The season is finally over! We can talk about the most important remaining night on the NBA calendar: draft night. Last year, we saw a three-man race, with Cleveland deciding to draft Andrew Wiggins no. 1 after Jabari Parker declared he felt “wanted” by Milwaukee, while Joel Embiid had some injury concerns.
Parker looked great before blowing out his ACL, Embiid may not play for the first two years of his career, and Wiggins, despite concerns about his aggressiveness, had people around the NBA wondering if the Cavaliers might regret trading him for Kevin Love.
A lot can and will change once these guys actually get into the league. General managers and scouts love the top of the 2015 draft. This is not the normal “as we get closer everyone talks themselves into a player” kind of love. It’s different.
Sources with teams selecting outside the top few picks have consistently pointed out to me that you can’t really lose in the top four or five. Yes, odds are one of these guys will be a total disappointment. Just trust me on this one: GMs like these guys.
This edition of NBA Draft Confidential will focus on the presumed top three players in the draft at the start of the process: Karl-Anthony Towns, Jahlil Okafor, and D’Angelo Russell. This is the culmination of hours on the phone with GMs and other front-office members to get a glimpse into how they talk about players when they are looking at them as potential NBA players.
Okafor was the consensus no. 1 pick for much of the season. I haven’t talked to anyone who believes that today. He may not even go second to the Lakers, as more teams have fallen in love with Russell. Also, it’s worth acknowledging that Kristaps Porzingis is in play for at least the no. 2 spot.
The accounts you are about to read are from three sources who work in personnel for NBA teams. For the sake of anonymity, I’m calling them Scout 1, Scout 2, and Scout 3.
After the scouts give their takes, I’ll provide my own summary, based on watching most of these players’ games this season and hours glued to Synergy Sports.
Karl-Anthony TownsElias Stein
Scout 1: First off, that guy can shoot the rock, regardless of size. He can make a college 3, midrange, free throws. He’s great at the rim. He was arguably the most well-rounded player in college basketball to only play 20 minutes a night.1
Editor’s note: The exact figure was 21.1 minutes.
You know the story about how Dean Smith was the only person to keep Jordan under 20 points per game? It’s the same thing with Towns. Who was the one guy to keep Towns down? John Calipari. That’s how talented he is. I think he’s no. 1; he is clearly no. 1.
He’ll be a good defender. I’ll be shocked if he’s not. He’s a good shot-blocker, active, long. He’s another one, though, that allows easy catches. He’ll need to be taught some things. In the NBA, you can’t just allow catches without any resistance. They’ll just put you in the rim. He’ll learn that.
I don’t know about him switching [defensively]. He’s not like Willie [Cauley-Stein]. I don’t think he’s going to get isolated out at the 3-point line and be able to guard, but he’ll move his feet. I don’t think it’s going to be a matador.
He can hang with an Al Horford, but he’s not going out to chase a Draymond Green or a Paul Millsap to the 3-point line. You’d probably put him on Dirk and say, “Do your best, young man.” The Dirk of today, not the Dirk of five years ago.
Some people think there is an argument, I don’t think there is an argument at all. I don’t see a downside to him.
Scout 2: He can play some 4, but his best position is 5. It’s what he is. The league is so small, and the 4s are so mobile, I think he’ll struggle out on the floor chasing some of them. He’s a little more versatile as a center than some traditional low-post guys, because he shoots the ball so well.
You can pick him and pop him instead of picking and diving all the time. People say, “He can shoot 3s.” His stroke is great, but he’s not ready for that. That doesn’t mean that, in time, he won’t be.
Great character. He is a decent athlete, not great. Not a super second-jump guy. Going forward, his athleticism isn’t an issue for him. There are a lot of great players that don’t have second jumps. It makes you a better player, but it’s not a deterrent if you don’t have it.
Pretty patient, though quickness is a bit of an issue. I think he’ll get exposed a little, initially, on pick-and-roll defenses. But he wasn’t horrible for Cal. He’s not Willie Cauley-Stein, but few people are. Capable learner, so he’ll learn how to space guys, who he can crowd, who he can’t, who to give room to.
