Karl-Anthony Towns vs. Jahlil Okafor: One man’s opinion
There is a lot of pressure on the No. 1 pick in the NBA Draft. You have to be franchise changing. Most likely, the selector of the No. 1 pick has ended up in that position thanks to some lucky ping pong balls and because they were a truly horrendous team during the previous season. It’s rare that a good team ends up in such an advantageous situation.
That means the team needs their organizational fortunes turned 180 degrees in order to get back into the playoffs, collect some playoff revenue, and maybe even compete for a championship if they have time. For the Minnesota Timberwolves, there might be even more pressure than other teams to get it correct. I’m not sure if you’re aware but the Wolves haven’t made the playoffs since 1993. Or 2004. It’s one of those.
It’s been a real long time.
The Wolves are in a very fortunate position, which isn’t something we’ve been able to honestly say very often. They have the choice between three options with high potential in Karl-Anthony Towns out of Kentucky, Jahlil Okafor out of Duke, and the wildcard of D’Angelo Russell out of Ohio State. Russell seems like more of a long shot to be the No. 1 pick by the Wolves, so I’m not going to get into the idea of drafting him today (sometime in this next week though).
I want to concentrate on the discussion between Towns and Okafor as the two best big man prospects in the draft and two potential franchise-changing entities. I want to preface this with while I know many of us have our minds made up in this discussion, I think it’s pertinent to truly consider the merits of the two players who will likely be excellent players in the NBA for a decade or two (health permitting). Just dismissing one because we like the other doesn’t really seem to do much good — mostly because it’s not our decision.
It would be detrimental of Flip Saunders to not do his due diligence in this scenario. I think most of us like the idea of Towns with Andrew Wiggins as the future of this franchise. In the effort of full disclosure, I’ve been touting Karl-Anthony Towns (like many of you) as the top prospect in this draft for months. But I truly went into this breakdown trying to be as unbiased as possible because that’s really how decisions should be made.
Saunders and the Wolves’ brass will go over the scouting, meetings with the prospects, and their own thoughts over the next few days as they figure out who will be the next franchise player of this organization. I think we should do the same (although it seems unlikely we’re going to be able to meet with the players).
Here is my case for Karl-Anthony Towns, my case for Jahlil Okafor, and my verdict following an honest effort in deciding if one should be the pick over the other.
(Stats and video compiled from Synergy Sports, DraftExpress.com, and ShotAnalytics.com)
THE CASE FOR KARL-ANTHONY TOWNS
Towns is a monster. He’s just under 7 feet tall, weighs in at about 245 lbs., and he has a 7’4″ wingspan. His vertical jump at the Kentucky Pro Day in 2014 was measured at 36.5 inches. He was a part of a Kentucky war machine that won its first 38 games before losing to Wisconsin in the Final Four.
He averaged 10.3 points on 56.6% from the field and 81.3% from the free throw line in 21.1 minutes. He also averaged 6.7 rebounds, 1.1 assists, and 2.3 blocks.
In trying to figure out if Towns is the guy for the Timberwolves, you’ve got to wonder if the defense (we’ll get to that in a bit) can catch up to the offense. You also have to wonder if the offense is or can be as potent as his competitor in this decision, Jahlil Okafor. The Duke big man was a featured offensive force the entire team played around. He was the main scorer on the team and the target the defense had to slow down before worrying about stopping other NBA hopefuls like Justise Winslow and Tyus Jones.
Towns wasn’t that guy for Kentucky, primarily because he didn’t need to be that guy. Nobody needed to be that guy for most of their dominant season. Towns took the fourth most shots on that Kentucky team — behind Aaron Harrison (first), Devin Booker (second), and Andrew Harrison (third). Andrew Harrison and Dakari Johnson took more free throws. But only Aaron Harrison scored more points (430 to 401 with both playing 39 games).
That doesn’t mean Towns isn’t a really good scorer though. He was in the 87th percentile in points per possession when factoring in assists he made. Towns had 42.7% of his possessions ending in a shot, turnover, or free throw come from the post. He scored 0.922 points per possession (PPP for later use) and shot 51.4% from the field in the post.
Towns could do it all in the post. He turned over the right shoulder to use his left hand or his fadeaway jumper. He turned over his left shoulder to put up a soft and accurate right half-hook. He was strong with his footwork and using his shoulders and elbows to create space without fouling. Towns kept his balance on most moves and rarely got into a position he couldn’t score from.
In the video below, a couple of things that caught my eye:
- The distance he covers on step-throughs into the middle on post-ups.
