Year after year we always see big men rising up draft boards as June approaches, but this season there’s a pair of post men that could make a case for the top selection in the 2015 NBA draft. Karl-Anthony Towns of Kentucky was a dominant presence in the paint for the regular season’s top team. Showing face up potential, the ability to guard the rim, and a feel for the game that allows GM’s to imagine a complete big a few years down the line, Towns is an intriguing canvass with a solid foundation and NBA size. Anchoring the NCAA’s best post season team, National Champion, Jahlil Okafor’s back to the basket game, and powerful lower body is almost a blast from the past. Without the two way appeal of Towns, Okafor is equally appealing due to the possibility he could be an elite offensive post man, and an immovable force down on the block. Each player has their share of translatable skills, and could make a case to be the first name Adam Silver calls on June 25th. Here is my break down.
Size and Measurements
While both players joined the list of recent top prospects to bypass the annual NBA Combine in Chicago last month, each big man has a trail of measurements that give us a pretty good picture of their basketball measurements.
Over the past two seasons Karl Towns has measured in pretty consistently at around 7 feet tall in shoes, which is more or less the measuring stick in the NBA as to whether you have good size for the center position. Towns did stack up at 6’11.25’’ in kicks at the Kentucky Combine, but even if he’s somewhere in between, he’s still more or less a 7 footer. Unless he goes the Kevin Garnett route, and refuses to be as acknowledged as one. While not freakish, he also has very long arms, and a tremendous reach. A 7’3.5’’ wingspan allows him to cover lots of ground laterally, and a seemingly fluke 9’5’’ standing reach at the 2014 Hoop Summit was followed by a 9’1’’ standing reach at Cal’s spectacle in the bluegrass state. Even if KAT shoots the mean, a 9’3’’ is very good from an NBA standpoint, and at 250 pounds, he fits the mold of a massive power forward, or a pretty good sized center.
Jahlil was at the same 2014 Hoop Summit event Towns was, and has measurements from there, and from playing for the United States U-19 team in the summer of 2013. Okafor has measured out very consistently over the past few years, and it’s relatively safe to say he stands right at 6’11’’ in shoes, and sports an absolutely condor-esque wingspan that has been measured anywhere from 7’5’’ to 7’6.25’’, which helps him achieve a standing reach that has, as an average, hit over 9’2.5’’. The Blue Devil’s premiere player of 2015 also weighs in at a tough to move 277 pounds, with both massive hands and feet to round out his physical dimensions.
Really their physical stats on paper really don’t leave a lot to be desired. Sure, each player doesn’t have the “Wow Factor’’ Joel Embiid did last season when he started dunking everything that moved in pre-season workouts, but for an NBA power forward or center, Towns and Okafor have the size NBA scouts look for in a young big.
While Towns is the taller player, the top of a basketball player’s head does less for his game impact than the length of his arms, the height of his reach, and the weight he can throw around in the paint. Okafor’s 7’6’’ wingspan is the real deciding factor here, and to boot his hands envelop the ball like a normal sized man would hold a grapefruit. He also could stand to improve his conditioning, but still weigh in at a solid 265-270 pounds. While Karl and Jahlil most likely share a very similar standing reach, the wingspan and bulk tip the scales in favor of Jahlil Okafor.
Edge – Okafor
Big is great, but big and athletic is better. With the pick and roll game being so prominent in the current NBA landscape, having a big man who is mobile enough to switch off screens, and be competent on the perimeter holds major appeal on draft night. Not to mention the impact it has on virtually every part of a player’s game. Being athletic isn’t a requirement to be a great basketball player, but when you take a look at an All-Star game roster, or All-NBA team, the majority of its members are generally pretty springy and agile.
Karl-Anthony Towns is what I would consider a good athlete for his size. Although some of the vertical leap numbers a the UK combine appear to be a bit embellished when compared to what those same players measured at the NBA combine, Towns’ 36 inch max vertical leap is really good, even if it’s more like 34 or 35 inches. Paired with his standing reach, his max reach is right around that elite 12 foot measurement, which if there was any prior doubt, projects Towns as an NBA level shot blocker.
