Being the No. 1 pick in the NBA draft is at once a blessing and a curse. As Bleacher Report's Howard Beck put it, "To be No. 1 is to be labeled a can't-miss star, a superstar, a savior. Expectations are astronomical, and patience is rare."
The same could be said of those snapped up at No. 2. The recent history of that slot reads like a graveyard of prospects who underperformed. For every Kevin Durant or LaMarcus Aldridge, there's a slew of Stromile Swifts, Marvin Williamses, Hasheem Thabeets and Darko Milicics.
This year's No. 2 pick—presumably, whichever of the two between Duke's Jahlil Okafor and Kentucky's Karl-Anthony Towns the Minnesota Timberwolves don't take first overall—will have to contend with another daunting label from Day 1: that of the next great center to wear purple and gold.
One Pick, Two Options
Okafor and Towns both appear to be well-equipped for the cause.
Okafor followed up a decorated high school career at Whitney Young in Chicago with a spectacular freshman year in Durham. He averaged 17.3 points, 8.5 rebounds and 1.4 blocks as the centerpiece of a Blue Devils squad that claimed coach Mike Krzyzewski's fifth national championship.
Okafor's efforts earned him honors as the ACC Player of the Year and a consensus first-team All-American—not to mention his likely spot at or near the top of his draft class.
Beyond the accolades and productivity, what separates Okafor from the rest are the low-post skills—the fancy footwork, brilliant use of his bulky body, moves and counters, and soft touch—that he honed over countless hours of study and practice with his father.
"He's had that for years," a scout told Bleacher Report earlier this season. "You never see a big guy with the footwork and the hands and the moves, the post moves, that he has. There's a lack of guys with post moves in the NBA currently."
While Okafor stands head and shoulders above the competition offensively, Towns shines on the defensive end. A highly-touted high-schooler in his own right, Towns, the 2014 Gatorade National Player of the Year, was the linchpin behind Kentucky's record-setting 38-0 start.
The New Jersey native averaged just over 21 minutes per game for John Calipari's stacked Wildcats but still managed to block a whopping 11.5 percent of opponents' two-point shots while he was on the floor and finish fifth in the nation in player efficiency rating, per Sports-Reference.com.
Towns has the requisite length, strength and lateral quickness to have an instant impact while patrolling the paint defensively. Over time, improvements in his conditioning and understanding of NBA principles should only bolster his abilities on that end.
To be sure, Towns is no slouch when it comes to putting the ball through the hoop. His shooting mechanics are already solid (81.3 percent on free throws at Kentucky), and with his size (6'11", 250 lbs) and fleetness afoot, Towns projects as a potent option in the pick-and-roll schemes that are so ubiquitous in today's NBA. As SB Nation's Kevin O'Connor explained:
With his natural feel for the game, he's able to glide to the rim or dunk over the top. This production should also carry over when he receives the ball in transition and via off-ball dive cuts. But considering his dexterity for rolling off screens, defenses may overplay him to prevent at-rim chances, which would open the door for him to pop for mid-range or three-point attempts.
Of the two top prospects, Towns appears to be the better fit for the Lakers. He doesn't need the ball to affect the game offensively—a huge plus when playing with the domineering Kobe Bryant—and offers the sort of rim protection that L.A. will need up front next to fellow Kentucky product and 2014 lottery pick Julius Randle.
Then again, the Lakers are all about winning championships, and Okafor's credentials in that regard—with titles in high school and college—speak volumes of his aptitude to do so.
The early signs, though, point to Towns winding up in the City of Angels. For one, per the Minneapolis Star Tribune's Jerry Zgoda (via B/R's Kevin Ding), the Minnesota Timberwolves, owners of the No. 1 pick, have eyes for Okafor:
And, for what it's worth, Yahoo Sports' Adrian Wojnarowski pondered the possibility of Towns' camp attempting to dictate his draft-day fate:
If that's the case, Towns may want to be careful what he wishes for. For all the trappings that come with being a Laker—the L.A. lifestyle, beautiful weather and prominent placement with the NBA's marquee franchise—playing at Staples Center as a promising young center brings its own unique set of perks, perils and pitfalls.
From Purple and Gold to Hall of Fame
Few teams can measure up to the Los Angeles Lakers' overall record of success. Fewer still can so much as sniff the organization's stratosphere when it comes to employing great big men.
Before the Lakers left Minneapolis for Tinseltown, there was George Mikan. The DePaul product landed in the Lakers' lap after his first pro team, the Chicago American Gears, folded following an exodus from the National Basketball League.