He’s not Stein, like I said, or [Tyson] Chandler, but he gives you so much more offensively that you can live with whatever deficiencies he has. Cauley-Stein is a supreme athlete. You can switch him 1-5. His recovery rate is so quick — second jump, all that kind of stuff. Towns isn’t that. But Towns is thicker, so he can bang and beat the shit out of you in the low post. So what if he gives up out on the perimeter?
There are all kinds of ways to describe athletes. There is vertical, north-south, east-west. Stein has all of them, Towns doesn’t. He’s not vertical, he’s not east-west. But he is good north-south — he can run. Guys like to run, especially in offensive transition, because they get to score! Pretty damn motivated to run that way. I’ve seen Cal undress Towns for not running in defensive transition, but it’s never an issue on the offensive end.
Not a special shooter. He’s good because he makes free throws, and that’s a barometer for me. If you can make them, it’s a sedentary shot, and it speaks about your stroke. You have time and you are compact. There’s a routine and a rhythm. Make free throws, you can make shots. Here is an example: [Georgia State’s] R.J. Hunter, I think, shot 87 percent from the free throw line [.878] and 29 percent from 3 (.305). That was this year, but in the past he was better. So we are like, This guy can make shots. For whatever reason, he didn’t. But I’m not going to discard him as a shooter, because his stroke is too good.
We watched Hunter in a workout, and we were like, This guy can really fucking shoot. Then you watch tape and you are like, Man, why did he take that shot? I get that the shot-clock-ending shot, you got to fucking take that one, but 10 seconds left and you are squeezing one? You are like, Hmm. You’d have to ask him and watch tape with him. Ask him what he’s doing.
I’ll never forget Ray Allen telling a story. You have no idea how hard it is to attempt 20 shots in a game. Try to get 20 quality shots? It’s impossible, no way. When you are the featured player, you are defended differently. Your goal in a game should be getting something he called “free looks” on wide-open shots, and make six of them, knowing that the other 12 are going to be contested, and they are so fucking hard to make. You might go fucking 3-for-12 or 4-for-12, but if you go 6-for-8? OK, now you are 9-for-20 or 10-for-20, and you’re whole again. So, on the night, you are 3-8 on your free looks and then 3-for-12 on your contested ones, then you have those fucking horrible shooting nights.
My point is Towns is a really good shooter, but is he going to be this guy other people are talking about as an elite shooter? I don’t see it. At least not from deep. Fifteen and in? Sure, he’s really good, but not yet from 3. Not saying he can’t.
Who practices that at Kentucky — 3-point shots — if you are Towns? Cal let him take a couple early, and that was the end of that experiment. I’m not discounting him making that shot one day; I just don’t know what day that is. It ain’t going to be in the Vegas summer league, I can tell you that.
Joe Robbins/Getty Images
Scout 3: He had an amazing year in that fishbowl [Kentucky]. Mentally, he seems to handle everything well. In the beginning, Okafor was the presumed no. 1 guy, but with this talk about how the game is changing, with a big guy that can pick and roll and pick and pop, he [Towns] just seems like he has the edge in a couple of areas.
Towns has a better face-up game from 15-17 feet, and he’s a little more versatile than Okafor, but Okafor is better in the post. Towns brings more skill — a good jump hook, a nice left hand. He has the edge defensively. If you look at his per-minute stats for blocks and rebounds, it’s incredible. He’s a rare commodity at center. I’d take him no. 1. But, man, [Kristaps] Porzingis is in the conversation.
Doesn’t seem like there are any negatives. I’ve seen him in the McDonald’s [All American] Game and four times this year. The way he conducts himself, the way he competes … the coach can yell at him, he puts up with it. He’s a team guy, says all the right things. He just seems like a solid kid.
Russillo: I really like Okafor, but you can’t take him over Towns. You just can’t do it.
