"Two Big Splashes" has become the theme at the top with the draft’s two premiere centers being taken by the team from the Land of Lakes, the T-Wolves, and the team that orginated there, the Lakers. Two wretched teams are going to be able to fill the most difficult to obtain position in the game with Karl-Anthony Towns and Jahlil Okafor. Coming off remarkable freshmen seasons, Towns and Okafor figure to provide an instant boost to the rebuilding efforts of their new teams. The duo are not the only formidable members of this year’s strong center crop, so here is a quick look at the intriguing and uncertain top 10.
1. Karl-Anthony Towns 7-0 250 C Kentucky Fr.
In the first half of the college season, it was difficult to really get a sense of where Towns was at in his development. The platoon system Kentucky implemented limited his minutes, and not many of their games were all that competitive. Some scouts actually came to the erroneous conclusion that Willie Cauley-Stein was the superior prospect. From February on, however, he left no doubts. While still only playing 23.4 minutes over the final 18 games (14 of those games were against teams who finished in the RPI Top 100), he averaged 12.7 points on 61.6 percent shooting, 7.7 rebounds, 2.7 offensive rebounds, 1.4 assists, 2.2 blocks, 1.4 turnovers, and 3.1 fouls per game. On a per minute basis, his level of dominance is astonishing. Provided he stays healthy, he has the size, athleticism, and skill set to be one of the best two-way centers in the NBA in relatively short order. He will have to cut down on the fouling, and needs to adapt to a larger minute load, but such flaws are to be expected. On the whole, he is ahead of the learning curve for what one would normally expect from a center prospect after one year in college and any team should be thrilled to move forward in their rebuild with him.
2. Jahlil Okafor 6-11 270 C Duke Fr.
It is possible that Jahlil Okafor proves that expectations for the absolute top tier basketball recruits and draft prospects are impossible to meet. In a behemoth ACC that featured #1, 2, 3, and 4-seeds in the NCAA tournament, Okafor was 5th in scoring, 3rd in rebounding, 1st in offensive rebounding, 1st in field goal percentage, and 7th in blocked shots. Beyond the numbers, he showed a tremendous court sense, setting up the angle for his post moves, sensing the double team, and finding the open man. He was a dominant force on a team that won the national title, yet, despite breaking the mold for what one can expect from a freshman center, his flaws have been front-and-center throughout the draft process. His free throw shooting is a legitimate concern, but it is still early in knowing how grave it will be. As effective as he is in the post and around the hoop, it is possible that it will not be long before the game plan is simply to hack and force him to make free throws. As the playoffs often highlighted if struggles at the line persist for a long enough, then all the practice and technique in the world might not overcome a mental block. It is a risk that any team should be willing to take. The slights against his defense are more overstated. No player entering the NBA after his freshman season is going to enter fully polished on both ends. It is inarguable that whoever drafts him is going to need to commit to teaching and drilling sound NBA defense, but many of the best defensive centers in the league did not enter that way. Roy Hibbert, Al Jefferson, and Marc Gasol are the most prominent examples, not only due to their well-chronicled growth on that end, but also that their teams allowed opponents the fewest points in the paint per game this past regular season.
3. Myles Turner 6-11 240 C Texas Fr.
If Towns and Okafor are exceptions among centers in how quickly they handled the transition to high level college basketball, Turner is more of the norm. In a difficult Big Twelve, Turner had games where he looked as intriguing as any player in the draft, and others where he looked like a gangly freshman who looked lost from having no Plan B to combat not being the clear cut biggest and most talented player on the court. Once again, this is not atypical for freshmen big men. Willie Cauley-Stein and Frank Kaminsky were not the players they became last year that they were as freshmen. Whereas guards and wings regularly face other great guards and wings at youth levels, the scarcity of size does impact the learning curve for big men. Turner has the length and raw offensive skills where he could develop into an impactful player, potentially one who will be a mismatch for any opponent. It is possible had Turner returned to Texas he would have gone from being someone who offers moments in the occasional game to a consistent performer with a better understanding of what he has to do on a nightly basis. With that uncertainty, however, a team is going to have more of a gamble on their hands, one that is going to require tempered short-term expectations. In addition to inconsistent play, he currently lacks the strength to really handle being in the paint outside of selected 2nd unit minutes. Even if he is more effective on the perimeter than he was at Texas, his lack of strength at this point of his career might even allow opponents to put a long wing on him.
4. Willie Cauley-Stein 7-1 242 C Kentucky Jr.
As a freshman, Cauley-Stein flashed potential as a raw super athletic freak. As a sophomore, his development stagnated a bit as he still was not impacting games on a nightly basis. This past season, however, he seemed to find his identity as a player. With his length and athleticism, he was able to be an incredibly impactful player by being an active pest. By simplifying what he tried to do and having a better understanding of what he was supposed to do, he put together the kind of season observers were expecting. He was active defensively and aggressive in going after rebounds and loose balls. Going forward, it is hard to believe he will not be able to find some level of success simply by continuing to be an active pest on both ends in the NBA. Cauley-Stein is not without his flaws. His offensive game is very limited and going to require others to set him up. While he has improved his free throw shooting, it is still not where a team would want it. Also, after three years in college, he is still only 240 lbs after measuring at 7’0 ½” at the Combine. The extent to which he will be able to hold his ground against starting centers, especially in the West, is still up for question.
