The role of the center is in decline in today’s NBA. With analytics valuing the 3-pointer over back-to-the-basket offense the best teams are filling their center rotations with defensive-minded rim-protectors and stretch 5s whose range can pull the opponent’s rim protector away from the rim. At least that’s the conventional wisdom. It is probably correct. It is also possible there’s a shortage of elite centers.
This table shows how the center position has changed in this decade. It shows the number of centers who have been named to the all-NBA team by decade:
Until recently the best centers in the league were obvious and named all-NBA every year. In the 60s it was always Russell and Chamberlain. In the 70s it was Kareem and someone like McAdoo, Cowens and later Moses Malone. The 80s saw Kareem and Moses continue their dominance, with Hakeem replacing Kareem later. The 90s belonged to Hakeem, Robinson, Ewing and later Shaq. Shaq was the only consistent regular in the aughts. Dwight Howard had a run, but no one center has stepped up as “the guy” since Howard faded. In the teens there has been a revolving door for the 3 all-NBA centers. One year Joakim Noah is the guy. The next year he’s down and a DeAndre Jordan moves in.
The question will be whether Towns and Okafor can become that guy. Here’s a look at how Towns, Okafor and Myles Turner, another freshman center, stack up against the bigs of the past 10 years in their freshmen years.
I included Karl Towns’ stats from Feb-Apr because he showed sustained improvement starting in those months. I thought that was important. The main thing to take from this list is freshmen centers are still very much a work in progress and could go in either direction during their careers. The best indicator of success has been a high 2-point percentage, preferably over .600. There have been 8 players with a 2PP over .600 as freshmen. Four of them, Davis, Aldridge, Noah and Jordan, have made an all-NBA team. The 4 others are young and somewhat promising, Favors and Zeller, or have been held back by injury, Oden and Embiid. This is good news for Okafor especially and also Towns if you look at his Feb-April numbers.
It is hard to tell much from the other stats. The more gaudy the stats the better, but there’s little to suggest showing prowess as a freshmen in rebounding, shot-blocking or scoring is a sure ticket to NBA success. Al Horford was very much a work in progress as a freshman, while Cole Aldrich and Patrick O’Bryant looked like potential world beaters. With that uncertainty in mind, here’s a look at the top 3 center prospects.
Karl Towns, Kentucky: Towns has topped the mocks since roughly January and with good reason. He’s big, skilled and has posted strong numbers on offense and defense. Towns improved a lot offensively during the year. As the top chart shows the Towns that played from February through April was pretty dominant. Here are his monthly splits:
His year was similar to that of Justise Winslow. A promising non-conference performance was followed by a down month in January once the conference schedule started. In February he caught fire offensively and carried that through the end of the season. He was down some in March from February, but 580 and 22.2 P40 with solid rebounding and defensive numbers is still impressive for a freshman.
Playing for the 2015 Kentucky Wildcats was not the typical college experience. The team had 4 bigs that are expected to be drafted, as many as 3 in the lottery. The playing time was limited because of the glut of talent. Towns was limited to 21.1 minutes per game. A typical freshman stud would be expected to play around 30. He still played 822 total minutes. The question I would have is whether college stats are hurt or helped playing next to another first round talent.
There have been four recent cases of 2 bigs from the same team being drafted in the top 20. They are Al Horford and Joakim Noah from Florida in 2007; Brook and Robin Lopez from Stanford in 2008; Jon Henson and Tyler Zeller from North Carolina in 2012; and Anthony Davis and Terrence Jones from Kentucky in 2012. All 8 players have equaled or exceeded what I would have expected of them based on their college numbers.
It’s limited evidence, but playing in the same frontcourt as another first round big hurts a prospect’s numbers if anything. A player in such a situation, like Towns, could reasonably be expected to outplay his prospect numbers in the NBA.
Karl Towns is a pretty strong prospect, but I don’t see him as a surefire superstar. Compared to recent big man prospects, he certainly isn’t in the class of Anthony Davis. He also comes up short of a pre-injury Joel Embiid. That’s one thing maddening about the 2015 draft, as deep as it is there is no one surefire star I can point to and say ”draft that guy”.
Towns might be the closest thing to such a player though. Between the defense he flashed early in the year and the offense that developed later he clearly has the potential to be a 2-way star. According to this report, his work ethic is strong, which will be important. If these reports are correct, Towns should develop into an all-star level center.
