Last month, the 2014 NBA Draft featured a number of players who had become household names after years of being hyped up as potential stars. Players like Andrew Wiggins and Jabari Parker were selected and the class was regarded as one of the best in recent memory.
Well, the 2015 NBA Draft is shaping up to be loaded with talent as well. The class features a number of potential franchise-changing players, particularly in the paint, and it’s never too early to start looking ahead at the next wave of draft prospects. Here are some players to keep an eye on over the next year, as they may be top picks in the 2015 NBA Draft:
Jahlil Okafor – 6’11, 272 lbs. Center (Duke)
Okafor will enter the 2014-15 NCAA season as the favorite to end up the top overall pick in the 2015 NBA Draft. He’s the most fundamentally sound and skilled low-post player to come around since Al Jefferson. While lacking the overall talent level of a DeMarcus Cousins or the pure athleticism of a Dwight Howard, Okafor possesses something just as important: true go-to scoring ability. In a league where most centers are asked simply to focus on defense, rebounding and finishing the easy attempts that come their way in the interior, Okafor will immediately become the cornerstone of any offense. He has incredible touch, can finish with either hand, knows how to use his body and has a vast array of post moves he’s already become adept at executing. Already quite experienced at dealing with double-teams, Okafor also understands when to pass out and re-post, choosing when to attack wisely.
Despite being the most dominant player in his class for a few years now, Okafor still has his detractors who knock him for his lack of athleticism and defensive effort. He isn’t overly explosive, but he’s far from a below-the-rim player. When he wants to, Okafor is very capable of going over the top of defenders and finishing strong at the trim. However, what he really excels at is creating separation, absorbing contact, shielding off shot blockers and using his touch to score.
The defensive concerns are legitimate, as Okafor is far more dominant on the offensive side of the court than he is on the opposite end. It’s going to be his play defensively that likely makes or breaks his chances at being the number one overall pick. He doesn’t have to block multiple shots a game, although he does appear to have at least average shot blocking instincts at worst. What’s more important for Okafor is to be a solid one-on-one defender in the interior, a willing helper and an active rebounder.
Blessed with incredible natural strength, physical peers for Okafor up to this point in his playing career have been few and far between. In preparation for the next level where players with similar physical attributes are far more common, he’s going to have to dedicate himself to improving his strength and conditioning. He’d be wise to start that process while at Duke, where anything short of a Final Four appearance in presumably his lone season there will be viewed as a disappointment. He’s joined by a dynamic recruiting class, a solid group of returners and has one of the best of all-time coaching him Mike Krzyzewski. Everything is in place for him to meet the great expectations set for him; he just has to seize the moment.
Karl Towns – 7’0, 248 lbs. Center (Kentucky)
Far from a traditional center like Okafor, Towns embodies the new-age big man, who can do a little bit of everything and is more comfortable away from the basket than he is right next to it. His versatility and skill set are off the charts, as he can shoot the ball from all over the floor and can even handle it a little bit. He also has a high basketball IQ to go along with his impressive skill set and physical attributes.
Although much different than Okafor, they share similar weaknesses as Towns could stand to chisel his frame and make his presence felt more on the defensive side of the court. Still, far less skilled and talented big men have gone in the top five of recent drafts and there’s little reason to think that Towns won’t go in that range, whenever he decides to declare.
It may seem a bit foolhardy not to assume that a top ranked prospect from Kentucky wouldn’t bolt after a single season, as Wildcats head coach John Calipari has coined the term “succeed and proceed” with many of his best players leaving after one year. But Towns is walking into an extremely deep frontcourt, where there does not appear to be any possible way to give every player the minutes they deserve. Leaving out Towns, who in my opinion has the highest upside of any Kentucky player next season, Calipari already has Alex Poythress, Marcus Lee, Willie Cauley-Stein, Dakari Johnson and Trey Lyles to split minutes up for at the power forward and center positions. With the six of them, Calipari has three different combinations of power forward/center combos that would start at most other D-I schools. Towns has always talked about how important his education is for him and how seriously he is going to the academic requirements that come with being a student-athlete. If he doesn’t get the kind of playing time he’s hoping to as a freshman, that could lead him to stay an extra year than originally anticipated.
