Thursday, December 4, 2014

Jahlil Okafor vs. Frank Kaminsky

Last night's game between Duke and Wisconsin featured a match-up between two future 6'11+ NBA players, something you rarely see at the college level. That's one of the big differences between scouting big men and guards, as the biggest NCAA players rarely get the chance to match-up with guys their size who have NBA-caliber athleticism. There are very few guys in college basketball with much of a prayer of guarding Jahlil Okafor and Frank Kaminsky - the ones who do will probably end up playing in the NBA.

That's what makes the match-up between Kaminsky and Okafor fascinating on so many levels. In college, Okafor rarely has to score over the top of guys with Kaminsky's size (7'0 245) and he never has to defend so far away from the basket. Kaminsky, similarly, never has to defend guys with Okafor's size and touch around the basket and he rarely has to try to score against guys with Okafor's size (6'11 270 with a 7'6 wingspan) and lateral quickness. This game is what these guys look like against NBA-caliber competition.

They both showed what they could do on Wednesday, playing to about a draw in an extremely impressive 80-70 road win for Duke. Kaminsky had 17 points, 9 rebounds, 2 assists and 1 block on 12 shots and Okafor had 13 points, 6 rebounds, 1 assists and 1 block on 8 shots. More important than the numbers, though, was how they looked against each other in specific situations and what the match-up can tell us about how their games will translate to the NBA. There was a lot for us to learn about both guys in a game like this.

A big part of being an NBA C goes back to that phenomenal Lionel Hollins quote about Brook Lopez, in the aftermath of a game where Lopez (7'0 275) was out-muscled by Nik Pekovic (6'11 290). These are gigantic human beings who spend a large portion of the game in a wrestling match at the front of the rim - it's a lot like playing on the offensive or defensive line in football. As a C, if you are bigger and stronger than the guy guarding you, you want to let him know who is boss early. This is what happened the first time Jahlil got the ball against Kaminsky:

I believe the technical term for that is "weight room". Even though Kaminsky is four years older, he's giving up 30-35 pounds and there isn't much he can do when Okafor gets him on his back. He has the size to contest Okafor's shot, but if he gets pushed all the way under the basket, it isn't going to matter. He holds up much better in this sequence - Okafor catches the ball in the high post and Kaminsky is able to force him to shoot over the top of his length:

If Kaminsky can just push guys out of the paint, he has the length to bother their shots. The problem is he may not be able to do that, not against the type of big men he will see in the NBA. It doesn't really matter what his defensive stats are in college because Wisconsin isn't playing many teams who have the personnel to attack him. If he's a starting C in the Western Conference, he has to defend Dwight Howard, DeMarcus Cousins and Nik Pekovic four times. In the East, it's guys like Brook Lopez, Al Jefferson and Nik Vucevic.

Every rookie big man's welcome to the NBA moment.

The question with Kaminsky is how much bigger can he get and how much weight can he add to his frame without sacrificing any of his quickness. You can see the contrast with a guy like Okafor, who carries 270 pounds very naturally on his frame at the age of 18. Kaminsky is much more thinly built at 245 pounds. He'll never be as big as the real behemoths in the NBA, but the hope is that he gradually adds old man strength as he ages and starts to fill out in his late 20's. For the forseeable future, though, his only chance to get those guys back is on the other end of the floor, where very few have experience guarding a guy who can spot-up from the 3-point line:

You don't even need to see the basket in this GIF because there's only one rule with a shooter like Frank The Tank - HAND DOWN, MAN DOWN. Jahlil, like most C's who have spent their life protecting the rim, doesn't know anything about that. I particularly enjoyed this sequence late in the first half, when he said to hell with it and chucked Nigel Hays to the floor in an attempt to get out on Kaminsky. That's a 6'7 250 guy getting toppled over like a pinball machine:

Even though he plays as a C in college, Kaminsky definitely has the shooting and ball-handling ability to play on the perimeter as a stretch PF. If he's going to be a starter in the NBA, that may be the transition he has to make. That's how the Mavs have been able to get away with Dirk's defense for all these years - they aren't asking him to protect the paint or bang with guys like Dwight for 40 minutes. In this sequence, Kaminsky faces up Okafor at the three-point line, beats him off the dribble and then spins into a tough hook shot:

Okafor had 4 fouls in 28 minutes, mainly from guarding Kaminsky on the perimeter. But while he showed his youth in picking up a few silly fouls against a battle-tested senior, he also showed the ability to get into a stance and slide his feet on the perimeter. You don't want to hold mental mistakes against a young big man, not in the way that you would with physical ones. This bit of 1-on-1 defense from the second half should have NBA folks salivating:

At the same time, it also makes you wonder a little bit about Kaminsky, if he has to face guys who are just as big and just as fast as him and who are around his age. As a senior, he's like the kid in gym class who was held back a few times, bullying younger and less experienced players instead of going up against his peers. Most of the guys you would want to see him go up against in the Big Ten - Cody Zeller, Adreian Payne, Meyers Leonard, Mitch McGary - are already in the NBA. That doesn't mean he's not going to be a really good NBA player, but it is a reason for taking his NCAA numbers this season, which should be spectacular, with a grain of salt.