Jahlil Okafor, Duke: Okafor will be an interesting player to watch. I can’t find a freshman center in my database who has been this effective a scorer in both frequency and efficiency. It’s a big deal when any player does something that hasn’t been done before. If it was easy to be this good on offense, some player would have done it in the past 30 years and none have. On the flip side he just hasn’t been all that good defensively. He finished with fewer than 2.0 B40 which is a red flag.
The list of freshmen centers who have surpassed .600 2PP and 10.0 R40 doesn’t tell us much either:
It would be the mother of all understatements to say that the players who blocked shots at a higher rate had more success than those who didn’t. But Okafor shouldn’t be grouped with the Mike Peplowskis of the world. These players had nowhere near the skill and offensive numbers of Okafor.
There isn’t a lot of anecdotal evidence that Okafor is a great defender who simply needs to channel his inner Olajuwon. Here’s where the teams of the 3 players featured in this piece ranked in opponents 2-point percentage this past year:
- Texas .377
- Kentucky .391
- Duke .463
That’s out of 351 teams. Duke finished between Chattanooga and Utah State. I would think the inside presence of Turner and Towns, among others, had a lot to do with Texas and Kentucky finishing 1-2. Okafor didn’t have the same affect at Duke. Perusing the Duke box scores there was only once when opposing bigs really lit him up, Kennedy Meeks and Brice Johnson going a combined 17-20 in Duke’s OT win over North Carolina. So while the anecdotal evidence is a mixed bag, one thing that’s clear is Jahlil Okafor’s defense needs a lot of work.
I don’t want to go too negative here. Duke did win the freaking title and Okafor’s historic freshman season was a big reason for that. It is possible he relaxed some on defense to avoid foul trouble, because his offense was so vital to the team. He also is only 19 with a 7’5” wingspan and other impressive physical attributes. The idea that hard work and good coaching will boost his defense to adequate or better isn’t beyond the realm of possibility.
What I love about Okafor is his super-efficient offensive game. He posted the most dominant offensive numbers a freshman center has in over 30 years. A player with his length and physical tools who can do that should be able to figure out how to become an adequate defender and maybe even a good one. He does have bust potential because of the defensive issues. He also has as much upside as Towns and the potential to become a scorer that’s damn near unstoppable.
Myles Turner, Texas: Turner was the most prolific shot-blocker of the 3 freshmen and for that reason he merits a long look. Turner is also the best 3-point shooter of the 3, making him a strong stretch big candidate. While he showed some nice skill for a freshman Turner didn’t post any numbers I would call dominant. Here are past centers and PFs who, like Turner, surpassed 11.5 R40 and 4.5 B40 in their freshman seasons:
About all we can tell from this is a prospect’s career has a wide arc when he’s this young. I would like Turner a lot more if he were closer to .600 on 2-point shots. So would everyone else. The two closest comps are Mihm and Duncan. Because Duncan was a developmental outlier, I won’t call Turner the next Duncan. He could be a journeyman like Mihm though.
Before I wrap on Turner I should mention this article which addresses Turner’s injury risk due to his choppy running style. The article is kind of wonky and basically says Turner’s running problems come from weak glutes and is correctable. Myles will be doing a lot of squats, lunges and deadlifts this summer in addition to his other training. The article is also compelling in that it shows how deep the analytical process goes with these prospects.
What impressed me the most was that Turner and his people were proactive about finding the root of the running problem and correcting it. I always take it as a good sign when a player identifies a problem or a weakness and takes the steps to correct it. In this case I also take it as a good sign that Turner has what looks like a good group of people around him helping with decisions.
Turner’s defensive numbers are strong. He has promising range and he has the tools to become a solid NBA rim protector. His floor is a journeyman stretch big and his ceiling is an all-league defender with a diverse inside-out offensive game. What ultimately makes me think he’ll become the latter is the story about how he approached the running problem. If he takes a similar approach to correcting problems in his game during his NBA career, Myles Turner can become a solid NBA player with all-star potential.
I agree with the general consensus that in order the rank of the prospects is Towns, Okafor and Turner. My feeling is that once they develop, Towns and Okafor will be all-star level players. I don’t see either one becoming another Kareem or Hakeem, who is clearly the dominant center in the game though. More likely they’ll be part of a group that may or may not include DeMarcus Cousins, Jonas Valenciunas, Andre Drummond, Joel Embiid, Jusuf Nirkic, Jakob Poeltl and maybe even Myles Turner who annually fight for the 3 all-NBA center spots into the 20s.