While the Timberwolves conduct their draft due diligence for an 11th consecutive spring without playoffs, three-pointer-hoisting Golden State, Houston, Cleveland and Atlanta all play on toward summer, more proof perhaps the game in many ways is morphing from art form to mathematical equation.
Once played from the rim outward, today’s game increasingly is played from the outside in, based upon a philosophy that two-point layups are good and made three-pointers are better.
All of which begs this question as the Wolves move toward making franchise history in the June 25 draft: Is there still a place in the game for the low-post scorer?
After exploring all options, Flip Saunders and the Wolves are expected to choose from two distinctive 19-year-old big men — Duke’s Jahlil Okafor and Kentucky’s Karl-Anthony Towns — when they pick first overall next month for the first time in their 26 seasons.
Towns is the prototypical new-age big man: A mobile center and two-way player who also projects as an NBA power forward because of his shooting ability and quick feet that will allow him to play farther out on the floor. Those are important traits in a league in which the pick-and-roll play and three-point shooting prevail.
NBA executives and scouts also seem to deem him the draft’s consensus No. 1 pick, which doesn’t necessarily mean the Wolves will select him first because Okafor is the tantalizing throwback: a primarily back-to-basket, offensive-minded center with fancy footwork and sweet moves not seen from a rookie in, well, maybe a couple of decades.
Has the ever-changing game passed a player like Okafor by? Or does it just seem that way in a world where big-man prospects — particularly Americans raised in the AAU system — discover they can excel and someday get paid big by running, jumping, dunking and blocking shots?
“There are just a handful of those low-post guys around,” said ESPN draft analyst and former college coach Fran Fraschilla. “But I watch [Memphis All-Star center] Marc Gasol or guys like that play and I think there is still room for a guy like Jahlil Okafor. There’s going to be a long, healthy debate in Minnesota about both Towns and Okafor, and it’s going to take a few weeks to sort out.”
Minneapolis DeLaSalle High School’s Dave Thorson coached both Towns and Okafor for a week at the 2014 Jordan Brand Classic, a postseason prep all-star game, and sounds genuinely torn about who he’d choose if he were Saunders. A man who considers himself a defensive coach at heart, Thorson appreciates Towns’ versatility as well as his length and agility, both valuable defensive traits.
But he also saw first-hand that what Okafor does, he does very well, perhaps at an NBA superstar level. Towns is the superior shooter — notably his 80 percent clip at the free-throw line, where Okafor fought to make as many as he missed last season — who can stretch opposing defenses maybe all the way to the NBA three-point line in time.
He foresees Okafor spreading the floor in an old-fashioned way, in a sport that Thorson calls a “game of space.” The team that utilizes that space best usually wins, and Okafor will spread defenses by making opponents send an extra defender or maybe even two at him after he has received the ball down near the basket.
In theory, Okafor’s scoring threat creates more space and wider driving lanes for young Wolves stars Andrew Wiggins, Shabazz Muhammad and Zach LaVine to slash to the basket. In theory, it also creates more open — and thus easier — shots for everyone.
“Being able to force double teams, it’s extremely important,” said Thorson, whose Islanders have won the past four Class 3A state championships. “When they’ve got 2-on-1 on the ball, it means you have 4-on-3 away from the ball. That’s why the [San Antonio] Spurs have been so successful. They moved the ball, found the open guy and played the [statistical] analytics to determine the best shot.’’
Existing in a changed game
The NBA’s four surviving playoff teams were among the regular season’s five best in three-pointers made per game, and the Warriors, Hawks and Cavaliers finished among the top five in three-point percentage. Is it a coincidence the Wolves owned the NBA’s worst record and best lottery chance after they were last in the league in threes made and bottom six in percentage?
Former NBA star and current ESPN analyst Jalen Rose calls today’s game a downsized, “homogenized” version reshaped by a new generation of number-crunching general managers armed with reams of computerized analyses and supported by billionaire owners who understand the business of numbers.
He said that has ushered in an era in which teams play small, the “stretch” power forward not only now has a name but an indisputable place in the game and the low-post scorer from decades gone by has nearly disappeared.
“When you play smaller, you substitute speed for size,” Rose said.
Anybody remember Hakeem Olajuwon, Shaquille O’Neal, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar or a time when Kevin McHale wore short shorts?
“The reason they don’t throw the ball down to the post is because no one can score anymore,” said Saunders, the Wolves coach and player-personnel boss. “Some of the best post-up players now are wings.”
To prove a point: The NBA in 2012 changed its All-Star balloting procedures by eliminating the center position and allowing fans to choose three “frontcourt” players instead.
Against the grain
Rose said he can’t compare Towns to a current NBA player because he considers Towns more skilled offensively but probably not as athletic as a group of centers — Houston’s Dwight Howard, Detroit’s Andre Drummond and the L.A. Clippers’ DeAndre Jordan, among them — who have made careers out of running, dunking and blocking shots.
He offers a comparison for Okafor, whom he considers a notably better offensive player who has such large hands he can hold 13 tennis balls in one.
“Good, bad or indifferent, he’s Brook Lopez,” Rose said, referring to Brooklyn’s All-Star but oft-injured center. “He’ll have seasons when he’ll get you 20 points, six or seven rebounds, one block and not be a really good defender. But his ultimate upside will be higher than Towns just because he’s so skilled.”
And ultimately Rose said he’d buck the consensus and choose offensive skill over defensive versatility.
“You watch the playoffs and these teams score 100,” Rose said. “To beat Golden State, OKC, you’ve got to get to 100. You look at a team like the Memphis Grizzlies: Built for the playoffs, right? As tough defensively as anyone, right? So what are they missing? They can’t score 100.”
Chicago center Joakim Noah defends pick-and-roll plays far from the basket and forces point guards sideways, thus effectively disrupting pick-and-roll plays. Teammate Pau Gasol must meet guards at the free-throw line, where they already are, in the NBA vernacular, streaming downhill.
“Karl Towns has the ability to be up there, and Jahlil is going to be at the free-throw line,” Rose said. “Pau Gasol was an All-Star this year. Brook Lopez has been an All-Star. Brook Lopez makes millions of dollars a year. It’s just a different style.”
In five weeks’ time, Saunders must choose a player and a style: Does he follow in the way Golden State, Houston and others have changed the game, a manner of play Rose calls “the flavor of the month.”
Or does he admit the game never stays forever the way it is now and instead play the contrarian?
“Because everybody is playing one way, you can go back and play the other way and still be very efficient,” Saunders said. “There are different ways to look at it.”