The NBA Draft is a long way off but there is already plenty of buzz surrounding the top pick. More specifically, many college and professional basketball fans alike want to know who is going to be the first selection in the 2015 draft. There are a couple of talented athletes expected to hear their names called early on in the draft. The talk of number one though has been mostly eaten up by Duke center Jahlil Okafor and Kentucky center Karl-Anthony Towns. Both of these highly recruited freshmen are expected to make the jump to the NBA following the close of the college season. One of them could very well be hoisting a national championship trophy come April but that a discussion for another blog post. I want to compare these two centers and come to a conclusion of which one of them should be selected first.
With how well both Okafor and Towns have played, both look NBA ready. Each, in his own right, is full of potential. They have shown that they truly look like men among boys playing against other college players. Comparing these two via statistics can be a little tricky though due to the wide gap in average minutes played per night. However, I will calculate them per 36 minutes (roughly what an NBA starter plays every night) to level the playing field. It should be noted though, right away, that Towns plays on 20 minutes per game, while Okafor plays 31.
Both players have been incredibly efficient this season. Okafor has hit an unreal 66.5 percent of his shots this season while attempting 11 shots per game. Towns, despite taking 5 fewer shots per game, is only hitting 55.3 percent of his attempts so far this season. Those stats are unaffected by the amount of time players spend on the floor each night. On top of that, Okafor matches up with much better than Towns does. The Duke center has played against 7 ranked opponents, including 6 against the top 15. Towns has only played four games against ranked teams, but 3 of them were against top 6 programs. However, Towns is the far superior free throw shooter, knocking down 79 percent of his shots at the line, compared to Okafor’s 54 percent conversion rate.
Examining the per 36 minutes stats turned out to be an interesting comparison. Towns averages 16.5 points while Okafor tallies 21.3 points per 36 minutes of action. That is a pretty large gap in points per night translated to a theoretical NBA level. Granted, it is not exactly fair to assume that both players will produce at the NBA level; in terms of what they are capable of now as scorers, Okafor has a clear upper hand. Both kids are above average rebounders as well. Towns snags 11.4 boards per 36 minutes while Okafor reels in 11.2.
Defensively, Towns clearly has the edge. Okafor only averages 1.62 blocks per 36 minutes, which is a nice number. However, Towns swats roughly 4.26 shots per 36 minutes of play, blowing away Okafor’s numbers. Towns clearly has immense value as a defensive centerpiece, meanwhile Okafor has shown that he has a lot of work to do defending in the paint. That statement is almost funny when you consider that they are the same height but Okafor actually outweighs Towns by about 20 pounds.
So here is my assessment on both. Okafor is an elite offensive big man. He hits an absurd percentage of his shots and scores at a high level. He cleans up the boards well, using his frame to box out opponents for rebounds. He needs to improve defensively and his free throw shooting. He is not a liability by any means but his play as the man in the middle will need to step up at the NBA level. As for the free throw shooting, we’ve seen what teams have done with guys like Dwight Howard and DeAndre Jordan, who are notoriously poor from the line.
For Towns, there is a lot of athleticism that can be turned into offensive prowess. He has not reached the point yet where he is a top scorer. He also has proven to be a good rebounder, capable of using his size to shield the opposition from the ball. On the defensive end of the floor though, Towns is a force to be reckoned with. His skills as a rim protector make him invaluable to a lot of teams at the next level. Towns knows how to position himself to force opponents to put up difficult shots and does an excellent job of contesting them as they are released. His impressive free throw shooting also keeps him from being the same liability Okafor could be at the next level.
Who to pick? This is a tough call. Okafor is much more pro-ready. Towns is slightly more of a project, but likely has more potential. His athleticism gives him the opportunity to morph into another Kentucky product that came before him, Anthony Davis. I am not saying he will reach that level, but I do believe he has that potential. The concerns for me are the low number of minutes leaving what Towns can do in more minutes a major question mark. Okafor also has the bonus playing more games against better opponents, erasing a lot of the questions that still remain for Towns. The Duke big man has also demonstrated a type of maturity that his Kentucky counterpart has yet to unlock. Either way, I am almost certain you will be hearing one of these two names called when Adam Silver walks to the podium this June. If I had to make a pick, I am likely going with Okafor. As a GM, you cannot argue with production, and he certainly has plenty of that.