The more I go back and watch Towns, the more I wonder why he isn’t being talked about as a franchise-changing player. It can’t be because of his numbers, which were limited due to his 21 minutes per game. It’s 2015. We are better than that.
Maybe it’s that it took him a long time to look like the no. 1 pick. Maybe it’s because his great game against Notre Dame is downgraded because the Irish had no one to defend his point-blank hook shots.
I don’t care if he’s a center or a power forward. He’s big, he can run, he doesn’t kill you defensively, and his frame is perfect to put on muscle.
We aren’t even close to seeing what this kid is going to be.
Scout 1: He is the best backcourt player in the draft. He is clearly the best point guard. High basketball IQ. Tremendous size. Great confidence about himself. He is more of a scorer than a shooter. I see the [James] Harden comparison. I think that’s fair, just with the way he plays.
He’s athletic enough. I mean, he can dunk. Sure, he needs to get stronger, has a slight frame. He does what he needs to do.
There is enough there to run an NBA team — best vision in the draft. No doubt about it. His shooting needs to get better. He takes some tough shots. But I think it’s going to improve. The stroke isn’t bad. I think he has the package you want in a guard. No downside.
Scout 2: He’s just one of those guys where the game comes very easy to him. Sees things. One of the best passers we have seen in college basketball in a long, long time. There are plays where he sees two passes ahead. He makes hockey passes.
Incredible confidence, incredible poise. Great size. Not a great athlete, not very strong. I think what has happened to him is, because the game is so easy for him and he’s had such great success, his deficiencies haven’t manifested yet. I think that they will to a degree. And I’ll be very curious to see how he addresses it. Will he get in the weight room? Will he become wiry strong?
He’s competitive … he wants to win. He didn’t have a great team, I don’t think. He was playing with a guy that will be a second-round pick … some European dudes.2 He carried a team as a freshman. A lot to be said for that.
Editor’s note: This refers to players who might end up in Europe.
Jonathan Ferrey/Getty Images
He can score in a lot of ways. Our whole league is pick-and-roll. You go underneath, he’s going to pull up. You come off the screen and retreat, and you blew it — he’ll pull up. He’s capable of turning the corner, and once he gets in the lane, he just buries you. You help, he’ll throw lobs. You compact it, he kicks out for open looks.
My issues with him are defensively. He guards with his instincts, that’s it. He’s so creative with his offense, so he knows the game, he’s smart. He knows how to defend — he’ll get into the passing lanes, he knows how to dig and recover, he knows rotations. But he can’t fucking guard anything. He’s disinterested. I saw [Ohio State] play Marquette earlier in the year. They were playing zone defense. Thad Matta doesn’t play zone. They were doing it to help Russell.
He gets by with his instincts, and I don’t know if you can do that in our league. I think that’ll be an issue for him. But he’s prideful enough and works at it [enough] to just be fucking capable. I mean, get in the fucking way.
Maybe Harden is the right comparison. Harden got stronger and has a little more pop than you think. There are supreme basketball players that aren’t great athletes. Ownership, management, coaches, media: We want it all. We wish LeBron James was a better shooter. We are always looking for the perfect player. They have never created one, and they never will.
I go back and look at his team. They got drilled in the second round [of the NCAA tournament] by Arizona. Rondae [Hollis-Jefferson] and Stanley [Johnson] … they just climbed into his ass. Ohio State didn’t have an answer for them. OK, you can load up on him. Who are you going to throw it to? Shannon Scott, Sam Thompson, or Amir Williams? I mean, you can’t. Well, fuck it, we are going to take our chances with this guy. He struggled. Now put him on the floor with NBA players. Try and load on him now.
He’s so good, so cerebral. There are very few players that get drafted because of their defense. That will be Hollis-Jefferson and Willie. The other fucking 28 guys? It will all be about offense.
Scout 3: I liked him right away when I saw him in the McDonald’s game. Us scouts were sitting together saying, “Man … ” It really excites you to see a young guy with creativity and vision. He thinks like a point guard, but then he’s talented, quick enough to get his shot.