It seems like every year there is a top-ranked prospect who shocks everyone by passing up on the making the jump to the league right away and Towns could be the next, especially given the logjam he’s going to have to fight through on the Kentucky frontline.
Cliff Alexander – 6’9, 254 lbs. Center (Kansas)
With the departure of Joel Embiid, the center position is wide open at Kansas for Alexander to come in and dominate right away. Set to turn 19 years old early in the season, there will only be a handful of players in the NCAA who can handle his combination of brute strength and standout athleticism. It’s young monsters like Alexander who are the reason why rims are reinforced the way they are now, otherwise he’d be tearing them down with regularity. When he gets the ball in the interior, he’s thinking one thing and one thing only: finish strong.
At 6’9, Alexander does not have the size for the center position. NBA teams would prefer for him to be on the other side of 6’10, however a 7’4 wingspan and 9’0 standing reach will go a long way in helping make up for the fact that he may only be 6’8 without shoes on. What will help teams look past his actual height more than anything, though, is the way that he plays. Alexander is aggressive and borderline mean on the court. He knows one way to play and that’s by putting everything he has out on the floor for every second that he’s on it.
In order to be more than just a rebounder and finisher at the next level, Alexander is going to have to step outside of his comfort zone in order to expand and refine his offensive game. Right now, he’s primarily a finisher. If he can develop a reliable jump hook and even a mid-range jumper, we’re talking about someone who could fight his way into the number one pick discussion. Defensively, Alexander makes a much bigger impact than Okafor or Towns, which bodes well for his stock as long as he can show significant offensive improvement over the course of the year.
Given his physicality and motor, a primary concern for Alexander will be learning how to avoid and play through foul trouble. If he can’t adjust to the way the game is called at the collegiate level, he’ll get picked apart for his other weaknesses even more and see his stock tumble as a result.
Emmanuel Mudiay – 6’5, 200 lbs. Point Guard (China)
Mudiay shocked the basketball world this summer by announcing that he would not be attending SMU and would instead pursue playing internationally in preparation for the 2015 NBA Draft. Mudiay was originally viewed as a trendsetter, being the first top-five recruit to commit to SMU and Larry Brown. However, now he’s going to be blazing down the same trail Jeremy Tyler and Brandon Jennings did with mixed results.
As much as Mudiay has disputed reports about his academic eligibility, the recent closing of his prep school says it all. So, he may have been forced to take this route, but will be paid handsomely as he recently inked a $1.2 million contract with the Guangdong Southern Tigers.
While the money may not have been as great as it is in China, other overseas leagues probably would have been better for his development. The CBA does not start until December and the league has a reputation for being more about the show than actual player development or great competition.
The hope was a year under Brown at SMU would help develop Mudiay’s point guard skills, specifically improving his decision making and shot selection. At 6’5 with a great handle and ability to get to the rim virtually whenever he wants, playing under the structure and discipline of Brown could have helped make Mudiay much more efficient and potentially even the number one overall pick.
Mudiay is losing out on that and putting himself in a position where he’ll have a lot of questions to answer and things to prove during the pre-draft process. A consensus among scouts and executives is that he won’t be able to help his stock as much playing in China as he would have been able to in the NCAA. There’s just as much to like about him as a prospect as there was before all of this went down, but aside from the $1.2 million, it’s looking like he’s headed toward a throwaway year developmentally. The risk associated with taking him out of China will likely be far greater than it would have been out of SMU after a year under Brown. Not only could that knock him down a couple spots, but it all but removes him from top pick discussion.
Myles Turner – 6’11, 242 lbs. Center (Texas)
There’s a handful of talent evaluators who feel like Turner could end up being the best big man in the class, which is great praise considering the ceilings of Okafor, Towns and Alexander. The potential is certainly there as he has a lot of impressive tools, including the ability to score inside and out beyond the three-point line, great rebounding instincts, a solid understanding of the game and good size and length for his position.
