NBA teams proved their belief that bigger always is better by selecting a center or forward — or a 6-9 point guard named Magic Johnson — first overall in every draft except one from 1977 until 2008. • That’s when the Chicago Bulls signaled a coming sea change by picking Derrick Rose No. 1, and Washington and Cleveland followed by taking point guards John Wall and Kyrie Irving first in two of the next three years. • This time around, the Timberwolves contemplate whether their choice with the first No. 1 overall pick in franchise history really is as simple as one of two skilled big men, Kentucky’s Karl-Anthony Towns or Duke’s Jahlil Okafor. • In a changed game where Golden State shooter Steph Curry is MVP and his Warriors beat Cleveland for the NBA title with nary a traditional center on the floor, is big still really better?
Wolves president of basketball operations/coach Flip Saunders and Los Angeles Lakers general manager Mitch Kupchak must make that decision with the draft’s top two picks. They will do so in a year Towns, Okafor or maybe even 7-1 Latvian forward Kristaps Porzingis are atop many team’s draft boards while NBA scouts and executives wonder if point guards D’Angelo Russell or Emmanuel Mudiay just might not be the best player from this draft five years hence.
Ohio State’s Russell without hesitation says he should be the first player taken Thursday night at Barclays Center in Brooklyn, N.Y. Until Chicago drafted Rose in 2008, the only guard taken first in more than 30 years was Allen Iverson, selected by Philadelphia in 1996.
“I’m the best player in the draft,” Russell said, matter of fact.
The changing game
Russell said he believes he is so because of his intellect, his shooting-guard size — he measured 6-5 in shoes at last month’s Chicago draft combine — and point-guard skills that include both deep three-point range and visionary passing.
The swagger with which he plays doesn’t hurt, either.
Russell’s passing is reminiscent of Timberwolves point guard Ricky Rubio. Some NBA scouts consider him part Curry, part Houston’s James Harden with a smidgen of San Antonio’s Manu Ginobili as well. Mudiay is a big, physical point guard whom scouts compare to Washington’s John Wall, but not quite as explosive.
Once dominated by big men such as Shaquille O’Neal, Hakeem Olajuwon and Tim Duncan, the NBA now is all about scoring guards who change games with the ball in their hands.
“It can be argued in today’s game that you should do that,” Kupchak said before ticking off a list of point guards that includes Curry, Harden, Memphis’ Mike Conley, San Antonio’s Tony Parker and the Los Angeles Clippers’ Chris Paul. “If you watch Golden State play and a lot of teams — the Conleys, the Currys, Parker, Harden, Chris Paul — play, you can argue maybe the way to go is a guard.”
The Wolves brought Towns, Okafor, Russell and Mudiay to town last week for interviews and workouts. The clear favorite to be picked No. 1 Thursday, Towns arrived late Friday afternoon, had dinner with Saunders and owner Glen Taylor that night and worked out Saturday, the only pre-draft workout he has done for any team. Taylor and presumed future part-owner Kevin Garnett participated in player visits designed to reveal which player over all the others is both equipped and determined to be great.
“I’m always interested in their personalities,” Taylor said. “Are they a person, at least in my estimation, who’s not satisfied with themselves and feels they have to grow more? I just think in the past we had some players who had a great college career but didn’t step it up afterwards. We have to be really cautious that doesn’t happen to us. For us to win, we have to have some people like KG, who was just never satisfied with how good he was and always wanted to be better.”
Same size, different games
Towns is a prototypical modern-day big man: A fleet, almost 7-footer with guard skills who can punish smaller opponents with a polished right-hand baby hook foremost among his post moves or can pull bigger opponents far onto the floor, perhaps as far as beyond the NBA three-point line. He showed in pre-draft workouts an accurate outside shot that college coach John Calipari forbid because he wanted Towns to prove himself around the basket to NBA scouts who once questioned his toughness and will.
He follows along in a UK lineage that has produced two All-Star big men, New Orleans’ Anthony Davis and Sacramento’s DeMarcus Cousins.
“Karl will catch up to those two,” Calipari said. “They’re all really different players. But if they have a good roster around them, all three of those guys are [league] MVP-level players.”
Okafor is the throwback, perhaps a generational low-post scorer in a game that produces so few of them anymore because of an AAU feeder system all about running, dunking and the three-point shoot. Offensively, he possesses the kind of footwork and fundamentals NBA personnel haven’t seen since maybe Duncan came around. He is not the mobile defender Towns is, nor is he as proficient a free-throw shooter.
But he calls himself a winner whose NCAA championship is proof he defended well enough for a Duke team that defensively schemed to keep him out of foul trouble and on the floor. Left unsaid: Kentucky’s undefeated season ended with a Final Four semifinal loss to Wisconsin.
DePaul offered Okafor a scholarship when he was an eighth-grader. Like Wolves Rookie of the Year Andrew Wiggins, Okafor has been considered a prodigy since middle school.
“He’s really good,” Duke associate head coach Jeff Capel said. “And he’s better than he even showed this year.”
Okafor calls himself ready to carry on for big men everywhere, before they become an endangered species.
“The big man still runs the game,” he said. “When you have a dominating big man, that changes the aspect of the games. We believe the big man still runs it.”
Building around big?
Okafor said so after working out for the Lakers earlier this month at their El Segundo, Calif., training facility, where former Lakers stars Wilt Chamberlain, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Shaquille O’Neal, among many others, are remembered with photos and plaques on the gym walls and office hallways.
He made it clear he’d be pleased to be part of that Lakers’ big men tradition. He also said being selected first overall isn’t as important to him as being drafted by a franchise where he can win, like he has all his life.
“I’ve always won,” he said. “I won a state championship, national championship, [U.S. national team] gold medal, all that. That’s what I’m all about.”
Building around a dominant big man has served the Lakers well. Saunders reminds that the game never remains the same and if today’s game is all about small, a big man or men someday, somewhere will push the pendulum back.
“It’s an argument that’s a good argument,” Kupchak said about big being better. “We have a lot of photos in this building and a lot of those jerseys are a lot of big men’s we have retired. It’s debatable: Neither Cleveland or Golden State has a dominant center so you don’t have to have a dominant center to get to the finals. You can do it without one, but we’ve had great success with dominant centers.”
Former No. 1 picks Pervis Ellison, Michael Olowokandi and Kwame Brown never fulfilled the promise of their draft status because they either weren’t as talented or as driven as NBA executives expected. Others such as Ralph Sampson, Yao Ming and Greg Oden never got there because of injuries in a sport where some big men’s sheer size and bulk make them susceptible to knee and foot problems.
In 1984, Portland infamously took Kentucky big man Sam Bowie second overall after Houston picked Olajuwon and Chicago followed by taking a kid from North Carolina.
All these years later, that draft still is talked about.
“In years past or maybe even today, it made sense to build around a big,” Kupchak said. “But you don’t want to take a big just because it’s a big and then pass on the No. 3, which turned out to be Michael Jordan.”
Now as Thursday night approaches, the question remains: Is this a draft that still will be remembered 30 years ago, for the wrong reasons?
“It’s like every draft,” Kupchak said. “We have to see how it plays out.”