At long last, I’m succumbing to all the peer pressure and the herd mentality and the odd consensus that’s emerged around Karl-Anthony Towns going No. 1 overall to the Minnesota Timberwolves in Thursday’s NBA Draft.
This consensus has only emerged over the past few months, mind you. It’s a consensus that mock drafts and talent evaluators have come to despite the guy who has long been presumed to be the No. 1 selection in this draft since he was in high school — Duke center Jahlil Okafor — doing pretty damn well for himself in his lone college season. You know: Winning the national title, generally considered second to Frank Kaminsky in most lists for national player of the year, showing himself as nothing but a professional, humble, confident young man as he preps for his jump to the NBA.
But being the consensus No. 1 pick for so long gave people plenty of chances to poke holes in Okafor’s game. There’s the often abysmal free-throw shooting – 51 percent in his season at Duke, which makes you wonder if Hack-An-Okafor is in his future. There are the struggles on defense, though I believe those very real deficiencies have been overblown. And there’s the lack of elite athleticism, though the images that stick in my head of Okafor during his lone college basketball season are those of him (when he wasn’t dunking on everybody) performing magical moves in the post of the like we haven’t seen in a generation.
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So why change my mind now, on the eve of the draft?
It’s not that some light went on in my head about the Towns-vs.-Okafor argument. I still see this pick — and by the way, no other players should be considered for the top two picks — as a matter of taste. Do you like Towns, who does everything really, really well, from rebounding to shooting from deep to scoring in the post to blocking shots? Or do you prefer Okafor, whose game has flaws but who also has a very real shot at becoming the premier back-to-the-basket offensive big man of his generation?
I prefer Okafor.
But it sounds like the Minnesota Timberwolves prefer Towns.
It’s not the pick I would make, but it sure sounds like it’s the pick the Timberwolves will make, which is why I flip-flopped the order of my top two picks just a day before the draft. All indications point toward it, including reports of a "promise" the Timberwolves have made to draft him — which Towns himself refuted.
Here is the final version of my 2015 NBA mock draft. Remember: I compile this more from the point of view of someone who has spoken with the people who know these players the best — the college coaches, the AAU coaches, family members, the players themselves — and less from the point of view of NBA general managers. I’ve filtered years’ worth of information into what I think should happen on Thursday night.
But even though I believe the Timberwolves should take Okafor, all indications are that they will take Towns — so I’m making an exception there, as Towns-to-Minnesota sounds all but inevitable.
Every player heading into the NBA is a gamble. Towns might end up as the best player in this draft; I believe the chance of that happening is roughly the same as Okafor ending up as the best player in this draft. And to me that’s what’s special about this draft: In the top half of the lottery, a whole bunch of these players are really damn close, and it’s up to us to sort it out.
1. Minnesota: Karl-Anthony Towns, C, Kentucky (7-0, 250). If Towns does go first overall — and it sounds like he will — I would not call it a mistake, even though I’d take Jahlil Okafor here. Pick Okafor, pick Towns: There’s no wrong choice at No. 1. With Towns, you’re getting a guy who projects as a 20-point, 10-rebound player in the league, a guy whose game is nearly impossible to poke a hole into (but, as a former NBA All-Star told me the other day, doesn’t have that feel of a superstar). He’s an athletic, able defender, he was one of the best shot-blockers in college basketball, he morphed from a sometimes-passive post player into a much more aggressive one in his season under John Calipari, and he’s an excellent shooter (that 81.3 percent free-throw percentage is incredible for a big man). Oh, he can rebound, too. The man whose statistical work led to the analytics explosion in today’s NBA, Dave Heeren, told me that in projecting Towns’ college numbers to see what sort of player he develops into in the NBA, his eyes bugged out. Towns projects to have the impact of an Anthony Davis-type player. That alone would be reason for the Timberwolves to promise this pick to Towns.