- The way he rocks the defender off-balance with his shoulder shake.
- On the jumper when turning over his right shoulder, he could use more lift on the shot.
- He consistently gets deep post position.
- He buried that Notre Dame team down the stretch of a close game.
- When turning over his left shoulder, he’s pretty good at getting his left foot inside the leg of the defender, giving him the physical advantage.
Town’s biggest problem in the post was turning the ball over. He had a turnover rate of 17.5% in the post. Of the 60 players in college basketball who had at least 150 post-up possessions, Towns had the 21st highest turnover rate in the post.
Other areas Towns excelled in on offense are offensive putbacks (91st percentile), cutting to the hoop (79th percentile), and in transition (100th percentile!). He wasn’t very good in the pick-and-roll (just 42nd percentile) but he only had 18 possessions as the roll man at Kentucky, so I have no idea how we glean anything from that, good or bad.
One of the pluses in Okafor’s favor is his ability to pass the ball. His gigantic hands allow him to control the ball perfectly coming out of the low post or high post. He has pretty good anticipation for where the defense is headed and seems to sling the ball well all over the court. I wanted to see how Towns’ passing is in comparison.
Here are some notes I have from watching his passing:
- Towns isn’t Kevin Love by any means but he’s very good at the pass ahead following a blocked shot, turnover, or defensive rebound.
- He has good passing ideas and recognition. However, his passes can float quite a bit on him, which is something you just can’t do against NBA athletes.
- I was pleasantly surprised with just how good his interior passing was. He missed some opportunities out of double teams here and there, but he takes great angles in getting the ball to the other big man.
- He’s very good at finding open shooters, especially in the strong side corner. Good quick decisions.
I was more impressed with his passing than I assumed I would be. It needs work but it’s further along than I expected.
A lot of the hype we’ve heard about Towns since he started doing pre-draft workouts is his jumper. He’s been hitting 3-pointers in drills at an impressive rate, which has everybody drooling over the possibilities of running pick-and-pop plays with him. If there is a problem with him scoring in the pick-and-roll right away, the pick-and-pop with a reliable jumper could end up being the way to smooth out that transition.
The shot charts at ShotAnalytics.com show he had some success from the left baseline area and he was above 40% at both the left and right elbow positions.
He doesn’t have a lot of jumpers under his belt from the Kentucky days, but they were so loaded with NBA talent that it’s hard to make heads or tails of that kind of stuff. The shooting stroke looks smooth and scouts seem to be excited about the possibility.
Defensively, we know that Towns is a monster. He teamed up with Willie Cauley-Stein this past season and helped the Wildcats have the No. 1 defense in the country. Towns dominated post-up scorers. He had a high foul rate (free throws 31.9% of the time), but when he wasn’t fouling, they weren’t scoring. He gave up just 0.489 PPP and 16.0% shooting in the post. That was good for the 94th percentile.
He had a phenomenal block rate of 11.5% and averaged 4.3 blocks per 40 minutes. Some of the notes I took from watching videos of his blocks:
- He covers the pick-and-roll so well, the other team passes the ball out of it, and then he’s already recovering to defend the post while pushing out the player posting up. Then when a drive happens, he’s timing his rotation perfectly to block the shot into the middle of the floor.
- Any comparisons to Anthony Davis are a bit ambitious, but had I never seen The Brow play in my life, Towns would be one of the more impressive big men at helping from the weak side to block the shot.
- He doesn’t have a great second jump (something Kevin Garnett was so amazing at doing), but his long arms seem to make up for it. I wonder if that’ll be a problem though against better athletes.
- He’s very good at tracking shots in transition defense, as long as he’s hustling back to get there.
- There was a point where I actually started to feel bad for the guards trying to drive on him in the pick-and-roll.
- It’s hard to watch these blocks without saying to yourself, “Get that feces out of here!”
Watching all of this Towns footage, I get giddy. I get giddy at the idea of him and Andrew Wiggins and Ricky Rubio anchoring a defensive unit. It almost makes it seem like a defender like Kevin Martin wouldn’t hurt the defense with those three on the floor together. Almost…
Towns is the guy I want and am daydreaming about for this Wolves roster, but I want to make a real effort to see if Jahlil Okafor should be the guy over him. Let’s take a look at what he has to offer.
