Odds will be with the New York Knicks come lottery selection night next month. Barring a mini winning streak over the season’s final seven games, Phil Jackson’s team will finish 2014-2015 with the league’s worst record and thus receive a 25 percent chance of selecting first in the draft come June. And if the percentages finally play out in favor of basketball’s worst team, Jackson already knows who he’s selecting.
During a presentation to season-ticket holders, Jackson said he’s decided on the prospect atop New York’s draft board – and it seems as thought it’s not who most have long assumed. Here’s the 13-time champion via Marc Berman of the New York Post:
When asked if he knows whom he would draft with the top pick, should the Knicks win the draft lottery, Jackson said, “I do.”
Jackson also was asked what he cherished more in a big man — the ability to pass and score or be a dominant defender.
“Defender,’’ Jackson said to applause, adding to the irony of his trade of Chandler last offseason. “That’s a good starting point — a guy like Tyson Chandler and the defensive passion they have to have. So many screen and rolls, so many 3-point shooters, a player of size has to cover and protect the basket but also step out defensively and do defensive work on the extreme part of the floor. It’s very important for that player to have defensive capabilities.’’
Those comments certainly don’t suggest that the Knicks would seriously consider Duke’s Jahlil Okafor with the draft’s top choice. Though long considered the world’s best eligible prospect given his rare back-to-basket prowess and overall offensive comfort, the 19 year-old behemoth isn’t a good rim-protector, struggles to move his feet in space, and has generally looked disinterested on the defensive of the floor since the outset of his excellent freshman season.
Kentucky’s Karl-Anthony Towns, by contrast, is arguably the top shot-blocker and rebounder in college basketball. He’s 6’11, 250 pounds and growing, yet is fully capable of corralling pick-and-rolls and switching onto smaller players. That potentially elite defensive ability combined with his shooting touch and developing post game makes him a viable candidate for the number one pick, an opinion more and more analysts have begun to hold in the days following his 25-point outing versus Notre Dame in the Elite Eight.
If defense really does matter most to Jackson for big men and Okafor and Towns are the clear best players in this class, the latter must be New York’s guy. That the Knicks’ president indirectly mentioned the former’s name among a list of draft busts further cements that likelihood, too.
In a possible Freudian slip, Jackson was recounting past No. 1 picks and mentioned Okafor. However, he seemed to be listing first-round busts as he mentioned Okafor’s name after Kwame Brown. Laughter erupted among the crowd of 2,000 as Jackson explained he meant Michael Olowokandi, another bust.
New York couldn’t go wrong with Okafor or Towns, of course – both project as upper-tier NBA players at the very least. But we’ve long preferred the Wildcats’ freshman to the Blue Devils’ for precisely the reasons it appears Jackson does.
In a league where offenses have become increasingly reliant on spacing the floor, having an agile center that can stop a ballhandler and rotate quickly enough to thwart a rim attack after a pass after a pass on defense is wildly impactful. That’s Towns in a nutshell, and his unrefined but extremely promising package of skills on the other end make him an even more intriguing prospect.
Then there’s this overarching thought: A team can simply do more things with a big man like Towns as opposed to one like Okafor – on either side of the ball.
Here’s hoping Jackson’s clues indeed lead the Knicks to choosing Towns over Okafor should they be lucky enough to be granted the draft’s top choice. If any team team in the league could use an elite two-way big man, after all, it’s definitely Derek Fisher’s.