At Texas, Turner is going to have to put all of these things together and consistently impact the game like he is capable of. There’s no reason why he shouldn’t be one of the most productive big men in college basketball next season, but he’s going to have to give Rick Barnes reason to keep him out on the floor as he’ll have competition for minutes with Jonathan Holmes and Cameron Ridley. Those upperclassmen may not have the same potential as Turner, but Barnes, whose seat isn’t scorching hot but far from cold, needs to win. He’s not going to sacrifice playing time for more productive players just to develop Turner. But if he goes out and earns the minutes, he’ll see the floor more than either one.
Turner’s playing time could be decided by his defense, as he will almost certainly be one of the top offensive options for the Longhorns from day one. If he can’t hold his own in man-to-man defensive settings or help adequately in the pick-and-roll, Turner could fall out of the one-and-done discussion due to being too much of a project to take in the top 10.
Honorable Mention: Stanley Johnson (Arizona), Kelly Oubre (Kansas), Kristaps Porzingis (International), Mario Hezonja (International) and Justise Winslow (Duke)
Make sure to look out for our continuing coverage of the 2015 NBA Draft, next up we’ll take a look at the top returners and best international prospects!
Emeka Okafor Impacting 2018 Western Conference Playoff Race
Sidelined for several years with a neck injury, Emeka Okafor is back in the NBA and helping the Pelicans fight for a playoff seed.
When DeMarcus Cousins ruptured his Achilles tendon, most people in and around the league assumed the New Orleans Pelicans would eventually fall out of the Western Conference Playoff race. It was a fair assumption. In 48 games this season, Cousins averaged 25.2 points, 12.9 rebounds, 5.4 assists, 1.6 steals and 1.6 blocks while shooting 47 percent from the field and 35.4 percent from beyond the arc.
Anthony Davis and the Pelicans had other plans. Davis put the team on his shoulders, played at an elite level and, arguably, has forced his way into the MVP race. Behind Davis’ efforts, the Pelicans are currently 39-29, have won 7 of their last 10 games and hold the sixth seed in the Western Conference.
While Davis has been carrying the team since the loss of Cousins, he has received significant help from his teammates, including Emeka Okafor.
More recent NBA fans may be less familiar with Okafor since he has been out of the league since the end of the 2012-13 season. For context, in Okafor’s last season, David Lee led the league in double-doubles, Luol Deng led the league in minutes per game and Joakim Noah made the NBA All-Defensive First Team. However, Okafor entered the NBA with a lot of excited and expectations. He was drafted second overall, right behind Dwight Howard. Okafor played in 9 relatively successful NBA seasons until being sidelined indefinitely with a herniated disc in his neck prior to the start of the 2013-14 season.
Okafor was medically cleared to play in May of last year and played in five preseason games with the Philadelphia 76ers but was ultimately waived in October, prior to the start of the regular season. However, with the injury to Cousins, the Pelicans were in need of help at the center position and signed Okafor to a 10-day contract. Okafor earned a second 10-day contract and ultimately landed a contract for the rest of this season.
Okafor has played in 14 games so far for the Pelicans has is receiving limited playing time thus far. Despite the lack of playing time, Okafor is making his presence felt when he is on the court. Known as a defensive specialist, Okafor has provided some much needed rim protection and has rebounded effectively as well.
He has been [helpful] since the day he got here,” Pelicans head coach Alvin Gentry said about Okafor after New Orleans’ recent victory over the Los Angeles Clippers. “I think his rim protection has been great. But, he’s capable of making a little jump shot and you can see that today. But just having him in there, his presence there has been great.”
Okafor has never been known as an elite offensive player, but he did average 15.1 points per game in his rookie season and has shown glimpses of an improved jump shot in his limited run with the Pelicans.
“You know, I’m happy it’s falling,” Okafor said after he helped seal the victory over the Clippers. “Kept in my back pocket. I was invoked to use it, so figured I’d dust it off and show it.”
Okafor was then asked if he has any other moves in his back pocket that he hasn’t displayed so far this season.
