The Final Four is usually a time to celebrate the best teams in college basketball, not extend the debate over the amateur game’s best player. That has changed some this year with NBA executives and scouts in agreement that either Duke freshman center Jahlil Okafor or Kentucky freshman big man Karl-Anthony Towns will be the No. 1 pick come June.
The exact order depends on taste and perspective – offense versus defense; ready-made contributor versus dynamic potential – and this weekend has given both Okafor and Towns the best possible platform to gain some separation even if most talent evaluators have already decided.
“In all of these circumstances, you’re looking at a body of work,” said an Eastern Conference scout, speaking on condition of anonymity since the NBA prohibits teams from commenting on underclassmen. “You’re not going to take one game or one snapshot moment and turn that into your final analysis about whether you like or dislike this guy. Anybody who takes that one game or circumstance and turn it into a determining moment is making a huge mistake.”
Only three years have passed since the top two picks from the NBA draft reached the Final Four in the same year, but Anthony Davis and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist were teammates on Kentucky’s dominant 2012 national championship team — and there never was a debate over which player should go first.
To find a situation where the top two picks led different teams to the Final Four, you’d have to go all the way back to 1984, when Houston’s Hakeem Olajuwon went ahead of Kentucky’s Sam Bowie. Again, there never was a debate over which player should’ve gone first — and Portland will forever deal with letting Michael Jordan fall to third.
Okafor was the prohibitive favorite to go first the moment he arrived on Duke’s campus and hasn’t disappointed with his enormous hands, soft touch, and an advanced back-to-the-basket game that is rare among big men, especially a 19-year-old. To many talent observers, Okafor’s skill in the low-block trumps any deficiencies on the defensive end or the foul line, where he struggles.
Towns was always considered a high lottery pick but has gained on Okafor — and in some ways surpassed him — in the eyes of some executives, because of his stellar play in the SEC and NCAA tournament. Though one month older than Okafor, Towns is considered to have a higher ceiling because he already is a much better defender and shot blocker and his offense is expected to eventually catch up.
“Towns has more upside. Like Anthony Davis, I don’t think he’s showing his complete game at Kentucky. Because he can really shoot the ball from the perimeter. I like the way he fits into the team concept up there, that shows a lot,” said a Western Conference front office executive. “The reason I would take Okafor over him is because there are probably five big-time low-post scorers in the NBA. It’s hard to find those guys. He’s 20 [points] and 10 [rebounds] in the NBA. He’s got great hands. He’s got good footwork. He’s got a big body. When’s the last time you’ve seen a guy like that.”
The 6-foot-11, 270-pound Okafor has had to carry his team offensively, amid double-teams and hacks, for an entire season while Towns, who is the same height and 20 pounds lighter, has been part of powerful conglomerate that forces him to maximize limited minutes.
“Are we going to bank on today [in Okafor] or [Towns], who two or three years from now, might be the best player in the draft,” an Eastern Conference assistant general manager said. “These teams in the lottery need somebody who can play. Not that Towns won’t play, he’ll play. But you need guys who can play, produce and help you out of the lottery.”
When asked which player he’d take first, the Eastern Conference scout admitted that Okafor and Towns were the best prospects but chose Ohio State freshman point guard D’Angelo Russell because of the change in the modern game that stipulates the need for an elite playmaker over a quality big man to remain relevant in the NBA.
“We have devalued big men,” the scout said. “We play the game outside in, not inside out anymore. The only team that plays the game inside out, consistently, is Memphis and they still have Mike Conley, who is a hell of a player. Give me the guy who makes everybody better. I can get competent bigs, but I can’t get great points. There aren’t enough of them.”
Two centers haven’t gone first and second since 2004, when Dwight Howard went straight from high school to overtake Emeka Okafor from champion Connecticut. Since then, big men Davis, Andrew Bogut and Greg Oden have all gone first overall with the success ranging from bust to bona fide all-star. Point guards Derrick Rose, John Wall and Kyrie Irving have also gone first; one has already won an MVP and the other two have been all-stars.
Russell is projected to be a top-five pick but his team is no longer playing. And this year’s Final Four could potentially feature 10 first-round picks in Towns, Willie Cauley-Stein, Trey Lyles and Devin Booker of Kentucky, Okafor and Justise Winslow from Duke and Frank Kaminsky and Sam Dekker from Wisconsin. Okafor and Towns will garner the most attention between now and the NBA draft, with a debate that could extend for many years.
“I think it’s a validation on the players, but also it shows how college basketball really is right now,” the Western Conference front office executive said. “The best players should be in the Final Four in college, because it’s not as tough as it used to be, there aren’t as many good teams.”