All Mikan did was revolutionize basketball. At 6'10", Mr. Basketball's combination of size and skill was beyond reproach in a sport and a league—the Basketball Association of America, the forerunner to the modern NBA—that were still predominantly comprised of players 6'5" and under and didn't integrate until 1950.
As Bill Simmons recounted in The Book of Basketball, Mikan was also exceptionally gritty:
...he may have been the toughest player of that era, breaking 10 different bones and taking 160 stitches during his nine-year career. He helped Minny win the 1950 title playing with a broken wrist. During the 1951 playoffs, he played with a fractured leg when Minny fell to Rochester in the Western Finals.
There's no denying Mikan's success relative to his time. He was a four-time All-Star and a five-time champion during his seven seasons in the young Association. Like so many great bigs from basketball's bygone era, Mikan's dominance played a part in the institution of several rule changes that fundamentally altered the sport, including the introduction of a wider three-second lane and a 24-second shot clock.
Once Mikan retired for the second (and final) time in 1956, the Lakers were left without a true centerpiece for more than a decade. Not until 1968, eight years after fleeing the frigid climes of Minnesota for the warmth and sunshine of Southern California, did the Lakers land another: Wilt Chamberlain.
By that time, "The Big Dipper" was nearing the tail end of his prime. He was already a nine-time All-Star, a four-time MVP and a one-time champion, the latter coming courtesy of a triumphant run past his longtime rival (Bill Russell) and his old team (the San Francisco Warriors) while with the Philadelphia 76ers in 1967.
Chamberlain, arguably the most gifted physical talent to enter the NBA to that point, was stonewalled again by Russell's Boston Celtics to end his first season in purple and gold. For the Lakers, it was the seventh and final time they'd be denied by Russell, who retired shortly thereafter.
Three years later, Chamberlain became a champion for the second time. Along with Jerry West and Gail Goodrich, he helped spearhead the Lakers' all-time-record 33-game winning streak—without the injured Elgin Baylor, no less—on the way to the 1972 title, the franchise's first since moving to L.A. What's more, Chamberlain was named the MVP of L.A.'s five-game flattening of the New York Knicks in the Finals.
Chamberlain's retirement in 1973 left a massive hole in the middle for the Lakers that, for all intents and purposes, remained vacant—save for the solid but unspectacular contributions of Elmore Smith, Mel Counts and Zelmo Beaty—until 1975, when the Milwaukee Bucks honored Kareem Abdul-Jabbar's request for a trade to either his hometown (New York) or the city in which he starred as a collegian (L.A.).
The Lakers won out, sending Smith, Junior Bridgeman, Dave Meyers and Brian Winters to Milwaukee in exchange for Abdul-Jabbar, a three-time MVP and a champion in 1971, and Walt Wesley.
In L.A., Abdul-Jabbar truly came into his own as "The Captain." He captured three more MVPs, including two in his first two years with the Lakers, and five more titles alongside Magic Johnson on the team's iconic Showtime squads. In 1985, he led the Lakers to their first Finals victory over the hated Celtics and was named MVP of the six-game series for his efforts.
The UCLA product hung up his iconic goggles for good in 1989. Mychal Thompson, a former No. 1 pick and the father of Golden State Warriors All-Star Klay Thompson, slid from backup to starter in L.A. until his retirement in 1991. The Lakers drafted Serbia's Vlade Divac (No. 26 in 1989) and Clemson's Elden Campbell (No. 27 in 1990) to serve as Thompson's understudies.
Neither Divac nor Campbell came close to carrying on the Lakers' lineage of franchise centers. Neither did Benoit Benjamin, Sam Bowie or Danny Schayes.
Great Giants of Recent Lakers Lore
Come 1996, the Lakers found the next link in their distinctive chain. They lured Shaquille O'Neal away from the Orlando Magic with an offer he couldn't refuse—and one that his incumbent team was reluctant to match. As O'Neal recalled to Grantland's Jonathan Abrams:
The [Magic] had [an offer of] $80 [million] and then they put up billboards [that] said, 'No man's worth $100 million.' Jerry West said, 'I'll give you whatever you want.' And then, the crazy thing is, I was going to come back [to Orlando] and get the 80. That's when Juwan Howard got [$101 million] and Mourning got 105. So we called John [Gabriel] up and John wasn't talking right, and Jerry West said, 'Hey, right now we can give you 98, but we can probably get you some things on the side.' He called me later — about three in the morning — and said, 'We're going to get you 120.' I said, 'I'll meet you over there.'
O'Neal harbored doubts about his decision for some time thereafter. But once Phil Jackson came aboard as the head coach and the Lakers starting winning championships, with a young Kobe Bryant emerging as a superstar, O'Neal's concerns melted away. Apparently, three rings and four MVPs (one regular-season, three Finals) will do that.
