If the Los Angeles Lakers do indeed wind up near the top of the draft order on June 25, they would do well to target an elite big man to build around.
Yes, traditional logic dictates choosing the best player available on the board. But a skilled prospect with legitimate size would help solidify an already intriguing frontcourt foundation. It would also make it a lot easier to forgo Jordan Hill’s $9 million option, thus adding considerable buying power during free agency.
After all, this is a team with a plethora of gaps. And with the possibility of four draft picks in all—two in each round—Los Angeles should be able to bolster the roster at multiple positions.
The Lakers have traditionally built from the inside out—Wilt Chamberlain, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Shaquille O’Neal are obvious examples. It is also hard to imagine the most recent championships without the skill of Pau Gasol. Even the acquisition of Dwight Howard was a bold attempt to make another run at greatness.
As for drafting big, Vlade Divac was taken at No. 26 and served the organization admirably before being traded to the Charlotte Hornets for the draft rights to Kobe Bryant. And the injury-plagued Andrew Bynum—the Lakers’ first lottery pick in a decade—was transformed from a raw 17-year-old into an All-Star before he was ultimately sold high to the Philadelphia 76ers as part of the four-team blockbuster that netted Howard.
In other words, even when L.A. doesn't hold onto its talent, it tends to do well along the big-man path.
Last year, Julius Randle was picked seventh overall but was lost for the season with a broken leg on his opening-night debut. And while Randle doesn’t have elite size at 6'9", his combination of power and offensive instincts will complement the right center next season.
It’s just a matter of finding a perfect tent-pole talent to place next to Randle. And when it comes to the top of the draft order, there are two big names that truly matter—Duke's Jahlil Okafor and Kentucky's Karl-Anthony Towns.
The general consensus No. 1 overall pick remains Okafor. The 19-year-old has an NBA-ready game and a body to match, standing 6’11” and weighing 272 pounds with a massive 7’6” wingspan and hands that make a basketball look like a grapefruit.
The freshman center was put on a rarefied pedestal recently by his coach, Mike Krzyzewski, on The Jim Rome Show: "He’s gifted and he’s really as good as a kid as I’ve coached in 40 years. He’s got it all, he has no demons, he only has positives and stuff, he’s only going to get better and is a great teammate and competitor. Like, the kid’s the real deal in every aspect, I love Jah."
Okafor has a polished yet devastatingly powerful game in the paint, with impeccable footwork and an array of post moves—backing down defenders and spinning for short floaters, dropping in soft baby jumpers or slamming down dunks.
If there’s a downside, it’s on the defensive end—he’s a fairly average rebounder, and he struggles as a rim protector. Plus, he doesn’t have much lateral quickness when it comes to protecting the pick-and-roll. Okafor’s feet aren’t exactly rooted to the floor, but there is certainly much room for improvement.
On the other hand, Towns has scads of defensive ability. Plus, he continues advancing on the offensive end at an exponential rate, scoring a career-high 25 points in a tight win against Notre Dame Saturday to advance to the Final Four.
At 7’0” and 250 pounds, the 19-year-old has been gaining so much steam during his freshman season that some are positioning him at the top of the lottery leaderboard.
During an ESPN radio appearance recently (h/t Ryan Ward of Lakers Nation), Ramona Shelburne predicted that the Lakers would pick Towns over Okafor if given the chance:
I’m telling you half the league would pick Karl first. Yes. He has the much higher ceiling. Okafor is the more ready to play guy right now. He’s the guy that’ll help you sooner, faster. Like if Phil [Jackson] gets the number one pick, he’s probably taking Okafor in New York because he can’t wait around.
Kentucky coach John Calipari has platooned his players all season—Towns is averaging just 20.8 minutes per game, while fellow big Willie Cauley-Stein leads the team in minutes at a judicious 25.8.
But despite an approach predicated on team play instead of individual accolades, Towns is still blowing the competition away—and his growth potential is immense. Partnering Towns with Randle in the Lakers frontcourt would be a fascinating proposition—a duo that could develop together side-by-side for years to come.
If the Lakers draft at the fourth or fifth spot or managed to trade up with their other first-round pick, two more names are worth mentioning.
Cauley-Stein is an absolute athletic beast—a 7-footer with incredible speed and leaping ability. The SEC Defensive Player of the Year can guard all five positions, and he protects the rim with fierce abandon. He also brings an added level of maturity as a 21-year-old junior.
And then there’s Kristaps Porzingis, a Latvian 7-footer currently playing pro ball with CB Sevilla in Spain. The 19-year-old has the kind of fluidity and Euro skills that the Lakers simply don’t have now that Gasol is plying his trade with the playoff-bound Chicago Bulls.
Los Angeles needs some luck in the lottery or some savvy wheeling and dealing to make a big splash on June 25.
But just imagine for a moment: Randle and the rapidly improving Jordan Clarkson together with any one of the above draft prospects.
That would be an exciting nucleus for a forward-thinking youth rebuild.