“A little bit. I don’t want to give it all,” Okafor told Basketball Insiders. “There’s a couple shots still. But we’ll see what opportunities unveil themselves coming forward.”
Okafor will never have the elite offensive skill set that Cousins has but his overall contributions have had a positive impact for a New Orleans squad that was desperate for additional production after Cousin’s Achilles tear.
“It’s impossible to replace a guy that was playing at an MVP level,” Gentry said recently. “For us, Emeka’s giving us something that we desperately missed with Cousins. The same thing with Niko. Niko’s given us something as far as spacing the floor. Between those guys, they’ve done the best they could to fill in for that. But we didn’t expect anyone to fill in and replace what Cousins was doing for us.”
Okafor is currently averaging 6.2 points, 5.5 rebounds and 1.4 blocks per game while shooting 54.5 percent from the field. While his averages don’t jump off the page, it should be noted that his per minute production is surprisingly impressive. Per 36 minutes, Okafor is averaging 13.4 points, 11.8 rebounds and 2.9 blocks. Those numbers are nearly identical to his averages from the 2012-13 season, though he is averaging twice as many blocks (up from 1.4).
The Pelicans have exceeded expectations and currently are ahead of teams like the San Antonio Spurs, Utah Jazz, Denver Nuggets and Los Angeles Clippers in the extremely tight Western Conference Playoff race. Okafor is doing more than could have reasonably been expected when he first signed with the Pelicans, though he would be the first person to pass the credit toward Anthony Davis.
When asked about Davis’ recent play, Okafor enthusiastically heaped praise toward his superstar teammate.
“It’s to the point where it’s like, ‘Alright, he has 40 doesn’t he?’ It’s impressive,” Okafor said about Davis. But it’s becoming so commonplace now.
He’s just an impressive individual. He gives it all. He’s relentless. And then off the court too, he’s a very, very nice kid. He really takes the leadership role seriously. I’m even more impressed with that part.”
There is still plenty of regular season basketball to be played and even a two-game losing streak can drastic consequences. But the Pelicans have proved to be very resilient and Okafor is confident in the team’s potential and outlook.
“I think we’re all hitting a good grove here and we’re playing very good basketball, said Okafor.”
Whether the Pelicans make the playoffs or not, it’s great to see Okafor back in the NBA and playing meaningful minutes for a team in the playoff race.
NBA Daily: Nothing’s Promised, Not Even For The Warriors
The Warriors are wounded, and with Chris Paul, the Rockets may be equipped to take advantage.
The Warriors are wounded, and for those that thought their waltzing into a four consecutive NBA Finals was a given, the Houston Rockets may have other ideas. Especially when one considers that the beloved Dubs are trying to buck history.
Steph Curry has ankle problems, Klay has a fractured thumb and Kevin Durant—the most recent of the team’s lynchpins to find himself on the disabled list—has a rib injury.
Sure, the Dubs might shake off their injuries and find themselves at or near 100 percent once the playoffs begin, but seldom do teams in the NBA get healthier as the year progresses.
Winning in the NBA is difficult. In order to take all the marbles, teams need a bunch of different ingredients, chief among them are good fortune and health. And in many ways, the two are entwined.
Simply put: the human body isn’t built to play as often and as hard as NBA players do. Those that we recognize as being among the greatest ever—Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Karl Malone, Kobe Bryant and LeBron James among them—had one thing in common. They were all exceptionally durable.
Over the years, we’ve seen attrition and fragility cost the likes of Anfernee Hardaway, Yao Ming and Derrick Rose what seemed to be careers full of accolades and accomplishments. And the simple truth is that you never know which player, players or teams will be next to be undercut by injuries and progressive fatigue.
Just to keep things in perspective, the Warriors are attempting to become just the fifth team since 1970 to win at least three NBA championships in a four-year span.
The Los Angeles Lakers won the NBA Finals in 1985, 1987 and 1988 before Michael Jordan and his Chicago Bulls completed their three-peat from 1991-93. The Bulls would again do the same between 1996 and 1998, and Shaquille O’Neal and his Los Angeles Lakers accomplished the same from 2000 to 2002.