If Kaminsky was playing as an NBA PF, he would be facing very different types of defenders than as an NCAA C. Will he be able to pin smaller guys like Paul Millsapp and Blake Griffin on his back? Will he be able to get around bigger guys like Serge Ibaka and LaMarcus Aldridge on the perimeter? We already know he's not guarding any of them. Here is what makes the NBA so tough - if he can consistently do those things and be a 15-20 point a night scorer, teams will start to throw a steady diet of 6'8+ combo forwards at him, who will try to get into him on defense and not give him any room to breathe off the dribble.

When projecting him to the NBA, it's hard to say whether Kaminsky will be able to do those types of things, since he so rarely faces those types of defenders in college. It's the same thing with Okafor - both these guys are going to spend most of the season rolling through unathletic 6'10 stiffs and undersized 6'8 centers who have no business being on the floor with them. From an individual match-up POV, there aren't a ton of guys that jump out of you on either of their schedules. Here's a quick look, although I'm sure I missed a few.


UConn - Amidah Brimah
NC State - Beejay Anya
Florida State - Boris Bojanowsky, Michael Ojo
St. John's - Chris Obekpa
UNC - Joel James


Purdue - AJ Hammons
Illinois - Nnanna Egwu (Fighting for a spot on the All-Name Team with Mr. Bojanowsky)
Iowa - Adam Woodbury
Ohio State - Amir Williams

I'm being generous with Kaminsky's list - if Woodbury and Williams were on Jahlil's schedule, I wouldn't have mentioned them. The only really intriguing match-up for Frank The Tank before the NCAA Tournament is against Hammons, a 7'0 280 monster who is only starting to come into his own as a junior. Not to get into all the conference dick measuring stuff, but a guy in the ACC is seeing some really good teams basically from all over the country. Those individual match-ups don't even get into seeing Okafor go up against the Louisville press, the Syracuse 2-3 zone and UNC's super uptempo offense.

For Okafor, the game I really want to see is against Florida State. They have to play at Tallahassee in a primetime ESPN game and that has always been a torture chamber for Duke. The problem for opposing teams is that refs tend to swallow their whistle in a game like that, which gives FSU's waves of athletes the impunity to assault the road team. Leonard Hamilton has two genuine giants in Bojanowsky (7'3 240) and Ojo (7'1 290) - it's basically going to be hell in the cell. It might be the first time in Okafor's life he goes up against guys who are just as big and just as fast as him. Ojo, in particular, is living proof that there is ALWAYS a badder man in a prison. Even if FSU ends up losing, they are going to beat the hell out of Jahlil.

I think we're going to need a bigger boat.

What you want to see with Jahlil is what happens when he goes up against someone who can make him look like a little kid, from a physicality standpoint. Ojo isn't Frank The Tank - once he holds position in the post, he's not moving. However, one of the many interesting things about Okafor, and what separates him from a lot of traditional big man prospects, is how skilled and fluid he is for a guy with his size. Take a look at this bank shot he hit over Kaminsky in the second half and tell me who it reminds you of:

There's no one in the league, no one in the world really, who can defend that shot. College basketball fans are in for an absolute treat this season, as two of the most skilled big men in recent years will both be making a run at the Wooden Award. What's really cool is they have great teams around them, so they should both be able to make a deep run in the NCAA Tournament. If all goes according to plan, it won't be a repeat of last season, when Jabari Parker and Andrew Wiggins were knocked out in the first weekend.

Of course, the longer they stay alive in March, the more likely they are to run into the Kentucky juggernaut. Kentucky starts two athletic 7'0 250+ big men and a super-athletic 6'8 240 forward upfront and they are backed up by 7'0 255, 6'9 220 and 6'10 240. They have NBA size and athleticism at all five positions and they bring more NBA-caliber defenders off the bench. It's the closest thing to playing in the league without being in the league. If you want to know what Jahlil Okafor and Frank Kaminsky will be about in the NBA, watch what they do against Willie Cauley-Stein, Karl Towns, Alex Poythress, Dakari Johnson, Marcus Lee and Trey Lyles.*

* Kaminsky's worst game in last year's Tourney came against Kentucky - 8 points, 5 rebounds and 2 blocks on 7 shots. I would need to re-watch the film again to say more, but that's a concern.

For a college big man, Kentucky is the final exam. If you can do well against those guys, you will do well against anyone. It's possible that Okafor and Kaminskly would go up against more future NBA big men in that game than in the rest of the season combined!

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