THE CASE FOR JAHLIL OKAFOR
Jahlil Okafor is an impossibly big human being. At the 2014 Nike Hoops Summit, he measured in at 6’10.75″ and 272 lbs. with a 7’5″ wingspan. He has satellite dishes for hands and seemed to dwarf almost every big man he faced in his year at Duke. He’ll turn 20 during December of this season (Towns will turn 20 in November). His vertical leap wasn’t measured but I’m guessing it’s enough.
He averaged 17.3 points on 66.4% from the field and 51.0% from the free throw line in 30.1 minutes. He also averaged 8.5 rebounds, 1.3 assists, and 1.4 blocks. Okafor was the guy for Duke this season, leading the way for the national champs. He took the second most shots (behind Quinn Cook), the most free throws, and scored the most points. Everything seemed to run through Okafor for Duke, which is tough to do with how horrendous the post-entry passing was to him.
When trying to decide if Okafor’s offense is elite enough to warrant him over Towns, I think it’s important to be honest about what his offense means in today’s NBA. Yes, this is becoming a jump shooting league and that was happening long before the Golden State Warriors won the 2015 NBA championship. That doesn’t mean Okafor’s post scoring exploits don’t fit in though. Post scoring in today’s NBA with the modern defensive help rules, just means you have to attack quicker in the post instead of pushing the limits with the five-second back-to-the-basket violation looming.
That’s one thing Okafor does extremely well. He feels the contact early in the post. He surveys the court prior to the post-entry pass being delivered. And he knows exactly where he needs to attack the floor once he quickly computes all of that information. To say Okafor’s post scoring doesn’t fit doesn’t seem accurate. If it took two seconds longer for him to score in the majority of these situations, I’d agree. But he doesn’t and when you factor in his ability to pass the ball (it goes beyond just his assist numbers), you can see the potential for generating a lot of scoring out of the post.
Here are some of the notes I have from watching him in the post:
- He’s a bully. He just moves big men with ease. That may not happen against guys like Marc Gasol and DeMarcus Cousins, but he’ll be physically dominating against most NBA big men.
- He’s great at using the backboard, which adds another dimension to his scoring angles.
- His touch around the rim reminds me a lot of Zach Randolph, but I think he gets the Al Jefferson comp because of that push-shot.
- That footwork could win Dancing With The Star.
- He made 75% of his shots at the rim (layups, putbacks, dunks, etc.), which is both tops in NCAA and a historical marker that doesn’t get approached too often.
- He’s got a nice little turnaround jumper.
- I’m sure he has a left hand, but he rarely has to go to it.
If I had to find a knock on him in his scoring in the post, it would be that he does turn the ball over at a higher rate. It isn’t as high as Towns, but it’s not far from it. Okafor’s 16.5% turnover rate in the post would’ve been 27th worst of those post scorers having 150 possessions or more. Obviously, his free throw shooting isn’t good so he may get Hack-a-for treatment if the rule change doesn’t happen.
Other than that, he scored 0.933 PPP and shot 55.8% in the post. He also excelled in offensive putbacks (68th percentile), cutting to the hoop (99th percentile and a ridiculous 90.4% on field goals), transition (99th percentile), isolation (93rd percentile), and as the pick-and-roll man (97th percentile, but just 19 possessions). He scores in every situation you put him in that doesn’t involve the free throw line. And even then if he can raise his percentage nine points to 60%, it’s not that bad.
In looking at his passing ability, I really struggled to figure out how he didn’t average a ton of assists. Part of it was he was so good scoring in the post that he didn’t have to pass it. He was also someone that would try to wait out a double team in order to keep the ball, and that could result in him missing a passing opportunity here and there.
I’m buying him as an elite passer for the big man position at the NBA level. I think he’ll have some growing pains early on, but I also think he’ll quickly adapt to the coverages he sees in the NBA. Here are some notes I had while watching his passing:
- He makes so many quick decisions out of the post.
- Okafor doesn’t try to be a hero with a lot of cross-court passing if it isn’t there.
- He’s deadly and quick passing the ball on offensive boards.
- He may be a little flashier than he needs to be with some of the passing.
- He is really incredible at the cross-court pass to the wing shooters.
- I’d love to see him with another good big man because I think his interior big-to-big passing would be exceptional.
We saw a few midrange jumpers out of Okafor this past season and I think it’s something he could actually develop over time. But the majority of his scoring comes from abusing people in the paint and seeing that 66.4% from the field, even against college talent, is eye-catching. Here is his shot chart from ShotAnalytics.com:
Defensively, we know Okafor doesn’t have a stellar reputation. In watching as much as I could on Synergy, I didn’t walk away feeling like he was a saloon door on defense. Coach K was someone that pleaded with Okafor not to commit fouls because they needed him on the floor. It’s not like playing Marshall Plumlee is an enticing venture, even in college.
