The Los Angeles Lakers belong to a league that has become increasingly guard-centric in recent years.
But this storied franchise can’t use its No. 2 draft pick on a ball-handling prodigy. Not when one-and-done frontcourt freshmen Jahlil Okafor of Duke and Karl-Anthony Towns of Kentucky are available.
The Lakers front office must use this golden opportunity to snag a dominant big man who can serve as a tent-pole fixture for the next generation. It is, after all, a franchise with a legacy of size.
In the beginning, there was George Mikan, a pioneer who powered the Minneapolis Lakers through championship runs more than 60 years ago. More recently, there was the highly evolved inside game of Pau Gasol.
And so many more in-between—their jerseys now retired and hanging from the rafters. Names like Wilt Chamberlain, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Shaquille O’Neal.
They were giants of the game, and teams were carried upon their shoulders.
The fascination with size isn’t limited to L.A., despite all the talk about open-court methodologies and the changing NBA. The top five picks appear to be trending toward centers and power forwards, as indicated by the most recent mock draft and big board from Bleacher Report’s Jonathan Wasserman.
Okafor met with the Lakers staff for dinner June 8 and worked out for the team the following day. Afterward, general manager Mitch Kupchak referenced the team’s longtime connection to dominant centers during a media session, per Joey Ramirez of Lakers.com: “We have a lot of photos in this building and a lot of those jerseys over there have the names of big men that we’ve retired and had success with.”
The executive also acknowledged the league’s transition toward a smaller philosophy: “You can argue that maybe the way to go is with a guard.”
But the conversation kept coming back to frontcourt dominance, and perhaps that had much to do with the day’s story—Okafor’s first NBA workout. When asked about any perceived rim-protection liabilities, Kupchak was quick to defend the NCAA champion.
“At Duke, they only had eight or nine guys on the team,” Kupchak said. “So there was a conscious effort, I think, to make sure he did not get into foul trouble and contest a lot of shots ... or be overly aggressive, because if he got in foul trouble, they had nobody to go to.”
There’s no question, however, about the 19-year-old’s abilities at the other end of the court. The 6’11” center has a dazzling array of polished post moves that are reminiscent of legendary monsters who roamed the paint before him.
There are other names in contention as well, including Towns—the presumptive No. 1 pick, who has yet to make an appearance at the Lakers facility.
“We’d like to get him in; schedule him and get him into this facility for a workout," Kupchak said during the press scrum referenced above. “To date we have been unsuccessful in doing that, but we’ve got another two and a half weeks. I’m sure we can get it done.”
But that doesn’t mean the 19-year-old Wildcat has been invisible. He recently worked out at an L.A. area gym with former UCLA great Don MacLean overseeing the drills.
“I've been training guys for the draft for 11 years," MacLean said, per Chad Ford for ESPN Insider, “and I've never seen anyone his size who can do the things that Karl can do. It's otherworldly.”
Dave Miller for Time Warner Cable caught up with Towns on the court and asked about his biggest strengths entering the NBA.
“I’m just trying to bring versatility,” Towns said. "That’s always what I focus my game on, is being able to give the coach any options he would like me to do, if he needs me to guard 5 through 3, switch onto the 1, or be able to shoot the basketball.”
The general consensus has the Minnesota Timberwolves picking Towns as the first overall selection on June 25. But there’s always some level of mystery. As Timberwolves president and coach Flip Saunders said to Chris Mannix of Sports Illustrated, “Sorry, I’m not going to reveal that yet.”
And then there’s Kristaps Porzingis—a 7’1” Latvian power forward who has been shooting up the draft boards lately, culminating in a workout in Las Vegas on Friday that was attended by executives from across the league. Kupchak and members of his staff were among those in attendance, according to Lakers beat reporter Mike Trudell.
In fact, according to Marc Stein of ESPN, the spindly star of Baloncesto Sevilla could be very much in play for L.A.
Grantland’s Danny Chau recently delved into the attraction of the 19-year-old Euro prospect: “There aren’t many 7-footers anywhere who can operate functionally like a shooting wing, getting open looks on flare screens and pin-downs. It’s Porzingis’s most bankable skill, the one that seems most likely to translate immediately in the NBA.”
Below is the first in a three-part Grantland video series chronicling the Latvian teen:
Ultimately, the question returns to that of positional priority. Kupchak and the Lakers have not ruled out taking a point guard with their top pick. Ohio State’s D’Angelo Russell, 19, worked out for the team June 8 and is a highly polished playmaker who will likely make an immediate impact in the league.
But who’s kidding who? The game of basketball may be increasingly driven by floor spacing and backcourt strategies, but front offices are also still obsessed with height and strength. For one thing, there’s the reality of supply and demand. There are simply more quality guards in the NBA than there are true dominant big men.
And, it’s not just a matter of coveting any hulking giant—the fascination with Towns, Okafor and Porzingis is also about their versatility.
Towns plays both ends of the floor well and will only get better with time. Porzingis brings a range of motion that’s rare in a player of his length. And then there's Okafor—perhaps the most polished low-post center to emerge from the collegiate ranks in a generation.
|2014-15 regular-season basic stats, NCAA and Euroleague|
For the Lakers, the back-to-the-basket center also has an added appeal—his skill set is too eerily similar to past titanic towers to ignore. It’s absurdly easy to imagine plugging Okafor’s offensive fundamentals into Lakers coach Byron Scott’s traditionalist approach to basketball.
After all, Scott played with Abdul-Jabbar for a decade, collecting three championship rings along the way.
Okafor clearly wouldn’t mind the opportunity to wear purple and gold, expressing a desire to learn from living legend Kobe Bryant, who will return from a shoulder injury in the fall for what could well be his final NBA season.
“I would like to talk to him, just pick his brain; just learn so much from him,” Okafor said, per Ramirez: “He’s obviously one of the greatest to ever do it, if not the greatest.”
Okafor also described O’Neal as being his favorite player growing up and expressed his reverence for Abdul-Jabbar—the man with the unstoppable skyhook and the game’s all-time leading scorer.
History tends to repeat itself, sometimes for better and sometimes for worse. But for a team that has faltered badly in recent years, there is good reason to dial back to the land of the giants.
The upcoming draft is just the first step in the Lakers’ offseason plans. Next comes free agency and the financial flexibility to sign max contract-type players, including guards and two-way wings.
But it all starts with one all-important building block. The Lakers must not let this rare opportunity slip past.
They need to use the 2015 draft to find a dominant big man and reclaim their power in the paint.