The projected first two picks in the 2015 NBA draft per NBADraft.net, DraftExpress.com and ESPN.com and — well, you get the picture — are Duke’s Jahlil Okafor and Kentucky’s Karl-Anthony Towns.
Their NBA futures must wait at least one more game each, as Okafor and Towns leads his respective team to this weekend’s Final Four. That’s not all the two outstanding post players are leading in the coming months, however.
Okafor and Towns are leaders of an evolutionary step in basketball. They are helping the game move forward with a giant step back to its past.
The NBA — and, ostensibly, college basketball — was once dominated by big men. From Wilt Chamberlain and Bill Russell in the ’60s; to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar in the ’70s and ’80s; to the veritable Golden Age of centers in the 1990s, when Hakeem Olajuwon, Shaquille O’Neal, Patrick Ewing and David Robinson all manned the paint;
The center’s role has transformed in the last decade-plus. The stars of the ’90s like Olajuwon and Robinson excelled in just about every facet of the game: offensively, defensively and manning the boards.
Big men in today’s game function more as specialists. Arizona’s Kaleb Tarczewski is an example of the defensive-minded center, whose role is predicated on clogging the lane and cleaning the glass. Any offense said player provides is gravy.
Participating in Saturday’s Final Four is Wisconsin’s Frank Kaminsky, indicative of the face-up big man that became en vogue as teams constructed more perimeter-oriented lineups.
Such squads predicated on speed and athleticism were constructed as the counter to teams that built around size. Now that basketball is awash with rosters built around wing players, the logical next step is returning to a game centered around — well, the centers.
Hence, NBA GMs are salivating at the prospect of adding players like Jahlil Okafor and Karl-Anthony Towns.
Both employ styles more reminiscent of the all-around dominant characteristics of last generation’s superstars. Okafor’s game is not unlike that of a young Tim Duncan, who played his college ball at Wake Forest in the 1990s and came into the NBA at the tail-end of the center’s Golden Age.
Okafor’s tremendous low-post footwork and soft touch on turnaround jumpers and hook shots 5-to-10 feet from the basket give him an offensive arsenal not often seen from today’s class of post players.
His presence in turn opens the rest of the floor to his Duke teammates, which helped the Blue Devils sink Elite Eight opponent Gonzaga on Sunday.
“We wanted to double Okafor,” Gonzaga head coach Mark Few explained, via ASAPSports.com. “They hit some quick [3-pointers] on that.”
Such is the double-edged sword when deciding how to defend a dominant post player. Their presence commands additional defensive attention, but the risk of doubling up is leaving perimeter shooters free. It’s no coincidence that Duke’s leading scorer is its center, yet as a team, it shoots one of the nation’s best 3-point field goal percentages at .386.
Karl-Anthony Towns’ impact for Kentucky is not as evident in the score book, in part because Towns is just one of four Wildcats who stands 6-foot-10 or taller. Head coach John Calipari’s belief in big is clear, and he said earlier this month it extends to all positions.
“My goal is to have a 6-[foot]-9 point guard,” he said on the March 9 SEC teleconference call. “I’ll take a 6-[foot]-8.”
However, in Towns, Kentucky has a big body capable of taking over a game in crunch time, which he did in Saturday’s Elite Eight contest vs. Notre Dame.
Whereas Okafor employs a silky smooth offensive repertoire, Towns used muscle to overpower Fighting Irish defenders. He scored nine of his career-high 25 point in the final 7:40, over a stretch we may look back on as his evolution into superstardom.
Towns credited his ability to get position in the postgame press conference, per ASAPSports.com, a skill inherent with the big man’s brute strength. If Okafor’s offense is a throwback to early Duncan, Towns’ is the modern equivalent of Ewing.
Should either Kentucky or Duke cap this NCAA Tournament by hoisting the national championship trophy, Towns or Okafor will be key. And given each team’s level of success already, expect more teams to copy this center-centric blueprint.