KAT is also a pretty nimble player, with a good second jump, and pretty solid strength. Karl’s coordination plays a big part of his agility inside the lane. For a 7 footer, he does a pretty good job of staying in control, moving inside the arc, and running in transition. He also has a very chiseled upper body, and has clearly spent some time in the weight room over the past few years. A possible concern is that his lower body seems to be far less developed than his upper torso. This could potentially be problematic when vying for rebounding position, or trying to establish himself in the back to the basket game. A strong core, and lower body are far more important at the next level than how much a player can curl.
Town’s athletic package would best be described as good. He really doesn’t do anything from a run/jump standpoint that sends your jaw to the floor, or puts him in an elite club, but it’s hard to really be too hard on him. He’s pretty quick, a good leaper, coordinated, and holds 250 pounds pretty well as a 7 footer, with still room to grow in terms of his lower body development. When looking at the next level, Karl Anthony’s physical ability, in terms of athleticism, will do more to help his cause than hinder it.
On the other hand, Jahlil Okafor’s most standout athletic trait has to be his strength, and ability to impose his refined post game. Okafor’s lower body strength could put him at an absolute elite level after a few years in an NBA weight room. He holds 280 pounds pretty well, and could very well develop into a big man who’s nearly impossible to move off the block. There isn’t a huge correlation between the strongest players in the NBA and the best, but Jahlil could easily develop into one of the stronger players in the league.
The drawback of this kind of mass and strength, is it’s impact on a player’s speed and lateral quickness. The former Blue Devil has good feet, and coordination, but wasn’t really quick by NCAA terms, let alone from an NBA standpoint. There will most certainly be a hurdle to overcome, and he will need some extra emphasis in terms of conditioning.
Okafor is also not much as a leaper, and despite his position doesn’t really project as an NBA rim protector, even after you factor in his massive wingspan. His athletic limitations at this point in his career, aren’t exactly a draw, but due to his age, and the fact he hasn’t reached his athletic peak certainly give him room to grow. Many players who haven’t wowed scouts in terms of natural speed, and hops have improved drastically with the tutelage of the elite trainers of NBA teams.
In this category the overwhelming edge goes to Karl Towns. Jahlil Okafor is a skilled player with room to grow as a leaper, and runner, but raw athleticism has been a knock of his for years. Towns’ ability to get off the ground, move laterally, and that same youth to mold into a better physical specimen lands him as both a better athlete now, and a better athlete after a year or two in to a pro contract.
Edge – Towns
In terms of scoring ability, Karl-Anthony Towns and Jahlil Okafor couldn’t be more contrasting. Towns has an emerging mid-range game, is a great free throw shooter, and despite a decent hook shot, he often struggles in terms of footwork, and in one on one post up situations. Okafor has amazing footwork, is a high level post tactician, but really only has range out to 10 feet, and struggles to knock down free throws.
As a member of a deep, and insanely balanced Kentucky team, Karl Towns’ stats don’t really jump off the page, but it’s how he scores his points, and some areas of his game that show real promise.
21.1 mpg – 10.3 ppg (3.7-6.6) FG .566% (2-8) 3PT 25% (2.8-3.4) FT .813%
Now 10.3 points per game don’t jump off the page, but as a member of a Wildcat team that experimented with a platoon system for half the season, Towns was actually Calipari’s second leading scorer, and if you average it out to 30 mpg (right at Okafor’s average) his projected average is actually 14.7 points per game. Karl is also a player who really came into his own later in the year. After some very shaky offensive outings early on, he tallied 14 of his 19 double digit games after New Years Day 2015. His 25 point outing against Notre Dame in the NCAA tournament also proved he could really wreak havoc in the paint if teams opted to not double him, and try to tackle his assignment one on one.
An amazing thing Towns does as a big man is shoot free throws. After an finishing the 2015 NBA playoffs, there were games riddled with the hack your big man strategies, and having a 19 year old 7 footer that hit 81% of his freebies in college is a major plus. Although solid, Karl’s jump shot may not have dazzled that stat card in terms of mid-range percentage, but his release is nice, he has range, but merely needs more reps before he’s a big threat from 15-18 feet. He’s also very solid around the rim, and his length and size allow him to be very good on the offensive glass, and finishing around the rim and absorbing contact. According to Hoop-Math.com, KAT finished his shots around the rim at a very good 75.7% clip, and led the Wildcats with 41 put back points.
