The battle for No. 1: Jahlil Okafor vs. Karl Towns
By JONATHAN TJARKS
Coming into the season, the two presumptive front-runners for the No. 1 overall pick in the 2015 NBA draft were a pair of wondrously skilled 7-foot freshman - Jahlil Okafor of Duke and Karl Towns of Kentucky. Emmanuel Mudiay was a darkhorse, but his decision to forgo college and play overseas in China has put him out of sight, out of mind. More important, few NBA teams would pass up the chance to take a potentially franchise-caliber big man like Towns or Okafor to take a point guard, especially in an era where seemingly every team in the league already has a high-level floor general.
Through the first few months of the season, both Okafor and Towns have lived up to the hype, helping lead their teams to undefeated records and spots as the top two teams in the rankings. Kentucky is 14–0, including dominant victories over Kansas, UCLA and UNC, and a win at arch rival Louisville, while Duke's 13–0 record includes the most impressive victory of the season - an 80–70 true road win at Wisconsin.
On a statistical basis, though, there has been no comparison between Towns and Okafor:
Okafor's per-game averages: 19.5 points, 8.7 rebounds, 1.5 assists, 0.8 steals and 1.7 blocks on 68.2 percent shooting
Towns' per-game averages: 8.2 points, 6.8 rebounds, 1.1 assists, 0.4 steals and 2.4 blocks on 51.9 percent shooting
As a result, Okafor has become the preferred choice to be the No. 1 overall pick. A good example of the conventional wisdom comes in this recent article from Jonathan Wasserman of Bleacher Report:
Picking Towns over Okafor would essentially require faith, given his less convincing resume and rawer offensive game. With Okafor, there's a sense of safety attached to him as a prospect you don't get as much of from Towns or Mudiay, yet he still offers the franchise-player potential that justifies No. 1 overall consideration.
Okafor becomes like Peyton Manning, the sure thing who produced at a high level in college, while Towns becomes Ryan Leaf, the "tools" pick with a higher upside and a lower floor. However, if you take a closer look at the numbers, a more complicated picture appears.
The most obvious problem with comparing the per-game stats of the two freshman big men is John Calipari's highly publicized platoon system. With the vast majority of Kentucky's opponents coming into the game with almost no chance of beating them, Calipari has had the luxury of playing a 10-man rotation (at least before the injury to Alex Poythress) and not riding any of his stars. So while Okafor averages 28.5 minutes a game for Duke, Towns is only at 19.5.
There's no sense in punishing Towns for having such low per-game stats. It's not his fault he is being backed up by legitimate NBA prospects in Dakari Johnson, Marcus Lee and Trey Lyles as opposed to guys like Marshall Plumlee. When you look at the per-minute numbers, much of the difference between Towns and Okafor disappears:
Okafor per-40 minutes: 27.0 points, 12.1 rebounds, 2.0 assists, 1.2 steals and 2.3 blocks
Towns per-40 minutes: 16.9 points, 13.9 rebounds, 2.2 assists, 0.8 steals and 4.9 blocks
In their time on the floor as freshmen, Okafor has been the better scorer while Towns has been the better rebounder, passer and shot-blocker. Even that analysis, though, only scratches the surface of how they have impacted the game as freshmen. To better understand their strengths and weaknesses, we need to look at their teammates, their coaching staffs and how they are being used.
Okafor has been the biggest beneficiary of Duke's spread offense, which features multiple three-point shooters spacing the floor around their star big man. Of the top eight players in the Blue Devils' rotation, only fellow big man Amil Jefferson is not a knock-down shooter-Quinn Cook (39.5 percent), Justice Winslow (39.0 percent), Tyus Jones (37.8 percent), Rasheed Sulaimon (41.9 percent), Matt Jones (41.9 percent) and Grayson Allen (41.4 percent) can all kill a team from beyond the arc. Much as he did with Jabari Parker the year before, Coach K puts defenses in an impossible situation, where they either have to guard his star freshman 1-on-1 or give up an open 3.
For all the talent on Kentucky, meanwhile, most of it is concentrated around the rim. Towns, as a member of the Blue Platoon, spends a lot of time on the floor without playing next to a single three-point shooter defenses have to respect-Andrew Harrison (35.5 percent), Aaron Harrison (30.7 percent), Trey Lyles (14.3 percent) and Willie Cauley-Stein (no three-point attempts). The only consistent three-point shooters -freshmen guards Devin Booker (49.1 percent) and Tyler Ulis (44.4 percent, on 27 attempts)- are on the White Platoon, meaning their time with Towns has been limited over the course of a game.
Opposing teams come into the game with the idea of keeping Kentucky's big men in check and forcing their guards to beat them from the perimeter. For the most part, the strategy has worked, as Kentucky wins games with their defense and their ability to force turnovers, not execute in the half-court. In their 58–50 win over Louisville two weeks ago, Towns only had seven shots, versus 17 combined for the Harrisons.
Even when Kentucky's guards are able to slow the game down, space the floor and enter the ball into the post, Towns is hardly the only Kentucky big man who needs the ball on the block. Under Calipari's system, Cauley-Stein, Johnson, Lee and Lyles also get opportunities to create their own shot, which means Towns can spend whole rotations without ever touching the ball. Okafor, in contrast, shares a frontcourt with defensive-minded role players like Jefferson or Plumlee who don't cut into his FGAs or his time with the ball in his hands.