2. L.A. Lakers: Jahlil Okafor, C, Duke (6-11, 270). Poor Jahlil Okafor. He’s handled the spotlight since he was in eighth grade. He’s been the presumptive No. 1 pick in this draft since he was in college. He was the centerpiece of a Duke team that won the national title. And here he is, in every mock draft on earth, falling all the way to … No. 2! An abomination! If the Lakers don’t take one of these two top big men in this draft, they are simply crazy. (Sorry, Kristaps and D’Angelo and Emmanuel: Big Jah needs to go in the top two. Period.) A college coach who recruited Okafor told me he’d take Okafor No. 1: "Don’t try to over-figure out this thing. Okafor is why you pick No. 1." The defense is a concern, as are the turnovers, as is the free-throw percentage. But around the rim, despite the double-teams that flagged him all season in college, the guy is a magician. He’s able to operate completely on feel with his back to the basket.
3. Philadelphia: Emmanuel Mudiay, PG, Guangdong, China (6-5, 190). If the Sixers are who we think they are, they’ll take Kristaps Porzingis and stash him in Europe for three years. But that can’t happen. (Right? Right?!?) After trading away Michael Carter-Williams, the Sixers need a point guard, and they’re in prime position to take a potentially great one here. Whether they take Mudiay or D’Angelo Russell is an argument that’s similar to the Towns/Okafor argument: It just depends on your taste. My taste points me toward the high-ceiling Mudiay, the one-time SMU commit who played last season in a Chinese pro league. It’s funny how, even as basketball folks were drooling over him a year ago, they’ve cooled (slightly) on him after playing last season in China. Out of sight, out of mind, I suppose. But the kid fine-tuned his body overseas, and if he adds a more reliable jumper, he could be a dream point guard for today’s NBA. A big, physical point guard who can penetrate, who can pass, who can lead, who can defend. Think Russell Westbrook, or John Wall. A college coach who recruited Mudiay told me this: "He plays the game slow, like a player six years older than he is." He also said that, when all the smoke clears, Mudiay will end up as the best player from this draft.
4. New York: D’Angelo Russell, PG, Ohio State (6-4, 195). Assuming the Knicks don’t trade this pick, taking the other of the two elite point guards here is an easy choice. All four of the top picks in this draft have a great chance to develop into a franchise cornerstone; unless Porzingis has convinced an NBA general manager that he’s more Dirk than Darko, I don’t see a scenario where these four aren’t the top four picks. No player shot up draft boards as quickly as Russell this past college season. Russell is a prodigy at point, spinning mind-boggling bounce passes and showing a dynamite touch from 3-point range. He’s a slasher and a shooter, a scorer and a distributor. The thing I love about him most is, when I asked him which NBA player he emulates, he told me Manu Ginobili. What teenager says that?
5. Orlando: Kristaps Porzingis, PF, Latvia (7-1, 220). A dream scenario for the Magic, as Porzingis is a 19-year-old, 7-foot-1 athlete with a great shooting touch — a dream archetype in today’s NBA. Porzingis pulled out of last year’s draft to spend one more season playing in Spain, and the gamble appears to have paid off as he seems likely to be the first international player drafted. We all shudder when we see a skinny European big man who shoots up draft boards in the weeks before the draft. We hear he could be the next Dirk, but fear he could be the next Darko. Reports of Porzingis’ workouts, however, have been uniformly glowing. He does need to fill out his extremely thin body, but his skill set is tantalizing.
6. Sacramento: Justise Winslow, SF, Duke (6-6, 222). Does Justise Winslow do anything at a truly elite level? No. Are there any holes in his game? Can’t think of one. I remember when I first saw Winslow as a high school kid, and he just screamed, in big capital letters, "WINNER." He’s a player who can do it all at a pretty high level: Play in transition, rebound, shoot from deep, defend multiple positions. Some wonder whether Winslow’s tweener size fits well in the NBA. I see that as much less of a concern in today’s increasingly position-less league. After watching what Andre Iguodala did during the NBA Finals, shouldn’t the league be thirsty for an Iggy-type player?
