Karl-Anthony and Cauley-Stein: Kentucky’s Two-Headed Monster Is the Future of the NBA

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On Tuesday night, a senior forward for Georgia named Nemanja Djurisic was playing the biggest game of his career, carving up an undefeated Kentucky team. He was scoring inside, he was scoring outside, and the toughest frontline in the country had no real answer. He had 18 points after a layup with 6:04 left. Then Willie Cauley-Stein switched onto him for the final six minutes.

Djurisic didn’t score again. A four-point Georgia lead turned into an eight-point win for a Kentucky team that looks as unbeatable as ever.

Of course, while Cauley-Stein was erasing Georgia’s star on one end, Karl-Anthony Towns was doing whatever he wanted on the other. That helped. He was almost a one-man offense down the stretch — 11 points in the final eight minutes — and the Georgia frontline was as helpless as everyone else has been all year. Towns is Godzilla and college basketball is Tokyo.

Do you realize how unfair it is to put these two together on the same team? As I hovered over my laptop Wednesday afternoon watching a replay of Georgia-Kentucky, I physically winced when I imagined college kids trying to do anything against these guys. And this was one of their worst games of the season!

This is the biggest reason Kentucky is undefeated. In addition to talent all over the roster, they have built-in trump cards on offense AND defense whenever a game gets tight. Earlier this year, Ricky O’Donnell compared them to Al Horford and Joakim Noah, and that sounds about right. But that’s in college.

Let’s talk NBA. Danny Chau is writing about foreign prodigies, which means it’s officially time to start thinking about the draft. As Chris Ryan said to me yesterday, “When someone starts talking about release points, then you know it is truly spring.” Here we are. It’s March, and the draft conversation begins in Lexington this year.

Karl-Anthony Towns

College basketball has had a rough year, entertainment-wise, so I feel like we’re underplaying how great Karl-Anthony Towns can be. He can do pretty much anything you could ever want from a big man, and this year at Kentucky he’s only scratching the surface. His frame is stronger and sturdier than most people his size, especially at his age, but he’s also more explosive than just about any big man in college. He’s got touch around the rim, good footwork, and can hit a jumper.

When I start talking about Towns, I feel like I run into the same problem talking about Anthony Davis this year — there can be only so much hyperbole. It all starts to feel a little ridiculous. Then you watch Davis and Towns play, and the cycle starts all over again. Did you see that Davis had 39, 13, and eight blocks on Wednesday?

Well, Godzilla is doing this:

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towns

His stats from this year don’t really matter — 9.6 ppg, 6.5 rpg, 2.3 bpg. All his numbers are deflated by playing fewer minutes (20.5 mpg) while surrounded by an embarrassment of riches on the Kentucky roster. He’ll be measured against Jahlil Okafor (17.8 ppg, 9.4 rpg, 1.4 bpg) come June, but the numbers are misleading.

For one thing, stretch those stats out across 40 minutes:

  • Okafor: 23.1 ppg, 12.2 rpg, 1.8 bpg
  • Towns: 18.8 ppg, 12.8 rpg, 4.4 bpg

It’s pretty much dead even. What you lose in scoring with Towns you get back on the defensive side. And Towns’s offense is improving as the year goes. He’s shooting nearly 80 effing percent from the field in his last four games, and whether it’s a close win against LSU or surviving in Athens, he’s got a knack for coming up big when things get tight.1 But where the Okafor-Towns comparison really gets lopsided is when you remove college basketball from the equation.

Towns fits perfectly with where the NBA is going. Post-up power forwards have turned into the NBA’s version of running backs. They will never disappear, and a potentially great one (like Okafor) will always help. But you can get by without one, and honestly, you might be better off.

That’s what makes this draft interesting. Fifteen years ago, Okafor-Towns would have made for a great draft debate. In 2015, it just won’t. Or at least it shouldn’t.

Towns can be the centerpiece of an offense one day, but he’ll also anchor a defense. He’s good enough at the rim to let a coach go small to space the floor around him with shooters. He doesn’t have the freakish guard skills of Anthony Davis, but that’s the wrong comparison. Think of the Orlando version of Dwight Howard, but with better free throw shooting and the ability to hit a face-up jumper.

Building your team around a low-post scorer with defensive questions is fine, but it requires an all-in investment. It consumes the identity of your offense, and you still have to find help down low on defense. And most of the best teams in the NBA are going in the other direction. This is the problem that’s been vexing the Kings for as long as they’ve had Boogie Cousins. This problem would not exist with Towns.

The other big man in Lexington is just as interesting.

Willie Cauley-Stein

Cauley-Stein is the superstar who exists to debunk all the most obvious Kentucky myths. He was not a McDonald’s All American. He was not a top-25 recruit. He was never a one-and-done candidate. When he was pegged as a potential lottery pick after last year’s tournament run, he decided to come back for his junior year.

In some ways, he’s the anti-Towns. Where Towns’s superstardom was preordained since he was 16 years old,2 Cauley-Stein was a question mark. To plenty of people around the NBA, he probably still is. To people around college basketball, he is something else: the best example in years of why it sometimes pays to come back to school.

Watching him last year was like seeing JaVale McGee’s Looper.

He had zero offensive polish, not much more poise, and there may not be official stats to support this, but it felt like he fouled someone every five seconds.

He was still really good, of course. His length alone made him great on defense. And he was athletic, and he could dunk. Cauley-Stein was a big reason Kentucky made that tournament run until he got hurt. Had he gone to the NBA last season, there was a chance he would have developed into a dependable pro starter. Someone in the lottery would’ve taken that bet.

