After a disastrous season the Los Angeles Lakers are sitting pretty with the 2nd overall pick in the 2015 NBA Draft. With the pick comes hope that the team will finally be able to right the ship and truly rebuild one of the great franchises in NBA history. It will allow them to draft a talented player to join a young team that already features promising players like First-team All-Rookie Jordan Clarkson, Julius Randle, and Tarik Black, along with veterans Kobe Bryant and Nick Young.
While help is on the way, just who the Lakers select with their 2nd overall pick is still up for debate. There are a number of fantastic prospects available in this year's draft, but most experts agree that the top 3 consists of Karl-Anthony Towns, Jahlil Okafor, and D'Angelo Russell, although both Emanuel Mudiay and Kristaps Porzingis have a shot at sneaking onto the list.
It's widely believed that the Lakers will select a big with their pick, although Russell is certainly worthy of consideration. With the Minnesota Timberwolves very likely to take Towns with the first pick, Jahlil Okafor is the odds-on favorite to don a purple and gold hat on draft night.
Landing Okafor would be a major coup for the Lakers. He has won everywhere he has gone, has a post game that is incredibly advanced, and he wants to be a Laker.
These two quotes perfectly illustrate the difference between how Towns and Okafor view the Lakers:
"When I first thought about the NBA, I first thought about the Lakers. They have a winning tradition: 11 championships (in Los Angeles). That's what I want to be a part of.... I went to Whitney Young High School, which is one of the best high schools. I didn't want to go to any school but Duke: the best of the best. That's the same standard I'm holding myself to right now. Being here part of the Lakers (with) fans that want to win — that's what I want.
Okafor can't realistically say much more to drive home the point that he sees himself as a Laker. On the other hand, here is Towns:
"I just want to play basketball, anywhere... It doesn't matter, I'll play anywhere in the league"
Considering Towns and Okafor's consensus rankings as the top two players in the draft, it certainly sounds like Towns has made peace with going to Minnesota, while Okafor has his heart set on being in Los Angeles.
Given the state of the franchise in recent years, it isn't a foregone conclusion that players will want to end up in a Lakers uniform, so hearing Okafor say he wants to be in Los Angeles is refreshing. It's nice to be wanted, even if you are a team with 16 championships hanging in the rafters.
At this point it feels as though Okafor ending up on the Lakers is almost a certainty, and that he is locked in on the Lakers and they are more than happy to bring him on board. But that's not the outcome that Lakers fans should be hoping for.
I've long maintained that the difference between Towns and Okafor is not as massive as some in the media portray it to be, and the same is true for the difference between Okafor and Russell. I believe that those three are essentially 1a, 1b, and 1c in this draft, with each offering a different set of skills as well as weaknesses. Lakers fans should be happy to land any of them, and be comfortable in knowing that the team has added a major piece for the future. That said, selecting Towns would be the best outcome for the Lakers.
To paraphrase the Joker, everyone loses their minds when things don't go according to plan. Bigs like Okafor are supposed to dominate in the post, skilled guards like Russell are supposed to be good shooters and passers. When Towns starts hitting threes like a guard though, the internet nearly explodes, and with good reason.
Bigs who can do the things that Towns does just don't come along very often, if ever. Even though he might not be as determined to go to Los Angeles as Okafor is the Lakers would be fortunate to have Towns fall in their laps. He's got the ability to knock down shots all the way to the NBA three point line, but what's really impressive is that he does it effortlessly. Some bigs can shoot from range but it's obvious they aren't quite comfortable with it, it's just something they started adding to their game to be more en vogue with the NBA's push towards stretch bigs (think Jordan Hill). That's not Towns, his shot looks like he's barely trying because it's more of a set shot, like a right-handed Sam Perkins.
Towns' shooting ability also translates to a fantastic free throw percentage (81%), which is incredible for a big. His college percentage from the line would land him in the top 10 of current NBA bigs, alongside shooters like Dirk Nowitzki, LaMarcus Aldridge, and Kevin Love. With the modern trend toward hack-a-whoever, having a big man who is so effective from the line is a major advantage.
Shooting isn't the only part of his offensive game that's impressive either. Kentucky Coach John Calipari knew the biggest criticism of Towns was his ability to play in the post, and as a result forced him to play there for most of the college season and discouraged him from settling for the outside jumper.