7. Denver: Frank Kaminsky, PF, Wisconsin (7-1, 230). The Nuggets were one of the worst three-point shooting teams in the NBA last season. This may be too high for Kaminsky, who jokes that his age (22) converts to 65 in NBA draft years. It’s true that teams might not see the upside in a 22-year-old player. True, but dumb. This is a versatile 7-footer who is one of the top three-point shooters in the draft — and who can put the ball on the floor, and who can score creatively in the paint, and who can pass, and … I mean, what else does Frank the Tank need to show us at this point, really? Kaminsky was the best player in college basketball last season, and in an NBA that values floor spacing, there’s not a player in this draft who helps with that more than Kaminsky. He’ll be a 10-year NBA starter.
8. Detroit: Stanley Johnson, SF, Arizona (6-6, 242). I’m not sure there’s all that much difference between Johnson and Winslow. Their games are that close. Johnson can do pretty much everything, but his best attribute is his physical strength. He was a prime defender for one of college basketball’s best defenses last season. He’s improving as a shooter, too. This would fill a Pistons need. I don’t see Johnson becoming a star, but I see him filling important roles for NBA teams.
9. Charlotte: Mario Hezonja, SG, Croatia (6-8, 215). The Hornets had the league’s worst effective field-goal percentage last season, and the Croatian wing can really shoot the ball. DraftExpress ranked him as the top shooter in this draft. He’s confident — cocky? — and he’s a phenomenal athlete to boot. Hezonja will make some NBA teams drool, especially a team like the Hornets. Henonja has enormous cajones that will make you shake your head. Sometimes you are shaking your head in amazement, sometimes just because you’re wondering what the hell he’s doing.
10. Miami: Willie Cauley-Stein, C, Kentucky (7-0, 242). Cauley-Stein was one of the most dominant defensive players in college basketball last season. But that offense … well … he can throw down a lob with the best of them! If you’re looking for a Tyson Chandler-esque space-filler on offense who is an elite rim protector on defense, here’s your guy. Cauley-Stein is that rare 7-footer who can guard all five positions. But I never saw his offensive game develop to where I thought it had the potential to develop in his three years at Kentucky. That probably means he won’t develop a great offensive game period.
11. Indiana: Jerian Grant, PG/SG, Notre Dame (6-4, 200). If Larry Bird is serious about the Pacers playing a faster tempo, the frenetic Grant could help. The son of Harvey Grant, he is an athletic dynamo, usually the most exciting player on the floor when he was in college. He’s a leader, too. For a team that needs a versatile playmaker who can play point, Grant could be the perfect fit.
12. Utah: Myles Turner, C, Texas (6-11, 240). I’ve heard some people think Turner is a high-risk pick, but I see him more as a high-reward pick, especially this late in the draft. Here’s what a college coach who recruited Turner told me: "Someone’s going to get a steal." Turner never really seemed to fit in on that underachieving Texas team last season. But look at what he can do: He is one of the nation’s top shot blockers. He can rebound at a high level. He shot 83.9 percent from the free-throw line, which is just silly for a 7-footer. Is he Chris Bosh 2.0? (Or at least 1.8?) His awkward running style gives teams pause, but that’s something he has been working on. At this point in the draft, you take that risk.
13. Phoenix: Sam Dekker, SF, Wisconsin (6-9, 220). Dekker came into his own for Wisconsin’s national runner-up team last season. He’s not always the clutch 3-point shooter we saw during the NCAA Tournament — in fact, shooting beyond the arc might be the biggest question mark about his game. Although Dekker tended to occasionally drift at times in college, his athleticism and size ought to make him a solid NBA player. This feels like a solid but not spectacular pick. Not much bust potential here.
14. Oklahoma City: Bobby Portis, PF, Arkansas (6-11, 245). There’s not a player on the board who plays with as much fire as Portis. Every time I watched Arkansas last year, there was a moment or two when Portis’ intensity terrified me. Portis was the SEC player of the year (though that award was skewed by Kentucky’s minutes-limiting platoon system). He’s versatile, with a high basketball IQ, a high-running motor and the ability to score inside and out. He almost averaged a double-double last season. An impressive physical specimen on offense and on defense.
