The NBA Draft is quickly approaching and two big men currently sit atop nearly every draft board: Karl-Anthony Towns and Jahlil Okafor. The two battled it out for draft position for much of the college season, with Okafor leading the way early and Towns coming on strong late. As of right now most experts believe that Towns will be taken by the Minnesota Timberwolves with the first overall pick, leaving the Los Angeles Lakers to select Jahlil Okafor with the 2nd pick.
The Lakers maintain they are hoping to audition as many as eight players aside from Towns and Okafor that they could select with the pick, including Ohio State guard D'Angelo Russell, Kentucky's Willie Cauley-Stein, Duke's Justise Winslow, and foreign players Kristaps Porzingis and Mario Hezonja. Over the weekend they worked out athletic guard Emanuel Mudiay. Still, the consensus is that Okafor's size will mean more to the Lakers, who have a history of great big men, and they won't be able to turn down the opportunity to draft another potential powerhouse center.
While the Lakers front office is in fact-finding mode, Lakers fans are still giddy from jumping from the fourth overall selection to the second via the lottery, and are anxiously anticipating the addition of a potential franchise-player. After a brutal season and a tense draft lottery where the Lakers had a 17 percent chance of losing their pick completely, the future is finally looking bright.
Yet, in the midst of the all the positive vibes reverberating through Los Angeles, there is a small current of discontent disrupting the bliss like a single cloud on a sunny day: Nearly everyone expects Jahlil Okafor to land in the Lakers' lap, but most fans want Karl-Anthony Towns.
Really, who can blame them? Towns and Okafor were seen as opposites for so long, with Towns the defensive monster and Okafor the offensive prodigy. As the college season went on Okafor's struggles on defense became more noticeable while Towns' offensive game took off, making him appear to be the more well-rounded player and clear top choice on most draft boards.
It was well known that Towns had skills beyond what he showed at Kentucky, particularly a solid outside shot, but when video of a recent workout hit the web showing him effortlessly draining NBA threes, dribbling through his legs, and dunking like the rim insulted his mother .... well, everyone went a little crazy.
Bigs aren't supposed to be able to do the things he can do. Off-the-dribble, step-back threes from a guy who is seven feet tall and a historically great defensive player at the college level? Ridiculous. Overnight, Towns went from being considered a fantastic prospect to the next Anthony Davis-level superstar.
To top it all off, reports have been circulating for weeks that Timberwolves president of basketball operations Flip Saunders disagrees with the vast majority of NBA pundits and prefers Okafor to Towns, leaving Lakers fans with a glimmer of hope that Towns -- who figures to be a perfect fit next to fellow Kentucky alum Julius Randle -- may actually be there when the Lakers are on the clock. However, the prevailing thought is that Saunders will eventually see the light and take Towns with the first pick, and that all the rumors of him preferring Okafor are nothing more than a smokescreen to throw teams off the scent.
The Lakers will be left with Okafor by default (although D'Angelo Russell deserves a good look), and while fans will be happy to have him, there will be a reluctant pondering of what could have been if the Lakers had landed the first pick and been able to draft Towns.
Fortunately for Lakers fans the narrative that Towns is head-and-shoulders better than Okafor is largely a matter of perception, and is being accepted as fact mostly because it's being parroted across multiple sports media platforms. While most would agree that Towns is a better fit for the Lakers (and Minnesota, for that matter), Okafor is an absolutely phenomenal player that is being done a disservice with how much he is being overlooked.
According to some of the top "in-the-know" reporters in the game like Alex Kennedy from Basketball Insisders and Eric Pincus from the Los Angeles Times, executives league wide agree that the difference between Towns and Okafor is actually minuscule, in spite of the perception online that the gap is somehow a chasm.
On Basketball Twitter, there's this perception that there's a huge gap between Towns and Okafor. Executives literally laugh at that.— Alex Kennedy (@AlexKennedyNBA) June 6, 2015
I actually think the Wolves take Okafor - that's my mock 1/2 with Towns to LA, Russell 3rd— Eric Pincus (@EricPincus) June 6, 2015
The argument has been made that the NBA game has shifted, and that under modern rules centers need to be mobile, efficient rim protectors whose offensive roles are reduced to spacing the floor and finishing lobs out of the pick-and-roll. Back-to-the basket centers like Okafor would be a relic of a bygone era in the current NBA, an ineffective throwback to the uncivilized days of Patrick Ewing, Hakeem Olajuwon, and Shaquille O'Neal.
I call bullshit.
While it's true that the NBA game has changed (Golden State is a great example), and that new rules have made it more difficult to simply lob the ball into the post and go to work, part of the of the reason for the shift has been a lack of big men with skills in that area.
Most of the top centers of this era -- Dwight Howard, DeAndre Jordan, Tyson Chandler -- are downright lacking in terms of skill in the post and get by with simplistic arsenals out of necessity. They excel as defenders and can dunk the ball, but building an offense around their post play would be, well, offensive.
