Making the case for being No. 1: Karl-Anthony Towns
It's a Monday morning, three weeks before the NBA draft, and there's something "off" about Karl-Anthony Towns as he goes through his morning basketball workout at the Spectrum in Thousand Oaks.
Off like, this court is at Skywalker Ranch and George Lucas is in some editing bay making more infamous effect edits to a "Special Edition" of Towns.
Towns is on the court with fellow top prospects D'Angelo Russell and Willie Cauley-Stein. Everyone is awesome, but your eyes keep turning to Towns.
Maybe it's the effortless way that he's draining shots from beyond the NBA 3-point line. Or the flawlessness of the ball handling drills Don McLean is putting him through. Perhaps it's the way he catches the ball on the wing, makes a perfect pivot and spins and finishes with a huge dunk above the rim.
Or maybe, it's seeing all of those skills usually reserved for guards in a man with size-20 shoes and a 9-foot-5 standing reach. In a league filled with superstars who often are physical wonders -- Towns still stands out.
Big men can't do things Towns can do. They're not supposed to. It's not natural. Yet, for 90 minutes, Towns keeps playing more like James Harden than Dwight Howard.
McLean, the former UCLA superstar and 10-year NBA veteran, walks over to me shaking his head.
"I've been training guys for the draft for 11 years and I've never seen anyone his size who can do the things that Karl can do. It's otherworldly."
That's how it feels -- otherworldly. What if Howard could shoot, dribble and move the way Harden does?
You watch him over and over again and it feels like someone has tampered with reality. Fortunately, for NBA teams, there isn't a green screen.
Every other top prospect in this draft (and in every other draft for that matter) has had a glaring weakness that needed to be improved upon to become a star.
Anthony Davis needed to add strength. Derrick Rose, Andrew Wiggins and John Wall? A jump shot.
This year, Duke's Jahlil Okafor's lack of elite athleticism and defense evoke questions. Russell's eventual position in the pros raises questions. Emmanuel Mudiay's jump shot and Kristaps Porzingis' body are their achilles heels.
But what, exactly, are Towns' weaknesses?
Shooting? He doesn't just shoot it well for a big man, he excels, with deep range and near perfect form. And it goes in -- a lot. At one point he drained 11-for-13 from beyond the NBA 3-point line.
Free-throws? His 82 percent clip from the line is one of the best ever for a big man. He might be the best free-throw shooting big man the draft has seen in a decade.
Size? He measured in at 6-foot-11, 250 pounds with a 7-foot-4 wingspan and a 9-foot-5 standing reach before the season began. Those are ideal numbers for a NBA big.
Defense? He averaged 2.3 blocks per game this season despite playing just 21 minutes per night.
Basketball IQ? He's highly intelligent and picks up instruction easily.
Work ethic? His improvement over the past two seasons has been dramatic. McLean says he's the first player to the gym every morning. "If I tell him to be here by 10," McLean says, "he's here by 9:00."
Off-the-court? He's a charming, highly likable young man. I spent weeks (and NBA teams spent months) looking to see if there were any skeletons in the closet. All the reports came back glowing. He's a special young man.
Toughness? That was a legit question in high school and early in his freshman season when Towns showed a tendency to fade away on his shot when facing physical defenders. However, by the end of the season, Towns had toughed up and had several heroic performances in the paint for Kentucky during the NCAA tournament.
So what's Towns' kryptonite?
"I guess I'm nice," Towns chuckles. "Actually, I think everything is a weakness in my game. I want to continue to improve in all aspects. I want to be the best player I can possibly be at all aspects -- dribbling, shooting, defense, low post -- I just want to be the best player I can possibly be."
"You have to nitpick with him," one NBA GM told ESPN.com. "There's nothing broken, nothing glaring. Everything could use some polish. But the extra effort is worth it when you're polishing a diamond. I've been doing this a long time. I can't remember saying that about very many kids in the draft."
Even the statistics agree
If the naked eye can't pick him apart, maybe analytics can? Nope. Our guru, Kevin Pelton, has him ranked No. 1 atop his statistical Big Board.
"It's hard to find a real concern in Towns' statistics," Pelton says. "He's average or better for a center across the board, and his rim protection is elite."
When scouts and analytics both agree, that's a comforting sign that Towns is truly No. 1 on our Big Board. The fact that he didn't ascend to the No. 1 position is part of what's great about his story.
A few years ago, even a few months ago, the weaknesses were much more evident. NBA scouts got their first good look at Towns during the 2013 Nike Hoop Summit. Towns, just 16 at the time, played for the International team under his home country -- the Dominican Republic.
Scouts were immediately drawn to his size and shooting touch. Towns showed off a beautiful stroke in practices (he went 17-for-25 from the NBA 3-point line in one drill) and looked like he belonged with the top high school seniors and international players in the world.