I was really eager to see him earlier this year at Louisville, going into that lion’s den. A year ago, he’s in high school, now he’s in the Yum Yum Center with 20,000 people. He gathered himself, he figured it out, and he put his team in a position to win that game. It took him awhile to realize the level of intensity, the quickness, and the things he had to adjust to. I thought, That’s really impressive.
Midway through the year, people caught on and started to realize how good he was.
I think he can be in that upper tier of point guards. He has that kind of feel for the game. He’ll be even better with better players. Ohio State wasn’t very good. He averaged 19 points per game in the Big Ten as a freshman. And they aren’t always running up and down in that league, either. They [Big Ten opponents] sent everything they could at this kid. He didn’t have any great shooters to give him a release. There weren’t a lot of great options offensively. The kid responded every time.
In college, they have to adjust to these bullshit offensive fouls. In the NBA, he won’t have to deal with that. The pro game will be friendly to him.
I have no problems with him as a rookie point guard in the NBA. He’s unselfish. You look at a kid like [Brandon] Jennings — talented, but there is some stuff there. Not a problem with Russell.
Russillo: Love him. Love it all, especially his attitude. He looks like he is playing a different game than everyone else.
The knocks on his athleticism aren’t as much of a concern for me as others. He seriously didn’t need it in college.
It’s a mistake to do the “well, Stephen Curry wasn’t athletic” thing for every nonathletic player you are projecting. Don’t argue the exceptions. I’m not comparing these two guys, but I’m just not worried that Russell isn’t Russell Westbrook.
Side note: No one is Russell Westbrook.
The great thing about the NBA now is that “combo guard” is no longer a dirty word. Everyone wants scoring from every position. The traditional point guard is dead.
Scout 1: He’s three on my board. He’s the best center in college. I see Towns as 4, maybe 5. Okafor is a 5 — no question. He’s an old-school big man. He knows how to use his body. He is going to score from 10-12 feet and in. I don’t want to use the comparison to Tim Duncan, but that’s how he is going to score. He is going to use the glass, use the elbows and the low post. In time, he is going to be a very tough cover one-on-one.
The talk of the league going small … that doesn’t mean you don’t want this guy. There is a great advantage to be able to throw it down in the post when jump shots aren’t going. He is the prototype center. Every team would want a player like that. I just think the other two guys are better.
He’s got to improve in some other areas. The other two guys, there isn’t a lot of downside. This guy’s got some concerns. You can’t be “Hack-an-Okafor.” He has to improve his conditioning. The pace of the game could be a problem for him. He has to be able to run up and down the floor.
Defensively, he’s average at best. Needs work. He’s not a quick jumper. For whatever reason, he’s not a huge shot-blocker. He allows easy low-post catches. He can become a better defender. Right now, those three areas he must improve on.
Now I’ve heard, if you were to ask the Duke people, and they were to be honest with you, there’s not a great love for the game. Not like you’d think. Not a great passion. He’ll be there, and do the right things. But it’s like Jared Sullinger: I want to play, but I don’t want to lose weight. I don’t want to really get in shape. I want to do enough, but I’m not going to do extra. And that is concerning.
He’s clearly third. Maybe the Lakers take him second. I don’t think Julius Randle has any impact on the decision.
Scout 2: Gifted, gifted, gifted low-post center. Knows who he is. He likes playing down there, and is really good at it. Elite hands. He absolutely knows his way around the basket. You can’t speed him up, which is a great attribute to have.
It’s very easy when you get a post feed and you get doubled and you just throw it back to where it came. People just relocate. When you inside-pivot and all that weakside help starts crowding you, and you can throw it opposite for an open shooter? That’s how you punish a defense. And he’s pretty good at that.
He needs to become a better shooter and free throw shooter. He either will or he won’t.
His biggest issue is his ability to defend pick-and-rolls. They are going to expose him at every opportunity. The guards are just going to find him. No matter who he guards, they are going to put him in pick-and-roll. Our game is all about mismatches and exposing players’ weaknesses.