Okafor, by contrast, has no such problem. He is the most offensively-talented big man that we have seen in quite some time. He has the ability to chain together multiple offensive moves seamlessly and leave defenders confused and frustrated by his impressive footwork. Okafor can also use his athleticism to face up and attack off the dribble (I think this will be more of a weapon in the NBA than in college), and has started developing a Duncan-style bank shot from 15 feet. Even David Robinson agrees that Okafor has some resemblance to his former San Antonio Spurs teammate:
The freshman @BigJah15 Okafor reminds me of TImmyD #BrightFuture— David Robinson (@DavidtheAdmiral) February 7, 2015
Furthermore, Okafor is a fantastic passer out of the post, allowing him to pick defenses apart when the inevitable double-team arrives. At Duke we saw him become the king of the hockey assist, as his team would quickly swing the ball from one of his kick-out passes and find open shooters. Duke averaged 1.3 points per possession when Okafor received the ball in the post, which is incredibly efficient.
Okafor's measurements are nearly as impressive as his offensive repertoire. He stands 6'11" with a 7'5" wingspan and weighs a sturdy 270 pounds, but in spite of his size, he moves around the court with surprising grace and agility. He can use his strength to dislodge defenders similar to the way Shaq used to, and his long arms allow him to grab rebounds, bother shooters, and get his shot off over defenders.
It also doesn't hurt that he has enormous hands that allow him to catch just about everything that gets thrown his way, grabbing it the way a normal-sized hand would be able to grasp a grapefruit. When given the ball in the post he often palms it while making his move to the basket, giving him greater control of the ball than most players would have.
For reference, this is his hand holding a basketball:
While there may be some correlation between large hands and poor free throw shooting (a problem Okafor has), there is no doubt that his mitts give him a major advantage when he is catching tough passes and finishing through contact.
His strength, wingspan, footwork, size, and freakish hands all add up to create this kind of offensive dominance:
While the NBA river is currently flowing away from post play the league often goes through trends and fads, and it's entirely possible that a player of Okafor's ability could change the course and bring back-to-the-basket centers to the forefront once again.
That's not to say that Okafor doesn't have his share of weaknesses to fix; all rookies do. Jah (as his teammates call him) somewhat struggled against college defenses that featured centers who were similar in size to him, but that's to be expected because it's rare for him to come across players of his size and skill level to play against.
Towns attributed much of his offensive growth to his being able to practice every day against NBA-caliber defenders in Kentucky teammates Willie Cauley-Stein and Dakari Johnson, but Okafor had no such challengers. It's not out of the question to think that Okafor's will get even better once he gets used to handling NBA defenders and working with them every day in practice. We can only imagine the types of battles bruisers like Okafor, Julius Randle, and Tarik Black would have on the Lakers practice floor.
A lot of criticism has also been lobbed Okafor's way for his defensive capabilities, but there are two things that have to be considered here. First, Okafor has been the backbone of every team he has played on since youth ball, and has been told time and again that he cannot foul out. As a result he doesn't chase after blocks and protect the rim the way Towns does (few can). The flip side is that Okafor also commits an average of only 2.1 fouls in 30.1 minutes of playing time, which is exceptionally good. For comparison, had Towns, who only played 21.1 minutes per game due to Kentucky's depth, played the same number of minutes as Okafor he would have been on the verge of fouling out of nearly every game.
While Towns is unquestionably the better defender, the gap between the two likely would have been closer on that end had he been in a situation like Okafor's, where the team depended on him to play major minutes.
In the NBA, where not only is there an extra foul available before a player is eliminated but front court benches are deeper, Okafor won't need to worry so much about fouls and can be more aggressive in how he plays defense. It won't be an easy transition, but to suggest that a player with Okafor's physical gifts can't become at least a solid defender is asinine.
Second, Okafor gets a bit of a bad rap on the defensive end simply because he isn't Towns. Let's not forget that Towns is an elite-level defender, and comparing Okafor to him defensively is like comparing Tom Hardy's "Bane" to Heath Ledger's "Joker." Hardy did a fine job, but Ledger completely knocked it out of the park. It's not that Okafor is a horrid defender so much as Towns is an absolutely great one.
However, there is one area that Towns blows Okafor out of the water in: free-throw shooting. Towns is one of the best free-throw shooting big men we have seen (81 percent from the line), while Okafor is one of the worst (51 percent). Fixing free throw shooting isn't easy (just ask Shaq), and unless Okafor makes drastic improvements before he puts on an NBA uniform, we will witness the birth of the "Hackafor" strategy. This is certainly a concern for NBA General Managers, but it isn't enough to overlook his considerable talent.
After Okafor shot out of the gate during the college season as the consensus top pick, the flaws in his game were picked apart. The focus shifted to everything that he isn't instead of marveling at everything that he is, and somehow it 's overshadowed the fact that he's an incredibly talented basketball player.
There is no doubt right now all the buzz among basketball fans is revolving around Towns and his unreal abilities. He's a fantastic player, and one that the Lakers would be lucky to pick. However, Towns' greatness does not take away from Okafor's. His hype-train simply left the terminal earlier than Jahlil's and it has created the false perception that there is a huge gap between the two.
Lakers fans should feel at ease in knowing that perception is not always reality. Okafor is not a distant second to Towns, and while arguments can be made about fit, versatility, free-throws, defense, and a number of other things to differentiate between the two, the bottom line is that they both have a chance at becoming special players.
If things go the way most experts predict them to then a massive pair of hands will be grabbing for a Lakers hat on draft night, and should that happen it isn't time to wonder about what could have been with Towns, it's time to celebrate what is.
Because Jahlil Okafor is not a consolation prize.
Follow Trevor Lane on Twitter @16ringsNBA