At this time last year, Andrew Wiggins, Jabari Parker and Julius Randle were already household names, at least among households who follow the NBA. This year’s group of McDonald’s All-Americans, in contrast, is relatively anonymous. After a week of practices in Chicago, there doesn’t seem to be a consensus No. 1 overall prospect in the incoming college class of 2014. The talent is concentrated among the big men, who develop at a slower pace and aren’t as flashy as perimeter stars.
The biggest name is Jahlil Okafor, the Duke-bound center coming off a dominant showing at last summer’s U19 world championships, where he posted a 40.2 PER. Okafor is a throwback - a 6’10 270 post player with an advanced back to the basket game. As an undersized center who can’t shoot 3’s or play on the perimeter, it’s unclear how his style of play will translate to the modern NBA, where everyone wants to push the pace, spread the floor and run pick-and-roll.
Okafor, for all his skills, plays more like the No. 1 overall pick in 1994 than 2014. For a glimpse at where the game is going, you have to look at Karl Towns and Myles Turner, two of the other top big men in the class of 2014. Towns, a Kentucky commit, pulled off a blindfolded windmill in the dunk contest and says his favorite player is Len Bias. Turner, who is still undecided, grew up rooting for Kevin Durant and finished in fourth place in the three-point contest.
At 7’0 250, Towns is a fluid athlete who can play inside or out. He’s the most skilled big man John Calipari has recruited since Anthony Davis, far more comfortable playing on the perimeter than Randle, Nerlens Noel, Willie Cauley-Stein or Dakari Johnson. Towns played for the Dominican Republic and backed up Al Horford in the FIBA Americas Olympic qualifying tournament last summer. He wouldn’t look out of place coming off an NBA bench right now.
The LaMarcus Aldridge comparisons were inevitable for Turner, a skilled and athletic 7’0 from the Dallas area. The biggest difference is generational - Turner has been encouraged to play out on the floor from an early age while Aldridge’s desire to float to the perimeter was viewed much more skeptically. Like Aldridge, who improved every year from 18-28, Turner has only begun to scratch the surface of his potential on the high-school and AAU levels.
Like with most big men, Towns and Turner’s college production will depend as much on their guard play as their own development. Unlike Anthony Davis, a high school guard until a late growth spurt out of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, they have been big men all their lives. For the most part, they won’t be bringing the ball up the floor and initiating the offense next season. They will need guards who can slow the pace, spread the floor and get them the ball.
After Kentucky’s unlikely run to the Final Four, the situation Towns will be walking into next season is more in flux than it was a few weeks before. Before the NCAA Tournament, Willie Cauley-Stein seemed all but gone and the Harrisons looked like they would have no choice but to stay in school. Now the dynamic has flipped - Cauley-Stein may have to come back if his ankle injury is serious while the Harrisons draft stock has been boosted by their postseason heroics.
If Andrew Harrison opts for the NBA draft, Towns will be depending on the rapid development of Tyler Ulis, a 5’9 McDonald’s All-American from the Chicago area. Ulis has the athleticism and floor game to make up for his lack of size, but it’s unclear how much of an adjustment period he will need against much bigger and more physical guards in the SEC. James Young is all but gone already, so Kentucky won’t have much experience on the perimeter to take the load off Ulis.
If Cauley-Stein comes back, the Wildcats will have an embarrassment of riches in the frontcourt. The Cauley-Stein and Johnson duo would take most of the minutes at C, which would push Towns to the forward positions, where he would be sharing time with fellow McDonald’s All-American Trey Lyles as well as Alex Poythress and Marcus Lee. While Towns has the skills to manage the transition, how many shots and minutes he will get next season is unclear.
Most of the recruiting consensus has Turner choosing between Kansas and Texas, but he shot down that notion on Media Day. As the only All-American still on the board, Turner has been pursued by every program in the country and he has shown no indication of making his decision anytime soon. He’s playing things close to the vest - at this point, the only thing we know is that if Joel Embiid returns, there probably won’t be enough playing time for Turner in Lawrence.
If Turner goes to Texas, he will join a crowded frontcourt that already includes fringe NBA prospects Cam Ridley and Jonathan Holmes. None of the Longhorns guards are proven three-point shooters, so if Turner comes to Austin, opposing teams will pack the paint and force him to give up the ball. That’s why I think SMU has a real chance at Turner, since Larry Brown can pitch playing with two PG’s in Nic Moore and Emmanuel Mudiay, the best guard prospect in the class of 2014.
Either way, whatever happens with Turner and Towns next season shouldn’t have too much of an impact on their NBA potential. With the league becoming smaller and more perimeter-oriented by the season, big men with the skill and athleticism to play on the outside are worth their weight in gold. Okafor, in contrast, will have to be placed in a very specific situation at the next level, a la Al Jefferson in Charlotte, with a team that builds its offense around him.
And while Okafor may be close to his ceiling as a player, Turner and Towns have a lot of room to expand their game. The next step for both is learning how to make their teammates better - either by drawing double teams with their back to the basket or facing up and putting the ball on the floor. There’s just not many big men at any level of basketball with the size and athleticism to bang with Turner and Towns around the basket or run with them on the break.
As athletic big men who can shoot the ball, Turner and Towns can slide into almost any situation at the next level and be successful. They can be small-ball 5’s on an uptempo team that spreads the floor or they can be face-up 4’s on a huge team that pounds the ball inside. Their versatility is what makes them so intriguing - they could conceivably share a frontcourt in the NBA. A franchise that puts two 7’0 like that on the same team would have something really special.