5. Frank Kaminsky 7-1 231 C Wisconsin Sr.
Kaminsky dazzled the nation throughout the college basketball season with excellent performances in the Big Ten and NCAA Tournament with a polished skillset in the paint and perimeter. He outshined the stars of Arizona, Kentucky, and Duke in the Badgers’ tournament run, and emerged as one of the more intriguing big men in this draft. One of the big concerns for him, however, is that while he showed off a good perimeter game, his bread was buttered in the paint. At 7’1” and only 231 lbs., the question has to be raised as to whether he will have the base strength to recreate his collegiate success in the paint offensively as well as be able to battle against bigger centers defensively and on the glass. If not, he has the skills to stay in the league as a perimeter-oriented big man, but probably would be unable to live up to his draft position.
6. Guillermo Hernangomez 6-11 250 PF/C Cajasol Sevilla 1994
Hernangomez was the teammate of Kristaps Porzingis in Seville this past year on a team that spent much of the season at or around the relegation spot of the ACB. Their team was especially young with the rotation the two noted draft prospects as well as three other players who were 22 or younger. The youthful approach allowed Hernangomez the chance to get his most extensive play at the senior level in both the ACB and Eurocup with mixed results, but it is fair to say that Real Madrid loaning him off the past two seasons in order to get him playing time is indicative of where he is currently at relative to the NBA. His fouls (5.6 per 40 minutes in the Eurocup and 4.1 in the ACB) and turnover rates (3.8 and 3.9 respectively) were higher than ideal, especially for someone who is not a prodigious shot blocker or post scorer. He needs minutes on the court as well as time for his body to fill out, but Real Madrid is committed to him and is one of the best places outside the NBA for him to reach his potential. If his development continues as scheduled, he could be a serviceable center for some NBA team to bring over in a few years’ time.
7. Cliff Alexander 6-9 239 PF/C Kansas Fr.
A person can look the part, but not necessarily be ready to play the part. Alexander entered Kansas with high praise and expectations, but left following a pedestrian season that ended prematurely due to the NCAA declaring him ineligible. From a draft and NBA stand point, it is unfortunate. Forcing his hand into declaring for the NBA places a talented but raw player on a steeper learning curve. Alexander has the physical and athletic makeup to tantalize (6’9” 239 lbs with a 7’3 ½” wingspan), but needs to work on his unpolished skills and understanding on both ends before becoming a player who projects into an NBA rotation. On the plus side, he is the type of player the D-League was created to serve, and therefore stands a better chance of NBA teams investing in him.
8. Dakari Johnson 7-0 265 C Kentucky So.
When Karl-Anthony Towns emerged in the second half of the season, Dakari Johnson was the one who lost out. Going into February, Johnson was averaging 8.1 points, 5.8 rebounds, and 1.0 blocks in 19 minutes. While not spectacular numbers, and he was struggling to finish his shots in SEC play, it was certainly acceptable for a sophomore 7-footer playing in a platoon on an undefeated team. As his minutes shrank to 13.2 over the final 18 games, Dakari became a 7’0” 265 lbs. forgotten man. His decision to enter the draft is one where both pros and cons are clear. While his lack of experience (one season’s worth of minutes spread out over two seasons), conditioning, offensive polish, and free throw shooting clearly peg him as a project, his size assures him that he will be a project some team wants to work on.
9. Rakeem Christmas 6-10 243 PF/C Syracuse Sr.
Christmas is a late-developing big man whose improving standing is aided by his impressive physical makeup. At 6’9 3/4” with a 7’5 ¼” wingspan, he has the length that any team would want from the ACC’s leading shot blocker. He also has a worker bee approach that figures to endear him to coaches and teammates. That said, he will need to adapt to a more difficult defensive environment outside the Syracuse zone. The track record of prolific shot blockers coming from zone defenses is spotty. Also, the business-oriented reality of the league will likely mean he will not have as many years to adapt to the NBA as he had to adapt to the ACC at Syracuse.
10. Mouhammadou Jaiteh 6-11 247 C Nanterre 1994
Jaiteh is not the most exciting prospect in the center crop, but is not one to be dismissed. As only a 20 year old, he was the starting center on a Nanterre side that finished 2nd in France’s LNB Pro A regular season as well as won the Eurochallenge. He recorded 9 double-doubles and was named an All-Star. At the combine, he measured out at just under 6’11” with a 7’3 ¼” wingspan while weighing in at 247 lbs. With his wide-shouldered build, he figures to continue to get bigger and stronger in an NBA strength program. It seems as though his standing is hurt by simply being unspectacular. He finishes well around the rim, showed good hands in pick-and-rolls, and was an effective offensive rebounder. Certainly as the draft rolls on, big and solid counts.
Dimitrios Agravanis 6-10 235 PF Olympiacos 1994, Ziga Dimec 6-11 250 C Rogaska 1993, Nnanna Egwu 6-11 250 C Illinois Sr., Cady Lalanne 6-9 240 C Massachusetts Sr., Nikola Milutinov 7-0 225 PF/C KK Partizan 1994, Yanick Moreira 6-11 220 C SMU Sr., Robert Upshaw 7-0 260 C Washington So., Amir Williams 6-11 255 C Ohio State Sr.