There are reasons why so few teams have been able to win as frequently as the Lakers and Bulls have, and health is certainly one of them. That’s especially interesting to note considering the fact that the Warriors may have been champions in 2016 had they had their team at full strength. Mind you, both Stephen Curry and Andre Iguodala were severely limited in their abilities, while Andrew Bogut missed the fateful and decisive Game 6 and Game 7 of those Finals with injuries to his left leg.
At the end of the day, injuries are a part of the game. The best teams are often able to overcome them, while the luckiest teams often don’t have to deal with them. To this point, the Warriors have been both the best and incredibly lucky, but at a certain point, the sheer volume of basketball games is likely to have an adverse effect on at least a few members of the team.
We may be seeing that now.
En route to winning the 2015 NBA Finals, the Warriors turned in a playoff record of 16-5. In 2016, they were 15-9 and in 2017, they were 16-1. In total, the 62 playoff games would have worn a bit of tread off of their collective tires, just as their 73-9 regular season record may have. In becoming a historically great team, the Warriors have expending the energy necessary of a team wishing to remain a contender, and that’s not easy.
As an aside, those that understand the difficulty in competing at a high level every single night are the ones who rightfully give LeBron James the respect he’s due for even having the opportunity to play into June eight consecutive years. Win or lose, in terms of consistent effort and constant production, James has shown as things we’ve never seen before.
Today, it’s fair to wonder whether the Warriors have that same capability.
We’ll find out in short order.
* * * * * *
As the Houston Rockets appear headed toward ending the Warriors’ regular season reign atop the Western Conference, there’s something awfully coincidental about the fact that the team seems to have taken the next step after the addition of Chris Paul.
Paul knows a thing or two about attrition and how unlucky bouts with injuries at inopportune times can cost a team everything. As much as anything else, it probably has something to do with why Paul continues to believe in the ability of the Rockets to achieve immortality.
On the first night of the regular season, mind you, in one horrific moment, Gordon Hayward and the Boston Celtics reminded us that on any given play, the outlook of an entire season—and perhaps, even a career—can change.
A twisted knee here, a sprained ankle there, and who knows?
With just over three weeks remaining in the regular season, the Warriors—the team that everyone knew would win the Western Conference again this season—has some concerns. Their primary weapons are hurting, their chances of securing home court advantage throughout the Western Conference playoffs are all but nil and their road to the Finals may end up being more difficult than they could have possibly imagined.
If the season ended today and the seeds held, the Warriors would draw the San Antonio Spurs in the first round and the Portland Trail Blazers in the second round before squaring off against the Rockets in the Western Conference Finals.
Of all teams, the Spurs are probably the last team the Warriors would want to see in the playoffs, much less the first round. While the outcome of that series would be determined by the health of Kawhi Leonard, there’s no doubt that Gregg Popovich would at least be able to effectively game plan for Golden State.
While the Blazers might not provide incredible resistance to the Warriors, the Oklahoma City Thunder will enter play on March 18 just two games behind the Blazers for the third seed out West. With the two teams squaring off against one another on March 25, it’s possible for Russell Westbrook and his crew having the opportunity to square off against the Dubs in the playoffs.
For Golden State, their path to the Finals having to go through San Antonio, Oklahoma City and Houston would absolutely be a worst case scenario. The only thing that could make it even more terrible for Steve Kerr would be having to do it with a platoon that was less than 100 percent.
Funny. In yet another season where everyone thought that it was the Warriors and everyone else, there are quite a few questions facing the defending champs heading into the final few weeks of the regular season.
Indeed, the Warriors are wounded. And whether they can be nursed back up to full strength is perhaps the most interesting thing to watch as the calendar turns to April and playoff basketball draws nearer.
NBA Daily: The Golden State Warriors Need to Enter Rest Mode
With a bevy of injuries to their stars, the Golden State Warriors should rest up the remainder of the regular season to avoid any playoff letdowns.
After a three-year-long run of dominating the NBA, the Golden State Warriors are showing some cracks in their armor.