"He was on the floor every day with Andrew Wiggins, Dante Exum, Joel Embiid and Dennis Schroder and he just really popped," one NBA scout who attended the Hoop Summit practices for a week remembered. "But everyone wondered what he'd turn into. He was allergic to the paint and contact. But he was just too big to stand around and shoot 3s. The question back then was whether he'd ever learn how to play in the paint."
Towns ended with seven points and four rebounds in 17 minutes, drawing considerably praise and questions from NBA teams.
A few months later, Towns played for the Dominican Republic national team where he hooked up with Kentucky head coach John Calipari for the first time. The experience gave Towns confidence that he belonged with the other pros out there.
"That was the highest level of basketball I had ever played," Towns said. "It was a challenge, but I loved the challenge. It gave me the confidence I needed to keep working."
Towns returned to the Hoop Summit a second time in 2014. He was stronger, more defensive-minded and started to show the first signs of becoming a NBA center. The vision of his potential was clearing. I wrote this in 2014 about him:
"Towns made scouts swoon last year when he played for the international team. His play this year was a little more uneven -- he had just six points and two rebounds, mostly because of foul trouble -- but there is so much to like in Towns' game. He's a fluid big man with terrific size, and he's very skilled. He has shooting range all the way out to the 3-point line and isn't afraid to go out there and take those shots. He also can score in the paint and be a good rebounder and shot-blocker when he focuses.
"Scouts worry a bit about his toughness; they want to see him fight in the paint more. But he's a third big in this draft who has some serious offensive skills. How often do three guys like that come along in the same class? If John Calipari plays him the same way he did DeMarcus Cousins, Towns might have a shot at going No. 1."
Calipari and Towns delivered. But it took a while.
Towns took just eight 3-point shots as a freshman at Kentucky. Calipari forced him to make a living in the paint. The progress was slow offensively. While Towns dominated the paint on the defensive end, he often struggled with the physicality in the paint. Early on, Towns had a nasty habit of fading away from the basket when guarded by physical or athletic defenders.
For Towns, his development had as much or more to do with playing against Cauley-Stein, Dakari Johnson and Marcus Lee each day in practice than it did playing in the games.
"When you're playing against pros like that, you're talking about the best players in the draft, each day in practice, you can't be more blessed than I was," Towns said. "To have the brothers that I had, to play against the best everyday -- it was always like playing the No. 2 or No. 1 team in the country every day in practice."
Still, for most of the season, the only real debate between Towns and Okafor centered on defense versus offense. Towns was the superior defender, Okafor the superior offensive player. However, in the last month of SEC play, Towns has made tremendous strides offensively while still dominating the defensive side of the ball. In the last 10 games before the NCAA tournament, Towns averaged 13.0 PPG, 8.3 RPG and 2.5 BPG in just 24 MPG. During that stretch, he shot a crazy 50-for-68 from the field (74 percent) and 29-for-33 from the free-throw line (88 percent) -- emerging as the best offensive weapon on this undefeated Kentucky team despite his age.
His real coming out party came against Notre Dame in the Elite Eight. Towns essentially saved the season for the Wildcats. In 25 minutes he had 25 points on 10-for-13 shooting to go with 5 rebounds, 4 assists, 2 steals and a block. Seventeen of those points came in the second half on 8-for-8 shooting in the second half. Towns ended up scoring more field goals than the rest of Kentucky's starting five combined.
That weekend he surpassed Okafor as the No. 1 prospect on our Big Board and has never looked back. NBA scouts were crossing their fingers Towns and Okafor would meet head-to-head in the national championship game. Alas, Kentucky lost to Wisconsin in the Final Four, robbing the world of a chance to see the two top big men in this year's draft go head to head.
Okafor and Duke went on to win the NCAA championship. But it's now Towns who most NBA folks see as the better draft prospect. In fact, the more scouts go back and look at Towns, the more they're convinced he's the clear No. 1 pick in this draft.
However, Towns is deferential to Okafor.
"Jahlil is an absolutely spectacular player. His footwork is off the charts and his low post game is amazing. Wherever the chips fall, they fall. But whatever team takes Jah is going to get a great player. He's an absolute monster."
In speaking with a number of NBA decision makers, while they agree with Towns' scouting report of Okafor, they see Towns as the clear best big man in the draft.
"It's not even close," one GM said. "Just do this little exercise. Put Towns on Duke and Okafor on Kentucky this season. There would be no debate. The only thing in Okafor's favor is that he has more polished footwork in the paint. That's it. Everything else, size, athleticism, conditioning, defensive ability, shooting ability ... it all goes to Towns. I like Okafor. I really do. But to me the choice is clear."