Minnesota Timberwolves president and coach Flip Saunders spoke to reporters with glee after his team won the NBA Draft Lottery. The Timberwolves had never won anything substantial in their NBA history, let alone the rights to the No. 1 overall pick.
Hardly containing his excitement, Saunders said he would spend as much time as he could to examine all qualified prospects and eventually it became evident there were two youngsters who could help change the course of the franchise: Duke center Jahlil Okafor and Kentucky center Karl-Anthony Towns.
Like Oden and Durant, Howard and Emeka Okafor and Robinson and Kidd, there is a debate as to whom the Timberwolves should select Thursday night, a move that could bring Minnesota back to its Garnett-like prosperity.
There isn’t a subpar decision here. Towns is a multi-skilled center who was a perimeter player in high school until John Calipari, who coached Towns with the Dominican National Team, encouraged him to play in the post at Kentucky. His ability to score in the paint because of his athleticism and size, combined with a smooth shooting touch, make the 6-foot-11-inch, 248-pound Towns a prototype center for today’s NBA.
The Golden State Warriors, with their up-tempo style that encourages perimeter play, have changed the direction of how NBA teams judge frontcourt players, especially centers. They want big men who can run the floor and can play the power forward and center positions.
Towns fits that role.
Okafor had been discussed as the No. 1 overall pick in this draft for many years. He was supposed to be a beast coming out of Whitney Young High School in Chicago and enjoyed a sparkling freshman season at Duke. But there are questions. Although Okafor was ACC Player of the Year and led the Blue Devils to the national championship, he wasn’t on the court for key parts of the national championship game because of foul trouble and his poor free throw shooting.
Also, NBA scouts have been perplexed because Okafor did not play his freshman season in premium condition, although when he declared for the draft he worked with a personal trainer in Chicago and improved his conditioning.
And finally, Okafor wasn’t considered a standout defender in college, averaging 1.4 blocked shots despite being bigger than most of his opponents.
But he’s doesn’t turn 20 until December and with an NBA structure and maturity, he should develop into a dominant center. Okafor wasn’t Patrick Ewing, Akeem Olajuwon, or Ralph Sampson as a freshman, but he has enough skills and potential to become the face of a franchise.
That franchise is expected to be the Los Angeles Lakers, who own the second overall pick and have traditionally enjoyed dominant big men. Wilt Chamberlain, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, and Shaquille O’Neal all flourished as the focal point of the Lakers’ offense. Okafor could be a major piece to their rebuilding plan.
“I would like to be considered a true professional,” Okafor said. “One of those guys like a Tim Duncan, someone who never had any problems off the court. I’d like to be looked at as someone like that.”
Towns’s stock began to rise during Kentucky’s run through the NCAA Tournament, when he proved an unstoppable post presence. Calipari’s effect on Towns became more profound. He turned the freshman into the focal point of his offense as the season progressed and his ability in the paint along with his superior footwork makes him the best candidate for Saunders, who should add Towns to Andrew Wiggins and Zach LaVine for a freshly minted Big Three.
“If you were blessed and honored and privileged to play with a talent like that, you are just thinking about how explosive the team really could be,” Towns said of the Timberwolves. “Andrew Wiggins is as explosive and talented as there is, but you also have Ricky Rubio, Zach LaVine. You’re talking about some really explosive players. That team is going to be really good. If I’m blessed and honored and privileged to be on that team, I can’t wait to add my contribution.”
Either way, Saunders and the Lakers should be pleased. Neither Towns nor Okafor will be a bust. It may work out much in the way it did in 1992, when Orlando selected O’Neal and Charlotte nabbed Alonzo Mourning.
In these days of draft evaluations, when players are not as polished as past generation prospects and the attrition rate is much higher, these kids have spent the past two months under heavy scrutiny.
But both players seem to get it. They are grounded and realize their NBA journey is just beginning. Saunders is keeping his choice mum until Thursday night, but the first name called is expected to be Towns.
It was no accident the NBA set up a Timberwolves-Lakers matchup on the first day of the Las Vegas Summer League next month, anticipating it will be the first of many faceoffs between Okafor and Towns, injecting the league with a brand-new rivalry.
It should be exciting.
A second look
Danny Ainge has stockpiled as many as 22 selections over the next four drafts, with 12 to be used in the second round. Since the NBA switched to a two-round draft format in 1989, the Celtics have had little luck while mining for talent. But there have been a many quality second-round picks in that time throughout the league, including 14 players who developed into All-Stars.
|PICK||CELTICS 2D-ROUND PICKS||NOTABLE 2D-ROUND PICKS|
|28||Sherman Douglas (1989)|
|29||Toni Kukoc (1990)|
|30||Gilbert Arenas (2001)**|
|Anderson Varejao (2004)|
|32||Gabe Pruitt (2007)||Rashard Lewis (1998)**|
|33||Junior Burrough (1995)|
|34||Carlos Boozer (2002)**|
|35||Glen Davis* (2007)||DeAndre Jordan (2008)|
|36||Andrei Fetisov* (1994)||Clifford Robinson (1989)**|
|37||Nick Van Exel (1993)**|
|Mehmet Okur (2001)**|
|38||Steve Hamer (1996)||Chandler Parsons (2011)|
|40||Dino Radja (1989)||Monta Ellis (2005)|
|Justin Reed (2004)||Lance Stephenson (2010)|
|41||Popeye Jones (1992)|
|Cuttino Mobley (1998)|
|42||Stephen Jackson (1997)|
|43||Michael Redd (2000)**|
|45||Antonio Davis (1990)**|
|Goran Dragic (2008)|
|47||Darren Morningstar (1992)||Mo Williams (2003)**|
|Josip Sesar* (2000)||Paul Millsap (2006)**|
|Bill Walker* (2008)|
|48||Cedric Ceballos (1990)**|
|Marc Gasol (2007)**|
|49||Leon Powe* (2006)|
|50||Darius Songaila (2002)|
|Ryan Gomes (2005)|
|51||Kris Joseph (2012)||Kyle Korver (2003)**|
|52||Luke Harangody (2010)|
|53||Orien Green (2005)|
|Colton Iverson* (2013)|
|55||Ben Pepper (1997)||Luis Scola (2002)|
|Kris Clack (1999)|
|E’Twaun Moore (2011)|
|56||Brandon Hunter (2003)|
|57||Manu Ginobili (1999)**|
|Marcin Gortat (2005)|
|58||Lester Hudson (2009)|
|60||Semih Erden (2008)||Isaiah Thomas (2011)|
|*Rights acquired in draft trade|