Granted, those cracks aren’t a result of a botched system or poor play, but rather the injury bug biting the team in full force as they come down the regular season stretch.
First, it was Steph Curry and the ankle that’s bothered him all season — and for most of his career — when he tweaked it yet again on March 8 against the San Antonio Spurs. Golden State announced he would miss at least four games. Then it was Klay Thompson, who fractured his thumb three days later against the Minnesota Timberwolves — he’ll miss at least two weeks.
Now it’s Kevin Durant. Last year’s Finals MVP suffered an incomplete rib cartilage fracture and was ruled out of Friday’s game against the Sacramento Kings. Durant is expected to be sidelined for at least two weeks. The Warriors would go on to lose that contest 95-93.
In about two weeks time, the Warriors went from having one of the most formidable offenses and scoring trios in the entire league, to having Quinn Cook and Nick Young logging starter minutes.
Luckily for the Warriors, they’ve built up a big enough lead in the standings to achieve a 52-17 record, good for second place in the Western Conference. But the issue for the remainder of the season now becomes how healthy will the Warriors be come playoff time?
Curry and Durant have injury histories. Curry particularly has been bothered by this ankle since he entered the league. Without either of them, the Warriors — while still incredibly talented — will be on a completely even playing field with the Houston Rockets, and possibly other teams in the gauntlet that will be the Western Conference playoffs.
The bigger issue on top of the pending injury concerns becomes whether the Warriors should just pack it in for the rest of the regular season, and regroup for another expected title run.
Steve Kerr doesn’t seem to be thinking that way, however.
“All these injuries seem to be temporary,” Kerr told reporters. “A couple weeks, a week, two weeks – whatever. We’re in good shape. We’ve just got to survive this next slate of games and hopefully, start getting guys back and get rolling again for the playoffs.”
That’s true. None of the aforementioned injuries seem to be anything more serious than a few weeks of rest and relaxation. But that’s assuming the best case scenario for these players.
Should we assume that the Warriors are without their scoring trio for the next couple of weeks as their health updates have indicated, that would put their return roughly around April 1. At that time, Golden State would have six games remaining on their schedule. Four coming against playoff teams (Oklahoma City, Indiana, New Orleans, and Utah) with the other two games against Phoenix.
After missing the last few weeks on the court, with injuries that most likely won’t be at 100 percent, tossing their most valuable contributors back into the fray against a slate of playoff teams probably isn’t the smartest idea.
At this point, the Warriors postseason position is locked up. They likely won’t take the top seed away from Houston, and their lead is big enough to keep their second seed intact regardless of who’s on the court. The only thing left now is the determining who Golden State will play in the first round. With the revolving carousel that is the playoff standings out West, that’s anybody’s guess right now.
The only thing that’s certain is whichever team coming into Oracle Arena for that first round will be battle tested and talented based off of the dogfight they had to survive just to make the playoffs. The last thing the Warriors need to be is a banged up in a postseason with their first opponent smelling blood in the water.
In all likelihood, the Warriors — should everything go according to plan — will play the Houston Rockets for a chance to return to their fourth straight NBA Finals. Only this time, a potential Game 7 won’t be at Oracle Arena. It will be in downtown Houston, at the Toyota Center.
An advantage as big as the Warriors’ homecourt can never be understated. Operating in a do-or-die situation away from home will be newfound territory for this bunch. Regardless of talent or team success, at that point, it’s anybody’s game.
It won’t be easy for the Golden State Warriors as they try to extend their dynasty’s reign. This might be their most difficult year yet.
Durant, in his own words, can’t even laugh right now without feeling pain. The league’s only unanimous MVP is operating on one and a half ankles, and the team’s second Splash Brother has an injury on his shooting hand.
Resting up the team’s stars should be the team’s top priority right now, at risk of entering the postseason hobbled. Track record means nothing if the Warriors don’t have their full arsenal at disposal when the games matter most.
Hey, a 16-seed finally won a first-round game in the NCAA Tournament. Anything is possible on a basketball court, and the Warriors should do everything possible to ensure they’re not the next major upset candidate in line.