Wolves Draft: Karl-Anthony Towns is a Better Bet than Jahlil Okafor


There are nothing like questions without definitive answers to get the juices flowing.  These questions fuel thorny debates on politics, religion, sports, and whether the British Invasion violated US sovereignty.  They even elevate less weighty topics like whether the Minnesota Timberwolves simply must take Karl-Anthony Towns or Jahlil Okafor in the NBA draft.

The period leading up to a draft has a rhythm.  College players are subjected to greater scrutiny and their flaws are exposed.  Analytics-focused people debate eye-test folks.  Draft boards are rearranged, offending partisans of players who fall.  Fans demand justice for their favorite guys, that they get the recognition of their clearly underappreciated talents.  Karma may not exist, but we sure act like it does.

Hardwood Paroxysm’s William Bohl made light of some of these dynamics earlier this week when he criticized fans who see the Towns-Okafor debate as a philosophical choice between the shiny, modern NBA game and what it used to be lo these 10 years ago.  He’s mostly right, although mainly because draft decisions can rarely be boiled down to a single question.

However, Bohl himself boils down the debate to a single alternative framing: a preference offense (Okafor) or defense (Towns).  There is some truth in this, but the decision is far more complicated.

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Count me as a believer that both of these guys will likely be big-time NBA players, but also that Towns is the clear better choice for the Wolves.

Part of the reason is that I think the “defense wins championships” adage is largely true.  The vast majority of NBA championship teams have had good-to-great defenses and great individual defensive players.  There are plenty of great offenses that have won lots of regular season games but never won a title.

The main problem with the offense-vs.-defense framing, though, is that it’s not even obvious that Okafor is a much better offensive player than Towns.  This past season, Okafor’s advantage in effective field goal percentage (66.4 to 57.0) is much higher than for true shooting percentage (64.1 to 62.7) because the latter takes free throw percentage (51.0 to 81.3) into account.

Apr 6, 2015; Indianapolis: Jahlil Okafor (15) puts up a shot against Frank Kaminsky (44) during the 2015 NCAA Men’s Final Four.

Towns bested Okafor on most other key offensive stats, including PER (31.4 to 30.7), offensive win shares per 40 (0.170 to 0.158), offensive rating per 100 possessions (126.8 to 119.9), and assist % (11.6 to 9.4) and turnover rate (14.2 to 15.6).  Okafor was transcendent in the paint, but Towns has a more well-rounded game.

Stats never tell the whole story.  Nobody is considering drafting Frank Kaminsky and his 34.4 PER at number one, after all.  And we don’t know how the same stats would compare had Towns played as many minutes as Okafor.  But stats surely tell us something, which in this case is that it isn’t ludicrous to argue that the two men aren’t far apart on offense.

The same can’t be said for defense.  Towns was a clear cut above Okafor in defensive rating per 100 possessions (78.1 to 95.4), defensive win shares per 40 (0.141 to 0.77), and block rate (11.5 to 4.5).

Look at it another way:  Okafor is better than Towns—dominates him, in truth—in one area: inside offense.  Okafor is also a very good offensive rebounder and passer, but so is Towns.

Towns is markedly better than Okafor in number of areas, including defensive rebounding; perimeter, post, and pick-and-roll defense; shot-blocking; ball-handling; free throw shooting; perimeter shooting and scoring; transition offense; overall athleticism; and offensive and defensive versatility. And, most believe he has a higher upside.

Bohl makes some other good points that deserve mention.  He is right that Okafor could and likely will improve on defense and that Okafor could space the floor as well as Towns by drawing consistent double-teams.

However, Towns will also likely improve his game, and his athleticism gives him more room to do so.  In addition, Towns did improve his game over the course of last season more than Okafor did.  One possible explanation is one that worries me a bit: Duke Coach Mike Krzyzewski said in a postseason interview with ESPN Radio that he hoped Okafor would go to a team that could help him improve his work ethic.  Towns seems to have the better motor.

Regarding spacing, Okafor could surely be a weapon in that area, but it is not clear that he is the best choice to do so with Andrew Wiggins, who did so much of his damage in the paint.

The Towns-Okafor debate is not simply about offense versus defense.  It’s never about just one thing, and we all need to understand that none of us really know how these guys are going to turn out.  You just have to make your best bet.  And I would take the guy who can do a lot of things very well on both offense and defense and has a lot of room to grow over the guy who can do one thing extremely well on offense and is more limited.