make him a middling prospect.
Wisconsin’s Frank Kaminsky and Sam Dekker should both go in the top 15, if not higher. Dekker has helped himself exponentially in this NCAA tournament, especially his 5-for-6 three-point shooting against Arizona. Michigan State doesn’t have any potential first-round picks, but 6'6" senior forward Branden Dawson will get a long look because of his athleticism.
But there’s no confusion about the NBA’s main attractions here. A Towns-Okafor Monday night matchup could shape a debate that lasts all the way until June, and the comparisons won’t end until their careers are over.