15. Atlanta: Trey Lyles, PF, Kentucky (6-10, 240). With Demarre Carroll an unrestricted free agent, Atlanta could use some frontcourt help. Lyles played out of position as a small forward at Kentucky, but that might be something that could show his versatility and help his NBA stock. Of the big men in this draft, Lyles might be the most versatile. You aren’t getting a star here. Nothing spectacular; lots of solid. That sounds like a perfect fit for Atlanta.
16. Boston: Devin Booker, SG, Kentucky (6-6, 205). Shooting guard may be this draft’s weakest position. Booker is the one who stands out. We already knew of Booker’s shooting abilities, but at the NBA combine and during workouts, Booker has calmed any questions on his athleticism and quickness. There’s a humility and a blue-collar nature to Booker that tells me he’d fit well with Brad Stevens.
17. Milwaukee: Kelly Oubre, SF, Kansas (6-7, 205). Five years from now, we might say the 17th pick was way too low for Oubre — or maybe way too high. When I saw him play in high school, I saw a top-five pick. Then I saw him in the first month of his freshman season and … ugh. Basically, if you went into a laboratory and wanted to create the perfect player for today’s NBA, you’d come out with a wing that looks just like Oubre. But there were times he was exposed at Kansas. At times — especially early in the season, especially in the halfcourt — he looked lost. But in the open court … watch out. It’s hard to think of a better basketball body than Oubre’s, and by the end of the season, he seemed to get it. There’s a confidence there that can bleed into cockiness. A boom-bust type of pick, but I’d lean more boom than bust. I think.
18. Houston: Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, SF, Arizona (6-7, 210). This kid is a jump shot away from being a mid-lottery pick. Hollis-Jefferson may be the best and most versatile defender in this draft. He’s a standout athlete who models his game after Kawhi Leonard, pantomiming Leonard’s lockdown defense. Given his ceiling, Hollis-Jefferson could end up as one of the steals of this draft if his offensive game develops. I like his fit in Houston, which could use a perimeter defender who can get up and down the floor like Hollis-Jefferson.
19. Washington: Kevon Looney, PF, UCLA (6-9, 222). Looney’s length and rebounding and defensive prowess indicate he could be a great NBA role player. But that projection discounts his touch from 3-point range. Looney shot 41.5 percent from there his one season at UCLA, which is the X-factor in his game that could vault him even higher than this.
20. Toronto: Robert Upshaw, C, Washington (7-0, 260). If you’ve been reading me, you’ve heard me blare Upshaw’s horn quite a bit. He is the definition of a boom-bust player: An elite, top-10 type talent who some scouts have called undraftable because of his struggles with drug addiction that got him kicked out of two college programs. But I’ve gotten to know Upshaw a bit and have spoken to several people close to him. Upshaw and his confidantes believe he’s on the right path now. If I’m picking in the 20s and need a big man and can afford the risk, I’m jumping up to make this pick. Upshaw was the top shot blocker in college basketball last season until he was kicked off his team. He could lead the NBA in blocked shots, too, if he keeps his life on track. At NBA combine interviews, Upshaw put all the blame on himself and said he has been getting help with some of the nation’s best drug and alcohol counselors. If you buy his redemption story — and I think I do — he could be a steal.
21. Dallas: Cameron Payne, PG, Murray State (6-2, 185). With Rajon Rondo heading anywhere other than Dallas, the Mavericks should take a young point guard here. There are plenty of options. If Payne is available — and that’s no guarantee, as he’s shot up draft boards in recent months and could go as high as the lottery — take him and hope he fills out his body. He can score, he can pass and he can run a team. But if he isn’t available, Dallas would do good by picking the next guy on my board.