Shaq's tenure as a Laker came to an end just as his infamous feud with Bryant was coming to a head. In the summer of 2004, with O'Neal up for an extension and Bryant due to explore unrestricted free agency—and the tension between the two reaching untenable heights—the Lakers traded the former to the Miami Heat in exchange for Lamar Odom, Caron Butler, Brian Grant and a pair of draft picks.
Bryant wound up re-signing with the Lakers, but it was O'Neal, with another up-and-coming wing (Dwyane Wade) by his side, who struck first with his fourth Larry O'Brien Trophy in 2006.
Three years of darkness (and Kwame Brown) followed for the Lakers before Andrew Bynum, the No. 10 pick in the 2007 draft, started to look like the real deal. But a freak knee injury he suffered against the Memphis Grizzlies in January 2008 sidelined Bynum for the remainder of that season.
Fortunately for the Lakers, one door closing on Bynum's breakout campaign opened up another, through which walked Pau Gasol.
General manager Mitch Kupchak sent what appeared to be a slew of spare parts (i.e. Brown, Javaris Crittenton, Aaron McKie, a couple of draft picks and an international prospect) to Memphis in exchange for the disgruntled Gasol in a deal that was widely panned by people around the league for its apparent lopsidedness.
As it happens, the Grizzlies got a pretty good player of their own out of that trade. The international prospect turned out to be Marc Gasol, the younger brother of Pau and now a two-time All-Star and former Defensive Player of the Year.
On the whole, though, the Lakers still got the better end of the deal. Gasol's arrival in L.A. sparked the Lakers to a 2008 Finals showdown with the Celtics—not to mention an arms race in the Western Conference. Bynum's return the following season gave the Lakers arguably the league's most formidable frontcourt combination since the San Antonio Spurs boasted Tim Duncan and David Robinson.
With Bynum and Gasol in tow and Bryant still at the peak of his powers, the Lakers captured back-to-back championships: over Dwight Howard's Magic in 2009 and in a fitting bit of vengeance against Boston in 2010.
Since then, the Lakers have gotten their comeuppance at center.
Bynum became an All-Star during the lockout-shortened 2011-12 season, was traded to the Philadelphia 76ers the following summer, never suited up for the Sixers and played just 26 games for the Cleveland Cavaliers and Indiana Pacers in 2013-14 before bowing out of the NBA. Howard, the player for whom Bynum was traded, left L.A. for Houston in July 2013 after a season marked by physical problems and all manner of public ridicule.
Gasol, meanwhile, grew weary of the constant trade rumors and head-scratching strategies of then-head coach Mike D'Antoni. Last summer, he packed up and took his talents to Chicago, where he enjoyed a full-fledged revival as a starting center, first for the Bulls and then for the Eastern Conference All-Stars—opposite his brother Marc.
Next (Big) Man Up
Those stinging defections have left the Lakers with yet another gaping hole to fill in the middle. Either Okafor or Towns seem a worthy addition with which to begin that patchwork effort.
But upholding such a star-studded tradition will require much more of Okafor or Towns than simply being selected second overall. The proper quotient of instruction, patience and encouragement from the team's coaching staff, led by Byron Scott, will be crucial to creating the kind of environment in which the Lakers' next new hope can learn the ropes and thrive on the court.
As enticing as the Lakers' options are, both of the team's prospective 19-year-olds have a long way to go and a lot of work to do before they can reach their respective ceilings and live up to the organization's lofty expectations.
For all of his offensive wizardry, Okafor's defensive footwork leaves much to be desired. As NBA scout and consultant Chris Ekstrand told Bleacher Report's Jared Zwerling:
The thing that people are concerned about is the way he looked against a guy like [Frank] Kaminsky in the national championship. Kaminsky is a new age-type center where he's a perimeter player, and he weighed in at like 232 [at the combine], and he measured at 7'0". How well is [Okafor] going to adapt defensively to playing against guys like that?
Presumably, not as well as Towns. Then again, while Towns projects as a top-notch paint protector thanks to his superior footspeed and leaping ability, he was troublingly foul-prone at Kentucky (5.6 fouls per 40 minutes, per Sports-Reference.com). And though Towns can shoot, his low-post game compares to Okafor's about as well as Leonardo da Vinci's flying machine does to a Gulfstream jet.
Either way, the Lakers will be throwing an unfinished product into the crucible of championship expectations that comes with wearing the purple and gold. And not until Okafor or Towns raises a banner next to the 16 already hung because of Mikan, Chamberlain, Abdul-Jabbar, O'Neal, Gasol and Bynum will one of this year's top prospects truly belong in the company of the great centers who preceded him.
Josh Martin covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter.