As you’re certainly aware by now, the Timberwolves won the draft lottery on Tuesday night. While they can still complain that they’ve never “moved up” above their odds slotting — that was not technically possible this year, given their league-worst standing — this was the first time they’ve ever been so lucky to win the lotto: They had just a 25 percent chance of landing the top pick and that’s exactly what happened.
On Tuesday afternoon we discussed the two basic scenarios that they would face after the ping-pong balls did their thing: they’d either land a Top-2 Pick and select a big man, or they wouldn’t, and their choice would be more complicated and involve a much longer list of names and positions.
Barring something very surprising, the Wolves will draft either Karl-Anthony Towns of Kentucky or Jahlil Okafor of Duke. Both will be centers in the NBA, which is a position of need for this team, but not the reason for the choice; along with filling a roster void, Towns and Okafor also project as the best all-around impact players in this draft.
It took all of a few minutes for the social-media celebration to shift gears to a “Towns versus Okafor” discussion. It’s clear to me that most fans of the team want the Wolves to draft Towns, but much less clear that Flip Saunders — the team’s president of basketball operations, coach, and minority owner — will heed that collective, outsider input. For a long time it has been rumored that Flip is enamored with Okafor, and his comments on KFAN radio this afternoon did little to dispel that notion.
Whatever Flip and the Wolves ultimately decide on June 25, “Towns or Okafor” is sure to dominate Timberwolves discourse from now until then. I read somewhere recently that “to know something entails two things: for there to be no doubt, and for it to be true.” This definition of knowledge is problematic for discussing the draft because certainty levels (for the self-aware, anyway) are so low, and the truth will not be adequately tested for years to come. With full recognition that most people already understand this reality, it sometimes feels like it bears repeating.
For the Timberwolves decision maker(s), the obvious question is whether Towns or Okafor will become the better all-around player. Duh. If they could know the answer to that broad question, that would be the end of it. But they can’t know the answer right now, and given how good each player projects to be in the NBA, the decision draws a host of other sub-issues into the analysis. Some are data driven, some are conceptual, some are philosophical, and some are based on imagination.
From what I have seen of, and read about these two players, I lean slightly toward drafting Okafor. At this point anyway. I’ll spend plenty more time watching the available videos of each, and reading as much as I can. ESPN and Draft Express always do a great job covering the upcoming drafts, and Canis Hoopus (led by increasingly-well-known Layne Vashro) have had cutting-edge stats projections for years. If somehow you’re reading here and not there, I highly recommend checking it out.
My basic reasoning for preferring Okafor is that almost every time I watched Duke play, he stood out as an imposing, primary offensive option who had an unusual command of the halfcourt offense from the post. He has a great feel for positioning himself where he can make a play for either himself or teammates, and once he gets the ball in reasonable position, it seems like close to a foregone conclusion that something good will happen. For a player so big, he has incredible ball-handling ability and footwork. Duncan is the most frequent style comparison, and that’s fair, but Okafor is more advanced at this stage than Duncan was. In my opinion, his offensive skills from the low and extended post positions are at such a high level that any comparison will be faulty. I tweeted last night that comparing Okafor’s post play to others is akin to comparing Steph Curry’s shooting to others, and I stand by that. There are things that Okafor can do that nobody else would be allowed to try, and it makes comparison mostly worthless. He’s going to do things on offense in the NBA that nobody else does, with the possible exception of DeMarcus Cousins who is a superstar offensive player.
Towns is a very, very good prospect, too. He is a better defender than Okafor, even if his athleticism might be overrated by some accounts. His upside and appeal has less to do with mobility than it does with his combination of size (he has pure center size, and a frame that looks like it might broaden out into Derrick Favors-territory) and shooting ability. Towns has no obvious weakness and he figures to be a “net positive” no matter his role or situation. Such a high level of certainty that he’ll succeed in some fashion is rare, and he is a safer pick than Okafor for this reason. (Okafor struggled more on defense than Towns, and does not rebound as well.) I lean slightly in Okafor’s favor because I think he has a better chance of being a special, high-impact player who plays offense so well that he can be relied on to create plays not only for himself but others. Basically, I think Okafor has a higher chance of being a superstar in the traditional sense of the term which might’ve been overrated at one time, but is still the most important factor in building a championship-caliber roster.
But like I said, my certainty about Towns vs Okafor is low, and yours should be too.
