Follow the NBA draft for long enough, and eventually the annual summer spectacle separates itself into two distinct groups: years where the No. 1 pick is a no-brainer and years when the consensus is split between two players.
The most obvious recent example of a no-brainer top pick is Anthony Davis is 2012, but 2010 (John Wall) and 2009 (Blake Griffin) also jump to mind. The gold standard for a non-consensus draft has to be 2007, when it felt like every breathing sports fan had an opinion on Greg Oden vs. Kevin Durant. There was also Michael Beasley vs. Derrick Rose in 2008, Kyrie Irving vs. Derrick Williams in 2011 and Dwight Howard vs. Emeka Okafor in 2004.
This year was shaping up like those debates, as Jahlil Okafor and Karl-Anthony Towns were said to be neck and neck for the top spot this year. But in reality, this is not a two-man race. Towns is the best player in the draft, and it isn't particularly close.
It didn't always seem this way. Okafor, the popular choice for No. 1 overall when the season began, entered Duke with a reputation as the AAU generation's Paul Bunyan and more or less lived up to the hype. He was the player college basketball devotees viewed as the once-every-20-years talent. Many respected analysts (like Jay Bilas) still prefer him to Towns. Per reports, so too does the only person whose opinion actually matters: Timberwolves GM Flip Saunders.
Okafor is widely considered the most polished post scorer to enter the league in years and is unquestionably a great prospect. But there's no way anyone can watch the NBA in 2015 and believe he -- or anyone else in this class -- is a better prospect for the modern game than Towns.
Towns is the rare potential No. 1 overall pick that is totally underrated.
(Credit: Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports)
It takes a special set of circumstances for that to happen, and all of them played out in Lexington this year. Turns out the only person on Earth that could slow down Towns was John Calipari.
Kentucky was almost too talented up front this past season. This is what happens when there's nine McDonald's All-Americans on one team, and that group doesn't even include potential top-five pick Willie Cauley-Stein.
Cauley-Stein's surprising decision to return for his junior year was the first domino that stacked the deck against Towns. That caused a crunch in the frontcourt, one that only grew when fellow five-star big man Trey Lyles decommitted from Indiana to also pick Kentucky. Former high school All-Americans Dakari Johnson and Marcus Lee also returned for their sophomore seasons, ensuring there wouldn't be enough minutes or shot attempts for everyone.
While Towns started from day one, he still sacrificed more than anyone else. He was fourth on the team in field goal attempts, seventh in minutes per game and second in scoring. Playing Towns only 21 minutes per game is a crime against basketball, but Calipari had to because Kentucky kept winning and it kept everyone happy. He also knew Towns was a player of great character who wasn't going to cause a stir about a limited role.
It just wasn't the number minutes or the shot attempts, either. It was the type of shot attempts. Towns attempted just eight three-pointers all season despite drawing Dirk Nowitzki comparisons on the AAU circuit. Consider that Towns made 70 three-pointers as a 6'10 high school freshman. Three-point shooting wasn't just part of Towns' game before arriving at Kentucky. It was Towns' game.
Yet Calipari completely eliminated it from Towns' repertoire in an effort to toughen him up as an interior scorer. In the long run, that plan was a huge success. Towns' incredible performance against Notre Dame (25 points on 10-of-13 shooting) in the Elite Eight is the only real evidence you need. But it did prevent Towns from showcasing his best skill.
That meant that while everyone knew intellectually that Towns could shoot, the knockdown ability from NBA three-point range he showed at his private workout was still jarring. He made 71 of 100 three-pointers in an open gym and left jaws on the floor in the process. Yet for those paying attention since his prep days, it was entirely predictable. Are we still having this Towns vs. Okafor debate if Calipari gave him the green light to shoot from deep?
What really separates Okafor and Towns is the other side of the ball. It's generally accepted that Towns is ahead of Okafor defensively, but the gap is much wider than it appears. Towns had 34 more blocks in 321 less minutes while posting a block rate (11.5) that lapped Okafor's (4.5) more than twice over. Unlike many 19-year-old prospects entering the league, Towns already has the strength to hold his own as an NBA center at 250 pounds. He might have played power forward at Kentucky, but his build and length make him a 5 in the new NBA.
Combine Towns' outside shooting ability with his advanced rim protection skills, and it's clear this 6'11 gentle giant is the ideal big man for the modern era. Okafor may be able to teach a master class on posting up, but post-heavy offenses are going extinct. The league has realized that post scoring just isn't an efficient way to score. It only takes one look at the 2015 NBA Finals to realize basketball may be downsizing, but a player that can stretch the floor and protect the rim at an elite level will never go out of style.
Don't worry about Towns' athleticism, either. He may not be Anthony Davis as a runner or leaper, but he can get up and down the floor no problem. He isn't exactly a plodding big man:
To put it another way: as good as Okafor is, he could have been run off the floor in the Cavaliers-Warriors finals. No one is running Towns off the floor under any circumstances.
What's really jarring is that Towns doesn't appear to have any glaring weaknesses. Scouts can question Okafor's defense, D'Angelo Russell's athleticism, Emmanuel Mudiay's shooting and Kristaps Porzingis' frame, but there's nothing to nitpick with Towns. After watching him at a private workout, ESPN's Chad Ford described Towns with the most ridiculous hypothetical imaginable: "What if Dwight Howard could shoot, dribble and move the way James Harden does?"
Towns is the type of player who makes your imagination run like that. Is he Tim Duncan with three-point range? Is he Al Horford on Captain America's super soldier serum?
In terms of size, skill, character and adaptability to the modern game, Towns is as close to a sure thing as a draft prospect can be. Okafor will be a terrific player in the NBA, as will many of the other top picks in this draft.
But there shouldn't be any debate over No. 1. Karl-Anthony Towns is the no-brainer choice.