Minnesota Timberwolves rookie Karl-Anthony Towns is not just good, he’s really good. Now, I must admit, when the T-Wolves took him with the first pick in last year’s draft, my reaction was “meh.” I mean sure, he was the consensus number one overall pick backed by a plethora of scouts and draft experts who know much, much more about the game of basketball than I ever will.
Still, Jahlil Okafor looked really good. He had been downright dominant at Duke with a skill set that seemed lost among modern big men. He had been the number one recruit in the country coming out of high school and averaged 17.3 points per game and 8.5 rebounds per game his freshman year. Towns posted modest averages of 10.3 ppg and 6.7 rpg over at Kentucky. Granted, head coach John Calipari used a platoon system that limited the minutes of his players. Still, for much of their freshman seasons, Okafor was considered the better, more talented prospect.
This all began to change during the NCAA Tournament last year as Towns had a strong run and led then undefeated Kentucky all the way to the Final Four before they were upset by Wisconsin. Aside from already being a better defensive player, scouts noted that he had the raw tools to become better than Okafor offensively as well. Eventually, Towns was selected first in the draft by the T-Wolves while the Sixers selected Okafor third. Both are currently playing for struggling franchises.
As the season started and Okafor ended his first game with 26 points and seven boards, fans and analysts alike became enamored with Okafor’s raw skill. His ball fakes and spin moves already had NBA vets in stitches. Towns began his season with consistent play that saw him take averages of around 14 points and eight rebounds into the second month of the season. He could score, but he did so efficiently with strong post moves and mid-range jumpers. Things began to turn sour for Okafor when videos surfaced online of people taunting him after a game in Boston. He retaliated by throwing punches and had to be restrained. The Sixers requested that a security guard follow him around after games to help alleviate the tension. He was suspended by the Sixers for two games shortly after. Last Monday, TMZ released another video of Okafor. This time it was of a police chase where Okafor was going 108 mph in a 45 mph zone. However unfair and unfortunate they may be, these incidents have served to shape Okafor’s young reputation in the eyes of the media and some fans.
Towns, on the other hand, has been succeeding exponentially in the quiet market of Minnesota. Both the T-Wolves and Sixers are bad (the Sixers are a bit worse), but Towns has been making great strides and now is averaging a double-double with his averages up to 17.4 ppg, 10.3 rpg and 1.8 bpg. Towns’ recent play is particularly encouraging as he’s been averaging 22.7 ppg, 12.3 rpg, 2.1 apg and 2.1 bpg while shooting 54 percent from the floor, 37 percent from three and 87 percent from the free throw line in his past ten games. Towns has 13 games with 25+ points and 10+ rebounds this season. That’s good enough for fourth in the NBA. The rest of the rookie class has a combined six games with these numbers.
In an era ruled by guard play, dominant athletic wing players and three point shooting, the idea of elite big men who can control and effectively win games themselves has faded away. Dwight Howard is aging and has become somewhat of a farce since leaving Orlando. Demarcus Cousins has been downright dominant, but his team doesn’t win and his reputation limits his persona from being placed among the biggest names in the sport.
The idea of a winning big man who leads his team to glory consistently revolves around names like Tim Duncan, Shaquille O’Neal, Patrick Ewing and Hakeem Olajuwon. In fact, Towns’ rookie per 36 numbers (statistics scaled to 36 minutes of play) are nearly identical to these five hall of famers, with the exception that his free throw percentage is remarkably better. Towns’ game is reminiscent of the dominant big men that ruled the NBA over the past 20 years. Yet it also reflects a more modern approach. He is already a great mid-range jump shooter who can shoot from deep, yet he retains a strong, developing post game and an intensity on and off the court that has perhaps been aided by the tutelage of the aging Kevin Garnett.
Now all of this talk isn’t to say that Okafor is bad, that he will never amount to Towns, that he will never become an all-star or a winning player. I simply must attest that I was wrong about Towns. As any fan of the league should hope, both will develop into all-stars who boast a competitive rivalry with equally competitive teams. We need more dominant big men in today’s NBA. Sure it’s fun and sometimes downright silly to watch Steph Curry chuck up 40-foot threes every night. He is literally changing the game and doing something no one has ever seen in the history of the league. But I miss those crafty post moves, the fear that arose when the Lakers would toss the ball into Shaq and he was guaranteed a bucket, the idea of the “dominant big man” that defines a team and can truly be a staple (and perhaps even a necessity) when it comes to winning basketball.