Having digested the lottery news for 24 hours, here are some questions that I have thought of and/or encountered on Twitter, with my own short responses. Feel free to chime in with your own in the comments:
1) Should the Wolves decision be affected by the makeup of their current roster?
Only the presence of Andrew Wiggins should guide this draft decision. Wiggins grew more assertive as the season went on (putting it mildly) but the offense Flip ran is unsustainably inefficient. It was geared around wing isolations, which no successful teams do anymore.
That unsustainability, in my view, sort of calls into question what type of offensive player Wiggins is going to become in the next few years. He’s become a vicious dunker of the ball in traffic, and his shooting mechanics make that seem like a likely skill as time goes on. But will his offense come more like Kobe’s or Melo’s, or more like Kawhi Leonard’s or other players in motion-type systems? Basically: if the Wolves are beginning from scratch plus Wiggins, would they stand to benefit more from a primary offensive player (Okafor) or a secondary one who better complements a playmaker (Towns)?
While I was and am very encouraged by the season Wiggins had, I still tend to think of him as more of a second offensive option with the potential to be great on defense. In that respect, I like the idea of him playing off of Okafor a bit more than I like the idea of Towns playing off of Wiggins.
2) Should the Wolves performance in the 2014-15 season guide their decision?
You’ll see it mentioned a lot between now and the draft that the Wolves had the league’s worst defense, and all sorts of details fleshing the ugliness out. They couldn’t defend the paint AT ALL, and Towns would better plug those huge gaps than Okafor would.
But here’s the thing: that Wolves team was not their real one. They were tanking, and holding out their veteran players. And the young players that they do have and rely on most — Ricky Rubio and Andrew Wiggins — have higher upsides on defense than anywhere else. The Wolves were almost as bad on offense as they were on defense last year. Again, tanking. None of it matters when deciding who to spend this top overall pick on. They’re building from the ground up.
3) What to make of the big free throw shooting disparity?
As college freshman, Towns made 81 percent of his free throws, while Okafor made just 51 percent of his. It’s a big deal, and one of the biggest causes of my uncertainty that Okafor’s the better prospect. He has enormous hands (which helps his ball handling and playmaking) which might play a factor in his poor shooting. I’m encouraged that he shoots the ball high, rather than line-driving it like Shaq. But he certainly needs to improve here. On the other hand, Towns making such a high percentage as a young post signals high skill-level that might extend into other areas.
4) Flip has emphasized that he wants to rebuild this team around “two-way” players. Does this matter?
Eh, not really. First, who cares what Flip said after he traded away Kevin Love for Andrew Wiggins? He was probably airing a little bit of frustration that Love didn’t wanna be here, and taking a passive-aggressive shot at the newly departed star. If the Wolves think Okafor is better than Towns, they shouldn’t let a buzz phrase like this two-way player thing stop them. Plus, it’s plenty possible that Okafor will become as much a two-way player (superstar offensive player, competent defender) as Towns, in the event KAT is a non-star on offense in the NBA.
5) Why does Towns seem like a more “modern” style big man, and should this matter?
Well, I guess the answer to the first part is that he can step out and hit jumpers, while Okafor needs to be closer to the hoop like centers used to play. Even though Towns has yet to show even college three-point range (he attempted 8 all season) his form and his play in high school suggest that he might develop long range.
I think the answer to the second part is dependent on a couple of things: first, do the Wolves plan on implementing a spread pick-and-roll system? If not, then who cares if Towns has that skillset? If so, then perhaps it’s worth considering. Second, do the Wolves want to spend a first overall pick on a player who they plan to spot up for jumpers? This is tied to the “ideal Wiggins role” question. Maybe they do. Maybe Wiggins and Rubio can handle the playmaking on a contending team in a few years. But if they can’t, then the idea of Towns being a spot-up shooter has less appeal, even if he’s good on defense and on the boards.
Okafor won’t be spotting up for threes. He’ll be inside, generating his own points and drawing double teams to hopefully generate open jumpers for other, less talented players. To the extent the modern game is shifting away from this style, it seems to me that zigging with an unusually talented post might be as likely to succeed as zagging with everyone else, trying to copy schemes with a coach who doesn’t embrace them and personnel that may not be sufficiently skilled (at this point).
Anyway, there’s a lot of time to keep this discussion moving. These are some of my initial questions and thoughts.