For a big man, Towns does have a nice feel for the game, and made some pretty spectacular passes over the course of the season. 1.1 assists per game will not drop any jaws, but if you’ve seen a large body of work, his feel for hitting the open man is very promising.
Towns has a couple of knocks on offense, the first being that he’s a work in progress, with some nice tools, but it’s really unclear if he projects to be a pick and pop specialist, who can finish, or that he will be able to put everything together into a total offensive package. Early in the year he struggled mightily in one on one post up situations, before showing some improvement later in the year, and 20 of his 39 games he was held to single digits, including a 1 point performance in the NCAA tournament against a fast paced West Virginia team. He was also held to just 2 points earlier in the year against another fast paced team, in North Carolina. Towns did play on a monster team, but he rarely asserted himself on the offensive end, and when he didn’t get going early, his lack of ability to rebound from a rough start often relegated him to drawing defensive attention, and letting others enjoy the newfound space.
Jahlil Okafor won a number of awards as a freshman standout playing for an NCAA Championship team, and his numbers certainly reflect his nationwide notoriety.
30.1 ppg – 17.3 ppg (7.3-11.1) FG .664% (0-0) 3PT (2.6-5.1) FT .510%
Okafor really put on a half court clinic for most of the season in an era where the vast majority of NCAA bigs are years behind Jahlil’s prowess with his back to the rim. His footwork is amazing for a prospect today, let alone one who cannot legally buy a beer. His massive hands give him complete control of the ball around the hoop, and his wingspan can hold just about any opponent at bay in a one on one post up situation. For much of the year, Okafor not only proved he could execute his half court dominance, but he was up for the challenge of being his team’s number one offensive option.
Jahlil is great at using the glass, gaining and maintaing position, and being aware as well as using the rim to gain extra space around the hoop. He’s not much of a jump shooter at this point in his career, but has shown the ability to use the glass to knock down baseline shots out to about 10 feet. The National Freshman of the Year cleaned up close to the hoop on his way to a 76.5% clip at the rim, which includes 62 put back buckets (again, according to Hoop-Math.com). Also contrasting Towns, Okafor wasn’t held to single digits until March 4th against Wake Forest when he only mustered 6 points in 19 minutes, and he only had 3 single digit scoring outputs all season, which pails in comparison to his 14 twenty point outings and 35 double digit games.
Also a great post passer, Okafor’s feel for the game has rendered him a creative post passer, and also the mastermind of some great touch passes, and dump offs over the duration of his first and only collegiate season.
For a player that gains such attention and respect around the hoop, it would be more ideal that Okafor was a better free throw shooter. Last season, he only shot 51% from the stripe, and while a master 10 feet and in, his mid range jumpers reflect this shortcoming as a pure shooter. His huge hands could play a part in this, but this is certainly an area of his game he needs to improve upon. In addition, he has had so-so games against top competition last year in the NCAA tournament. He never got going against Jakob Poeltl, and only tallied 6 points on 6 shots, and in the Championship game, he failed to get in his groove until the 2nd half, and scored 10 points on 9 shots, although Jahlil did hit some big buckets down the stretch.
All in all, Jahlil Okafor’s advanced post game, and sky high half court potential gives him the edge on the superior jump shooting Karl-Anthony Towns. Although Towns is no slouch as an offensive prospect, he has a lot further to come in terms of offensive development, especially since he was a player who rarely asserted himself with the ball in his hands over a 39 game college season. Considering the maturity of Okafor’s offensive game on the block, he does have the potential to be one of the best in the NBA with his back to the basket with continued tutelage, and experience. For this kind of potential, and polish, I give the edge to Jahlil Okafor.
Edge – Okafor
In today’s NBA a defensive big that has the agility to guard pick and rolls, as well as protect the rim and challenge shots at a high level is a hot commodity, and each player is very different in terms of how they project on the defensive side of the ball.