But it would’ve been a long shot. Big men like Cauley-Stein disappoint all the time. Most NBA teams — especially lottery teams — don’t have the patience or practice time to weed out players’ worst habits, so those problems fester and keep them from hitting the next level. Eventually, one team gives up trying to get the most out of all that potential, the player moves on to another team, and the cycle repeats itself.

Cauley-Stein flipped the script. He came back to school, he’s playing under control, and he has transformed from a decent but misfired weapon into a finely tuned instrument of torture.

“His growth from last year to this year is amazing,” Calipari told The Advocate-Messenger recently. “And a lot of it becomes that confidence and his mentality — his mental toughness, his ability to push through when it’s not going great, his ability to push through comfort levels, to practice and go hard when he doesn’t feel like doing those things.”

Fellow coach Frank Martin added: “He broke my heart when he didn’t come to Kansas State. It’s unfortunate, I take the job at South Carolina and I have to play against him every year. It’s unbelievable how confident he has become, a multi-dimensional player … We all forget he’s a junior already. Some of his ups and downs as a freshman are in the rear view mirror. You’re starting to see the grown man Willie go out there and play.”

Celebrating maturity and the virtues of college basketball makes me feel like Billy Packer, but in Cauley-Stein’s case, it seems true. It’s not that he’s a different player, he’s just a much smarter version of the player everyone hoped he could be.3 Now it makes more sense to dream about what will happen in the NBA.

@ESPNStatsInfo

That is DeAndre Jordan’s shot chart for the season. In other words, aside from end-of-quarter 3s, he has taken one shot outside the paint. For the entire season.

This could be Cauley-Stein’s future. Jordan is dominating for the Clippers, and I’m not sure he has a single offensive skill beyond setting screens and rolling to the hoop for massive finishes. The full description of his game could be boiled down to five words: “Dunks, defense, rebounds, and DUNKS.” He is great at exactly three things, and that’s good enough to make him valuable to any team in the NBA.4

Cauley-Stein is great at the same three things. He can finish lobs, he can rebound, and he’s so quick and long that strength is irrelevant. He can guard anyone, and he helps the whole defense. Watch him challenge this first jumper, then recover to destroy this kid’s hopes and dreams:

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There are signs that he might be developing a face-up jumper too. That’s a wrinkle Jordan has never had. If the jumper comes together, it would obviously make Cauley-Stein even more attractive in June. But whether the jumper develops or not, just watch Jordan, or look at someone like Tyson Chander, and it’s hard to bother worrying about the offense.

The most serious questions facing Cauley-Stein were related to maturity and basketball IQ, and both of those questions have been answered this year. Once it’s time to start freaking out about the draft, Cauley-Stein’s value will tell you a lot about what the NBA prioritizes right now. DeAndre Jordan fell to the 35th pick in 2008. Cauley-Stein won’t get past 10, and may not get past five.

The NBA’s Big New Buzzword

Wingspan. Upside. Motor. These are our older members of the draft cliché family. Right now, in 2015, we are witnessing the birth of another.

RIM PROTECTOR.

Towns

Rim protector. You have probably heard this term casually thrown around with increasing frequency over the past few years, but it’s about to hit upside territory in June.5

Most buzzwords are at least 60 percent bullshit — lookin’ at you, motor — but rim protector makes sense. Look at what Jordan has been doing for the Clippers. Look at Chandler’s career. Look at the article Kirk Goldsberry wrote on Rudy Gobert earlier this week. Gobert is averaging seven points per game and he’s been one of the breakout players of the season.

When Cleveland gave up two first-round picks for Timofey Mozgov, it looked like a last act of desperation in a lost season. Now it looks like the smartest trade of the year.

Rim protectors are becoming the must-have accessory. If you have a center who can protect the paint all by himself, that gives a coach and GM twice as much flexibility with the rest of the lineup. Maybe they go big with a second low-post scorer (like Zach Randolph next to Marc Gasol in Memphis); maybe they go small, to play faster and space the hell out of everyone (like Draymond Green next to Andrew Bogut in Golden State). Either way, this means a job that used to belong to two players can be done with one … if you have the right one.

Kentucky has two.

If you want to know why Calipari’s team looks so impossible, there’s at least one very simple answer: This is a college basketball team anchored by two big men who will one day anchor NBA defenses all by themselves.

Yes, the rise in rim protector obsession will absolutely lead to all kinds of teams drafting their very own JaVale McGees or talking themselves into younger players who aren’t quite that good. This would be the Larry Sanders problem. But all that is beside the point today. Both of Kentucky’s big men are for real, and hyphenated, and spectacular.

Cauley-Stein is quick enough to cover insane amounts of ground on defense and stick with college players half his size, and he’s long enough to bother every shot within 10 feet. Karl-Anthony is big enough to ruin shots at the rim, and his offense is somehow dominant and raw at the same time. Seven-footers always have value, but given where the NBA is going, guys like these will be priceless. That’s what’s coming in June.

Until then, they’re college basketball’s problem.

South Carolina at KentuckyCharles Bertram/Lexington Herald-Leader/TNS via Getty Images

Filed Under: NBA, Karl-Anthony Towns, Willie Cauley-Stein, Kentucky, john calipari, College Basketball, 2015 NBA Draft

Andrew Sharp is a staff editor at Grantland.

Archive @ andrewsharp