22. Chicago: Tyus Jones, PG, Duke (6-1,185). I called him "Stones" Jones last season because he always seemed to take — and make — the big shots. He’s fearless. He’s also often the smartest player on the floor, with incredible basketball instincts. Yes, Duke’s occasional defensive struggles this season rested on the shoulders of Okafor and Jones, who was often overpowered or out-quickened. And he doesn’t have great size. But plenty of great point guards haven’t had great size. The mind is there, and so is the confidence.
23. Portland: Montrezl Harrell, PF, Louisville (6-8, 255). Harrell is the type of guy who can find a contributing role on any team in the NBA, because of his athleticism, his strength and his non-stop motor. Yes, he’s undersized for his position, but anyone who watched what Harrell did in his three years playing for Rick Pitino can’t deny his heart, his work ethic, his ability to take coaching. Harrell won’t be a star, but he’ll help a team.
24. Cleveland: J.P. Tokoto, SG, North Carolina (6-6, 195). Is this too high for Tokoto? Not if you’re aiming for upside. He may be the best athlete in this draft. Even though Tokoto’s basketball skills need help, he has shown improvement. He played in a limiting role at UNC, which seems to have contributed to his leaving school a year early. At the NBA combine, he raised eyebrows with an improved jumper. Add in steady defense and explosive hops and Tokoto screams potential.
25. Memphis: R.J. Hunter, SG, Georgia State (6-6, 185). For a team in dire need of a shooter, there’s no better option in this draft than the kid who brought us the most exciting Cinderella moment in the most recent NCAA Tournament. The Grizzlies can only hope he lasts this long. Yes, Hunter made only 30.5 percent of his 3s last season — but that’s because teams frequently double-teamed him. Being a coach’s kid and having a personality that pops ought to only help Hunter’s draft prospects. If he’s not available, may I suggest another mid-major shooter: Tyler Harvey of Eastern Washington. (But only if you really want to take a home-run swing.)
26. San Antonio: Justin Anderson, SF, Virginia (6-6, 230). Anderson was the anchor for one of the nation’s best defensive teams, and his defensive versatility will be the reason he gets drafted in the first round. But the fact he can really make 3-pointers — 45.2 percent last season — could help him become a coveted 3-and-D player at the next level. He has the feel of a Spurs-type player.
27. L.A. Lakers: Delon Wright, PG, Utah (6-5, 180). A statistical website I often rely on — ValueAddBasketball.com, which looks at the totality of a player’s game and puts a value on what that single player means to his team, similar to baseball’s Wins Above Replacement — had Wright as the single most valuable player in college basketball last season. That’s because it combined his lockdown defense with his ability to control his team from the point guard position. The knock on Wright, other than his advanced age, is that he isn’t a great three-point shooter — but he shot a decent 36 percent from three last season, and his 84 percent free-throw shooting rate shows he may continue to improve from three. Getting this whole package late in the first round could end up as one of the biggest value picks in the draft.
28. Boston: Rakeem Christmas, F/C Syracuse (6-10, 243). Sure, Christmas is old for a first-rounder at 23. But for a team in need of a rim protector, he has enormous length — his wingspan is the second-highest of any draft-eligible player. During his dominant senior season, Christmas expanded his reputation as a shot-blocker/rebounder, then he had an excellent NBA combine where he showed more versatile offensive skills than ever before. He’s a strong, dynamic athlete who has the feel of a solid NBA rotation player.
29. Brooklyn: Tyler Harvey, SG, Eastern Washington (6-4, 180). Harvey could be a poor man’s Steph Curry. He shoots a lot, sometimes from bad spots, but he was one of the best shooters in all of college basketball, and he’s able to create his own looks — a true diamond in the rough. Sources say Harvey has killed it during the interview process. No surprise from this confident but mild-mannered kid.
30. Golden State: Terry Rozier, PG, Louisville (6-2, 190). Rozier was one of the players who most helped his stock during the 5-on-5 portion of the NBA combine. With good size, a good shot and great athleticism, Rozier could become a starting NBA point guard at some point. This is kind of like shopping for the dad who has everything, by the way. Just take the best thing available and move on.