The results were clearly impressive. As the season went on Towns' post game improved dramatically to the point where he was nearly unstoppable on the block. While he isn't nearly as smooth or advanced as Okafor, Towns has developed a go-to move with the right-handed jump hook, and is confident with his left hand as well. His footwork and movements are still fairly robotic and mechanical, but effective. His post moves actually look eerily similar to a prime Andrew Bynum.
Of course Towns also has the ability to get up and throw down angry, angry dunks:
While his slim lower body does lead to some concern over his ability to bang in the post, his jumper should provide enough versatility to make him an effective NBA scorer from the get-go. He is also an underrated passer that will be able to fit in well in most teams' systems.
Even though Towns has considerable skill on the offensive end, it's his defense that is his claim to fame. He's a fantastic shot blocker with great timing and instincts, and is arguably the best rim protector in the draft. However, most bigs who are able to block shots the way Towns can don't have the lateral mobility that he brings to the table. He has excellent foot speed for his size, which allows him to hedge on pick and rolls and still recover back to protect the basket. Given the way NBA offenses are running today, having a center with that kind of defensive versatility is a major asset.
Towns is also an excellent rebounder, grabbing an average of 6.7 boards per game in college despite playing on a loaded Kentucky frontcourt and getting just 21.1 minutes a night. While he may need to get a little stronger before he is able to push around NBA bigs, there is no doubt that he has the potential to be a monster on the glass.
While Towns has a lot to like in many different areas, it's the combination of all of them that make him such a special player. The list of things he can't do is tiny, and the list of things that he is fantastic at seems to be growing by the day.
It's this kind of versatility that would be especially important to the Lakers. While the rule of thumb in the draft is to select for talent and not fit, in the case of Towns, Okafor, and Russell the talent is so close that fit has to be considered, and this is where Towns really separates himself from the other two.
Julius Randle not only has a Kentucky connection with Karl-Anthony, but the two also complement each other perfectly on the basketball court. Randle is fantastic at attacking off the dribble with his face-up game, but doesn't provide much in the way of rim protection. Towns not only makes up for Randle's defensive shortcomings with his shot blocking skills but his ability to step out and shoot jumpers helps to open up space for Randle's drives to the hoop. Conversely, Randle's ball handling and passing would help find Towns in scoring positions, eliminating the need for Towns to have to try to do too much on the offensive end.
Towns would have a similar effect on the play of Jordan Clarkson, who needs room to slash to the basket. The pick and roll/pick and pop partnership between Towns and Clarkson could be especially lethal while the lateral quickness that Towns provides would also help the Lakers shut down pick and rolls, something they have struggled with in the past.
For Lakers general manager Mitch Kupchak, Towns provides a piece that is much easier to build around than a traditional back-to-the-basket center like Okafor. Mitch would need to carefully construct a roster around Okafor, knowing that a combination of Randle, Clarkson, and Jahlil is dangerously lacking in outside shooting and runs the risk of having defenses pack the paint against them.
Towns isn't likely to make a living as an outside shooter, but the threat of him doing so should be enough to help alleviate some of those spacing concerns. His versatility also allows him to play either power forward or center, which would provide Kupchak with the option of chasing after one of several impact bigs that will be on the market as free agents this summer.
Finally, when looking at the big three players that might be available to the Lakers, it feels as though Towns has the best chance of becoming a true superstar. His versatility across so many different areas of the game provide him with the ability to make an impact in a number of ways, and if the defense he played in college translates to the NBA he's going to be a very special player. Okafor and Russell are both incredible in their own right, but Towns is the guy that really makes jaws drop. With Kobe on the verge of retirement the Lakers badly need a superstar to pass the torch to, and Towns could very well be that guy.
Even if something unexpected happens and the Lakers get to choose between both Towns and Okafor, they have to make the right decision for the franchise and take Towns. As much as Okafor wants to be a Laker, if the option is there they have to make the painful decision and break his heart to take Towns. He's simply the best choice for the team moving forward.
Of course, Towns' all-around greatness doesn't take away from the brilliance of Russell and Okafor. Both are amazing, and shouldn't be considered consolation prizes for the Lakers. The most likely outcome of the draft is still Towns going to Minnesota and Okafor to LA, and the purple and gold faithful should be absolutely thrilled with that result.
Still, should Flip Saunders and the Wolves pass on Towns and allow him to fall the Lakers, there will be just a little bit more reason to celebrate in Los Angeles.
Follow Trevor Lane on Twitter @16ringsNBA