His foul rate was alarming low. In defending the post, he only fouled 7.7% of the time. I’d actually like that number to be much higher for a young big man because you want them learning how to be aggressive within the confines of the rules. It didn’t seem like Okafor was really doing that. He gave up 0.846 PPP and 44.4% from the field in the post.
I wanted to see what his blocked shots looked like to see how he moves, helps, and times his blocks. Here are the notes I have from watching him send shots the other way:
- He blocks a lot of shots without actually jumping. I have no idea if I should be worried or impressed by this.
- I don’t feel like he puts himself in a great position to grab the ball, rebound, or defend after he blocks the shot.
- Because of his long wingspan, he doesn’t end up always needing to cut off players inside to contest their shot. That may be a problem against NBA athletes who know how to draw fouls.
- It’s really quite remarkable how many shots he stuffs without it really coming out of the hands of the shooter. His verticality isn’t great but if he’s meeting the ball at the exit point of the shooting motion, he may not get called for it.
- He’s quicker than I assumed moving side-to-side.
I look at Okafor’s defense in a similar way as I view DeMarcus Cousins coming out of Kentucky. If he gets in better condition and gets with a good defensive-minded coach (Can that be Flip if he has good defensive players to coach or would Kevin Garnett be the guy to help Okafor with this), he’ll be a fine defender. He may even become a plus defender in the process.
I don’t look at his defense as a lost cause by any means. Cousins became a very good defender the last two seasons by getting in better shape and heeding the tutelage of Michael Malone. I think the right situation (and that could definitely be Minnesota) could yield similar results.
So… whom should the Wolves select on June 25th with the top pick?
I wanted to match up these players in 12 categories because 1) I felt like making a chart and 2) I tried to figure out the categories that will translate most to the NBA and what the Wolves need their franchise big man to do. I selected the following 12 categories (with explanation):
- Offensive efficiency when factoring in assists: We need to see just how they create for themselves and others in the half court.
- Post-up scoring: It’s going to be something they’re asked to do, even in today’s modern age. It’s still a skill that is utilized and utilized well in plenty of team situations.
- Offensive putbacks: This team has thrived in the past on offensive rebounding and a big man’s ability to score on those extended possessions is key to keeping the offense chugging along.
- Scoring off cuts: When a guard or player gets into the middle of the floor, how those big men hang around the baseline or circle into the passing lane for a dunk off a cut is big for spacing.
- Pick-and-roll man: We don’t have a ton of great data but this will definitely be something they do with Ricky Rubio as the point guard.
- Transition offense: Big men love to run the floor for easy baskets.
- Free throw shooting: You’ve got to hit your free throws.
- Post-up defense: Nothing easy inside.
- Isolation defense: Have to be able to stay with offensive players when put on an island.
- Defending jumpers: How well do you affect this jump shooting league?
- Rebounding rate: Can you extend offensive possessions and end defensive possessions?
- Block rate: Are you changing how offenses attack against you?
Let’s tally these up and see who comes out ahead:
Karl-Anthony Towns is the guy for the Minnesota Timberwolves. He just is. And that doesn’t mean it’s a knock on Jahlil Okafor nor does it mean that Okafor sucks and shouldn’t be the No. 1 pick. Towns just ticks every box.
You put him with Wiggins and you’ve got two amazing two-way stars. You put him with Wiggins and Rubio and the Wolves could have an elite defense within a couple years. You can play him with Nikola Pekovic or Gorgui Dieng or Anthony Bennett or Adreian Payne or Kevin Garnett (did I forget any of the dozen big men on this roster?). He just fits everywhere. His offense is really good and his defense is spectacular.
Okafor is going to be a monster in his own right. I think his floor is very high, and it wouldn’t shock me to see him have similar development as DeMarcus Cousins did in Sacramento, no matter where he ends up. You hear murmurs about Okafor maybe not loving the game, but I don’t know how we possibly judge that with a 19-year old.
I wouldn’t be upset if the Wolves decided to take Okafor. I honestly wouldn’t. He’d be fantastic and I think the combination of him and Wiggins on offense could be phenomenal. Surround him with shooters and athletic wings and he may average four or five assists per game. I just don’t think he fits the same way Towns down.
I’ll put it like this.
I’d be happy if the Wolves select Okafor with the top pick. I’ll be elated if they take Towns. I’m excited for Thursday to get here already.