Some of this will come with getting into better shape. His will and his pride — they are going to have to come into play. His willingness to and ability to play, I don’t doubt any of that. He’s going to have some growing pains. He just likes hanging around the basket. Our game is not like that.
I thought he was one of the worst defensive players I’ve scouted. I’ve seen him in practice, Nike Hoop Summit, and watched him all year. You can put on any Duke game, and if the commentator had a brain — like [Jay] Bilas — they would talk about it. Like … holy shit. Look at some of the games they lost. The Miami game at home — they exposed this guy, play after play. I always say this about college players: What was Mike [Krzyzewski] going to do? Of course he is going to play. You aren’t going to take him off the floor. Who are you going to play? [Marshall] Plumlee? So he is going to stay in the game, regardless of his inability to guard. He’s going one, two, or three. Those teams that are drafting him? They aren’t going to win anyway. The consequences are diminished.
Conditioning is huge for him. I’ve never seen him in good shape. It got better as the season went on at Duke, but I don’t think he was ever where he could run in transition seven, eight, nine times, both ways, where he was block-to-block. You will read: “Oh, he’s in great shape now. His trainer has done an unbelievable job with him. He’s done this, this, and this, and he’s eating apples and fucking berries every day and he hasn’t had a piece of pizza in forever … ” My point is, that’s the narrative.
He’s a really good player, but our league, it’s just different and people don’t get it. It’s 82 games, elite fucking players, and elite athletes, and travel.
My point about Okafor is that all that shit you can get away with at Duke, playing Georgia Tech who fucking blows, and BC — they stink — you can get away with it. When it’s nut-cracking time he revs it up, and I get all of that. There are very few nights off in our league. Sacramento blows, but if you don’t show up to play them, [DeMarcus] Cousins and Rudy Gay will fucking beat your ass.
At Duke, those teams just can’t do that. And he’ll learn all that, because he’s a really good kid. Really talented player. So I don’t think he wants to be embarrassed. But in time I’m not sure he’s a 38-minute player.
Juan Ocampo/NBAE via Getty Images
Scout 3: I haven’t seen a natural post-up feel like him in a long time. He’s not as fluid as Towns; he doesn’t run the floor like him. More heavy in the lower body, which gives you the impression he’s not as athletic — more heavy-legged. But that is part of his effectiveness. It’s kind of like an optical illusion.
He screws around with a couple of fakes here, then all of a sudden he gets an angle and blows up at the basket and dunks on you. I know everyone wants 3s, but it’s great to have an option to just throw it down there to a guy that demands a double-team. He’s unselfish — he’ll give it up. He plays the right way.
He’s got a great personality. But in the interviews, I always like to ask the teammates what they think, and you can tell when a guy is covering for a guy. But they think he’s taking a bad rap for his defense.
I think he’s OK defensively. He’s another guy that I think has enough basketball instincts to be effective, at least around the basket. Now, 10-15-17 feet he’ll get exposed a little bit — doesn’t have that lateral quickness. But people forget how young he is.
Think about this: Think about your own life as a college freshman, and to be that good a player, and be in that kind of venue, with that pressure. To be able to function like that … I really admire these kids. A year ago, they were in a high school gym. Now they are playing for a national title, on national television, in football-size venues. I just shake my head. I don’t know how they do it.
Russillo: Like a lot of people, I had Okafor going first throughout most of the college basketball season. (I actually wondered earlier in the season if he would lose the spot to Russell instead of Towns.)
The problem for Okafor is that he is compared to Towns. Just because he’s lost some momentum in the draft process doesn’t mean he is a bad pick. He holds the ball like it’s a tennis ball. His hands are truly incredible. He catches everything. He had 10-year-veteran post moves a year out of high school. I realize everyone is killing his defense, and it is bad. But I won’t write off someone entirely until I see him suck on D in the league. The talk of the NBA changing is overblown here. Yes, it is changing, but it’s not closing the doors on a low-post talent like this.