Karl-Anthony Towns is a nimble player with rangy arms and positional size. While playing with SEC Defensive Player of the year, Willie Cauley-Stein, he was used primarily to protect the paint and challenge shots at the rim. The Wildcat big excelled in this role, and immediately established himself as one of the top shot blockers in the NCAA. His 2.3 shot blocks per 21.1 minutes per game, projected to a whopping 4.3 per 40 minutes, and he not only showcased great timing, but the chops to move quickly side to side to switch defensive assignments on the fly. KAT also showcased the ability to switch out on perimeter bigs, and his agility doing just that will come in handy guarding pros. His experience as a member of the best team defensive squad in the NCAA certainly acted as a catalyst for his defensive development coming from the high school ranks, and as a result his defensive smarts are advanced for a 19 year old.
Now Jahlil Okafor is blessed with a terrific wingspan, and standing reach, and those physical tools allowed him to be a solid NCAA rim protector. He blocked 1.4 shots per game, and altered his share more. Where it gets a little tricky is that despite his physical tools, those kind of numbers paired with the his below average jump quickness don’t really paint the picture of an NBA level shot blocker. He’s not going to be a guy many people can back down on the post, but concerns arise that he’ll be exploited by being drawn out on the perimeter and forced to change directions. His NCAA Championship performance against stretch 5, Frank Kaminsky, was probably a little better than many expected, but this will be an area of his game that he will most likely continue to fall short.
With Okafor taking two out of the first three categories, Karl-Anthony Towns gains some ground on the defensive side of the ball. It’s his ability to both protect the rim, and switch out on the perimeter that gives him a two area win over Jahlil Okafor. Okafor may grow to be able to hide his shortcomings in a team strategy, but his lack of quickness and leaping ability really limit his projection as a player who will guard an NBA rim or be a viable pick and roll defender.
Edge – Towns
The NBA is filled with specialists in todays game. Long range shooters, shot blockers, defenders, and Jahlil Okafor has the potential to be a unique kind of expert. His defensive ability doesn’t really project to become much more than average, even after years of improvement, but his low post foundation could render him one of the best in the game by the time he gathers a few years of NBA experience. His potential is that of becoming one of the top low post scorers in the league, and even if the game has shifted to a slightly faster pace as a whole, tell that to teams like Memphis that played hard nosed, half court basketball, and had great success. There is most definitely a place for the throw back post man in today’s NBA.
Karl-Anthony Towns on the other hand has athletic ability that Jahlil Okafor simply does not, which projects him to be a two way player in the league. While his offense is not as advanced, he still has some good tools in that area to improve upon, plus his size, agility, and reach will make him a much better defender out of the gate, with room to grow. While I feel Towns may not ever be elite in any one area of his game, the total package he brings to the table will render him above average in wide variety of categories, thus a very formidable player capable of being a presence both guarding the rim, roaming the paint, and getting involved in his teams’ offensive strategy.
For this two way appeal, and the athletic ability to pull off some developmental versatility on both sides of the ball, I give the edge to Towns. If he can put an offensive package together beyond cleaning up misses, and hitting jumpers, he could be a top center in the league. Jahlil’s offensive potential is extremely intriguing, but his physical limitations guarding perimeter bigs, and failure to project as a rim protector just don’t render him with the same two way potential as Towns.
Edge – Towns
Each player has enjoyed some serious buzz as the top pick at different points of the past season, but the victor of this face-off is Karl Anthony Towns. Each player is a very different prospect that excels in nearly opposite areas of the court. Towns’ potential which is also fueled by his edge in athleticism, and superior defense make him that much appealing from a long term standpoint.
Jahlil Okafor’s ability to become a top flight low post scorer, and an rock solid big inside 10 feet make him extremely appealing on draft night, and shortcomings as a raw athlete can be improved upon over time. He had an amazing freshman season, and not only excelled in the stats column, but also as he anchored a national championship Duke team. His status as a top level prospect in this draft class are firmly rooted, and players like him can impact the game greatly in the half court game.
The notion that Karl-Anthony Towns can take his current package, and continue to hone his mid-range game, and post up skills paired with his current status as a superior defender make him too intriguing to pass up. While Jahlil could be a specialist that is passable on defense, Towns could be above average in both, and not only protect the rim, but be a key cog in his team’s offense. This face off was knotted after analyzing size, athleticism, offense, and defense, but it’s Karl-Anthony Towns potential as a prospect that gives him the edge as the number 1 prospect in this year’s NBA draft.
Follow David Ray on twitter @DRNBAdraft