When trying to determine their offensive potential, maybe the most important statistic is 11.8 FGAs a game for Okafor to only 5.9 for Towns. In that respect, it may be a little of a chicken and an egg thing - is Okafor more NBA-ready because he gets more touches in college or does getting more touches in college make him appear to be more NBA-ready?
The question you want to ask yourself is how they would look if they switched places. Would Calipari re-arrange his offense to ensure Okafor led the team in FGAs at the expense of an upperclassman like Cauley-Stein? What kind of numbers would Towns put up if he were the sole big man on the floor playing next to four quality three-point shooters who were determined to pound the ball inside? When judging NBA prospects at the NCAA level, you always have to evaluate their statistics in the context in which they were produced.
In other words, just because Towns is a role player at Kentucky doesn't necessarily mean anything about his potential at the next level. When you are a cog on a team that has a chance to be one of the best in the history of college basketball, what kind of teammate would you be if you complained endlessly about your role and demanded the ball? That, essentially, is what Karl Towns has to do if he wants to impress people who are scouting the box score.
Like Anthony Davis a few years ago, Towns hasn't moped about his lack of touches, instead buying into his role as a defensive-minded big man who spreads the floor. He spends most of the game as a shooting PF, opening up the paint for fellow big men like Cauley-Stein and Dakari Johnson. In terms of being a shooter with some range away from the rim, Towns is way ahead of Okafor. Towns shoots 71.4 percent from the free-throw line as opposed to 57.8 percent.
Towns also is the more versatile player on both sides of the ball. At 7-feet, 250 pounds, with a 7-foot-3 wingspan, he has the size of a center but the athletic ability and shooting touch of a power forward. He can protect the rim at a high level, but he can also get down in a stance and defend on the perimeter. Okafor, at 6-foot-11, 270 pounds, with a 7-foot-5 wingspan, is more of a traditional low-post center. And while he's a good athlete for a man with his immense size, he's not nearly the leaper that Towns is, which you can see in their block rates.
Where that becomes important in projecting them to the next level is the types of players with whom they can share a frontcourt. For as much as NBA teams crave traditional low-post threats like Okafor, it's becoming harder and harder to build around them due to the growing popularity of the spread pick-and-roll. In recent years, both the Detroit Pistons (Andre Drummond and Greg Monroe) and the Utah Jazz (Enes Kanter and Derrick Favors) have struggled to create enough space around their pair of highly touted young big men. If a team is trying to play Twin Towers, one of their 7-footers has to be able to shoot the ball.
As a result, Towns is a much easier fit in a lot of different situations than Okafor. Let's take a look at the roster situations of the teams with the five worst records in the NBA:
New York Knicks (5–32): The Knicks just gave away J.R. Smith and Iman Shumpert for nothing but cap flexibility, which tells you all you need to know about their goals for the rest of the season. They are trying to lose as many games as possible in order to get a guy like Towns or Okafor in the draft, and the Knicks are so bad up front that either would improve their team immensely. Okafor's low-post scoring would be a perfect fit for the Triangle Offense, but Towns would probably be the better complement to Carmelo Anthony, since he can spread the floor on offense and allow Melo to operate near the rim and he's more capable of cleaning up Melo's mistakes on defense.
Philadelphia 76ers (5–28): After spending consecutive lottery picks on Nerlens Noel and Joel Embiid, the last thing the 76ers need is another center who needs the ball around the basket and can't spread the floor. Okafor might end up being better than either Embiid or Noel, but drafting him makes them somewhat/totally redundant and decreases their potential trade value. Towns, in contrast, can fit with either in the same way that he is playing with Willie-Cauley Stein at Kentucky. If there's a doomsday scenario for the rest of the league, it's a healthy Embiid sharing a frontcourt with Karl Towns. If that happens, people are going to be so mad at Sam Hinkie it's not even funny.
Minnesota Timberwolves (5–28): It's the same story in Minnesota, where they are already committed to two pretty solid centers in Nik Pekovic and Gorgui Dieng. Towns would be the perfect complement to Pekovic, since he can play out of the high post on offense, giving Pek the space to score on the low block, and protect the rim on defense, which has never been the strength of Pek's game.
L.A. Lakers (11–25): Like the Knicks, the Lakers have stripped their roster so far down that either Towns or Okafor would be a welcome addition. From a long-term perspective, if they are still committed to Julius Randle, they would be better off bringing a guy who can cover for him on defense and who can spread the floor for him on offense. The duo of Randle and Okafor would probably end up getting in each other's way a lot, since neither is a great shooter.
Detroit Pistons (11–23): If their strong play without Josh Smith (6–0 now!) continues, they might not be on lists like this much longer. For now, it's unlikely that Stan Van Gundy repeats Joe Dumars' mistakes when it comes to building his team. With Andre Drummond entrenched at center, the Pistons aren't going to draft anyone who can't spread the floor for him.
Every team is going to want something different out of their pick, which is why discussions about draft range are pretty academic until we know exactly which team is picking where. Nevertheless, if you break down the skill sets of Okafor and Towns, you can see that the decision for just about every team would be more complicated than looking at their statistics and saying Okafor is the safest pick because he gets more touches at Duke.
Smart teams draft players not for the roles they had in the NCAA, but the roles they could have in the NBA. Jahlil Okafor has a bigger role than Karl Towns in college, but Towns can fill a lot more roles on an NBA roster than Okafor can. That's why he still has a chance of becoming the No. 1 overall pick, no matter what the statistics may say.
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