One of the more intriguing trends to watch from the days of AAU basketball to the college level and finally to the NBA draft is the fluidity of player perception. Two years ago, Jahlil Okafor was assumed to be the unquestionable number one draft pick, and Emmanuel Mudiay was looked at as the next great athletic point guard to grace the NBA a la John Wall, Derrick Rose, and Russell Westbrook. Nevertheless, both of those players have been surpassed by Karl Towns and D’Angelo Russell in the court of public perception for different reasons. On a national stage at Duke, Okafor’s weaknesses shone as bright as his strengths. Mudiay was dubbed somewhat of an “international mystery” after he shirked college basketball to play professionally in China. With that being said, I attempt to answer some questions about the draft.
Who is the preferred player in the Jahlil Okafor vs Karl Towns debate?
To many in the NBA ranks, this debate is a microcosm of the changing landscape of centers across the league. Towns represents the do-it-all giant who can be equally effective from all three areas of the court while Okafor is viewed as an old-school, back-to-the-basket center who does most of his damage in the post. While the debate is often painted as black or white, both players possess many of the same strengths: Towns also happens to be really good in the post even though he prefers to use viscous drop-steps and basic hooks rather than the fancy footwork that frequents Okafor’s post game. To compliment his post brilliance, Okafor has the ability to palm the basketball like a fruit and possess the skill to stretch his jumper out to 15 feet. Both players remain very good passers out of the post and have increasingly learned how to approach double teams from various angles.
Defense is what separates the two big men at the present moment. Towns appears to have the better lateral ability to slide with smaller guards on the spacious NBA floor. He has also shown more willingness and vertical range to swat shots as a help side defender. Okafor, on the other hand, has a bit of catching up to do on the defensive side of the floor. Some like to point out that Okafor tried to avoid foul trouble at Duke, but the fact of the matter is that he has never been heavily invested on the defensive end. The talent and physical tools are all there to be a solid defender, but far too many times is Okafor caught playing as if feet are in cement. Once he gets into NBA shape and receives top level instruction, Okafor will begin to show the ability on defense that his physical talent suggests. One area in which Okafor has an upper hand over Towns is in lower body strength. This helps Okafor by allowing him to apply even just a small amount of resistance to keep weaker offensive players out of their comfort zone.
If you gave me a choice between the two, I would go with Towns because of his ability to move more fluidly on the defensive end and pull down rebounds out of his area.
Which first round prospect(s) are flying a bit under the radar?
It’s strange to consider possible lottery picks as underappreciated, but allow me to explain myself.
I firmly believe Stanley Johnson will end up as one of the five best players in the entire draft even though he is likely to be drafted from the 8th spot onwards. His scoring instincts are off the charts, and his jump shot will only get better from here on out. He has a quick, smooth release which allows him to get shots off despite having somewhat of a low release. It is Johnson’s combination of footwork and strength that I believe will carry him far in the league despite being an average vertical athlete and ball handler. On defense, Stanley is an animal when fully interested. No one will bully him thanks to his physical profile and aggressive nature. He also shows adequate lateral mobility to guard opposing wings, and really gets in a fundamental stance to ward off guards. In the ever shrinking NBA game, Johnson will be a versatile cog for a long time. The key for Johnson is not being too stubborn when given instruction, as he reportedly was at times in Tucson.
Not many will agree, but Frank Kaminsky is still the best basketball player in the entire draft. He proved as much all college basketball season, consistently posing as a matchup nightmare for opposing big men. As he continues to add some muscle and explosion, I believe he will surprise a lot of people in the NBA. His defense is not as bad as some will tell you. Kaminsky plays extremely good fundamental defense without fouling (shout-out to Coach Ryan). When players score over him, it’s usually a case of good offense trumping good defense. Given how the NBA game is trending, having a skilled, 3-point shooting, face-up big guy is definitely a plus, and Frank Kaminsky fits that fold.
A lot of people, including myself, worry about how Tyus Jones’ small stature will hold up in a league full of hyper-athletic players. I often hear that Jones will just be a solid backup, but I am not ready to pigeon hole him to that position. There’s something to be said about point guards with a complete skillset. Jones’ vision and passing ability alone will keep him in the league for an extended period of time. While he isn’t the greatest defender, he is very sneaky and will pick your pocket or play the passing lanes to perfection (and dare I say flop!). You can’t speed up Jones or shake his confidence, both of which go a long way in making a quality NBA starting point guard. He is also very reliable, as he proved to be a stoic achiever every time his team needed him to step up. He is a solid catch and shoot guy who will improve his shot. He lacks explosiveness and struggles to finish floaters at times, but as he improves his footwork while approaching the rim, that will become automatic for him. Look for Jones to be steady and reliable lead guard for a winning team.
Who is one second round prospect and one likely undrafted player who will surprise many?
While he caught a lot of flak at Kentucky, I am very high on Andrew Harrison as an NBA player. First and foremost, he is a big point guard who has a tight handle and can play downhill. When coming off the pick and roll, he does an excellent job using a slick array of dribbles to keep the big man off balance. With the space on the NBA floor, Harrison will have a lot more room to operate and show why he was thought of so highly coming out of high school. The marked improvement Harrison made on the defensive end should be commended. He improved his foot speed and overall effort in keeping the offensive player in front of him rather than clumsily allowing a driving lane. With his size and strength, I see no reason why Harrison cannot be a solid defender at the next level.
McConnell will likely go undrafted Thursday night, but I have full faith in him making an NBA roster in due time. Apart from being a good locker room guy and on-court leader, McConnell has translatable skills. He is a very good passer and a smooth operator of the pick and roll. Another thing he does well is keep his dribble alive a la Steve Nash in order to buy time to find open teammates. On defense, McConnell is a solid player and plays with unmatchable passion and effort. Now, he must improve his jumper in order to get serious consideration from NBA teams, but knowing McConnell, he will put his all into improving.
Is Emmanuel Mudiay really a mystery?
The answer depends on who you ask. To the hoop-heads who track these prospects as early as middle school, Mudiay is a familiar face. He’s always been highly regarded for his size at the guard position and for his exciting forays to the hoop. Mudiay was a participant in a lot of high school basketball’s premier events, such as the McDonald’s game, the Jordan Brand event, the Nike Hoop Summit, and televised varsity games, so he’s definitely been visible before.
To others, he’s known as the guy who was supposed to play for legendary Coach Larry Brown at SMU, but chose to play in China. The average fan hasn’t seen much of him, so it is understandable why some peg him as a mystery.
All things considered, Mudiay should be a very solid pro player. His experience in China will go a long in showing him what it takes to be successful as a professional. Mudiay’s name will always be linked to that of D’Angelo Russell, as the two attempt to prove who the premier guard in the draft is.
How good are the international sensations Mario Hezonja and Kristaps Porzingis?
Yeah, these guys are really good. In Hezonja, you have an ultra-confident and athletic wing who can shoot the ball very well. Porzingis brings another worldly combination of length and athleticism to go along with a sweet shooting stroke. These two do not resemble what people typically consider a European player attempting to make the transition to the NBA game. In the end, I see both players having fruitful NBA careers with possible multiple all-star bids. One aspect that will help both transition to NBA life is their already solid grasp of the English language.