Tonight in New York, a Kentucky basketball player will likely become the top pick in the NBA Draft. This should not be a surprise, given the exceptionalism of Kentucky’s roster in relationship to the professional game, except that it is.
For months leading up to this draft, Duke center Jahlil Okafor was a no-brainer for the No. 1 pick (which belongs to the Minnesota Timberwolves); this seemed like the closest thing a draft has to a certainty, and then suddenly Kentucky’s Karl-Anthony Towns eclipsed him, and this has at least one former Duke basketball player flabbergasted. “If you think the game has changed and a big man doesn’t fit anymore, then Jahlil Okafor shouldn’t be picked at 2, 3, 4, 5 or 6,” ESPN’s Jay Bilas said on Thursday. “That’s kind of crazy…The game didn’t change in February. He was the No. 1 pick then and everyone thought so.”
In a way, Bilas – who is often in the right (particularly in reference to the hypocrisy of college sports) – is correct here, too: The game didn’t change in February. But it did change in May, and it did change earlier this month, when the Golden State Warriors won the NBA Finals while literally benching their own highly paid center, Andrew Bogut, for the final two games. The Warriors won the championship by utilizing players who didn’t fit the traditional positional definitions. They drafted and acquired tweeners like Draymond Green and Harrison Barnes and Klay Thompson and Andre Iguodala who didn’t fit the numerical system that classifies NBA players, who could switch defensively and guard nearly any player on the floor (even LeBron James).
So this is what’s happening here: As Sports Illustrated’s Chris Ballard wrote a few months ago, the Warriors “believed centers still mattered.” But they also believed “that the future of the league lay in position-less players.” And quite simply, Karl-Anthony Towns has the potential to be more of a position-less center than Jahlil Okafor.
It’s clear that Okafor is a fabulous talent: ESPN’s Chad Ford has called him the best low-post scorer in a decade. But it’s also clear that Towns is a more efficient offensive player in nearly every other way, and it’s clear, according to the advanced statistics, that Towns is a far better defender. And this is the other not-so-astounding potential future trend that the Warriors may have unlocked – they were not only the second most efficient offensive team in basketball, but they were also the most efficient defensive team. No longer do these things need to be mutually exclusive; no longer, it would appear, does a great team have to utilize a plodding offensive style in order to conserve its energy on defense.
And so Towns over Okafor, at this point, feels like a natural progression. And in fact, the larger question that remains to be answered is how much the center really does matter anymore; the larger question is whether the true steal of this draft lies beyond the first two picks, in a versatile guard or swingman like Ohio State’s D’Angelo Russell or Duke’s Justise Winslow or Congo native Emmanuel Mudiay, who played in China last year.
The hope is that the Warriors have altered the NBA to the point that it becomes a more interesting and versatile game, that it breaks the league out of decades of star-based isolation offenses, that it challenges the top players in the NBA to work to improve their defense in the way that the Warriors’ Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson did. I don’t know if it’s a revolution, but the game has changed, even if only in subtle ways, and this draft feels like a small step toward the future.
Michael Weinreb is the author of Season of Saturdays: A History of College Football in 14 Games. You can find him on Twitter @michaelweinreb