The debate about who should be the first pick in the NBA Draft on Thursday might become a referendum on how basketball should be played.
Of course, Karl-Anthony Towns and Jahlil Okafor are widely considered the only players who might hear their name called when the Minnesota Timberwolves make the first selection. Each unwittingly represents the future and past, respectively, of the game.
Towns, the former Kentucky player, is seen as the versatile big man whose perimeter skills better fit "small ball," a more wide-open style that the Golden State Warriors used to win the NBA championship this month. Now that the style has produced one championship, the thinking is that a traditional "big" clogs the speed lanes.
Okafor, the former Duke player, is the low-post scoring presence who has given teams a historical heads-up — literally and figuratively — on the competition (George Mikan in the 1950s, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar in the 1970s and 1980s, Shaquille O'Neal in the 1990s and Tim Duncan in the 2000s).
A consensus of self-appointed draft experts predict that Minnesota will pick Towns.
But Jay Bilas, who will be part of ESPN's coverage of the NBA Draft, wondered aloud about that.
Speaking on a teleconference Monday, Bilas asked two pointed questions. "If we're saying the game has changed, then why aren't these other guys higher up in the discussion for the No. 1 pick?" he said.
Bilas meant highly regarded "small" players like guards D'Angelo Russell and Emmanuel Mudiay or a wing like Justise Winslow. Why are these players not in the speculation for the first or even the second picks?
Then Bilas added, "If we're saying the game has changed, and that's why you're not taking Jahlil Okafor No. 1, why take him in the top five?"
Call him a "traditionalist," one of UK Coach John Calipari's polite put-downs for those who question his vision of the present and future, but Bilas made it sound that he would pick Okafor while wondering if he should have selected Towns.
"I'm actually torn on who's the best overall," Bilas said. "Okafor. You don't see a scorer like him in the low post very often."
Bilas acknowledged that draft analysts question Okafor's ability to defend, especially pick-and-roll action or even as a rim protector.
"Towns is more versatile," Bilas said. "He's good at everything. There's nothing we can't tick off as attributes he's not good at. ...
"But I tend to lean a little bit to Okafor because he's a dominant low-post scorer. Towns is not dominant in any one area. Maybe he will become that. But Okafor is the superior low-post scorer."
Reminded that Okafor did not display low-post dominance in the latter stages of the NCAA Tournament, Bilas said the Duke big man was hampered by a rolled ankle that limited his mobility.
If he had to make the Towns-or-Okafor, future-or-past decision, Bilas said he would canvas his pro team's talent evaluators.
"I'm leaning one way," he said. "But I wouldn't argue with anyone who would have a different view than me. Both of them are going to be really good. The question is who's going to be better."
'Best wing shooter'
Bilas called former UK sharp shooter Devin Booker the "best wing shooter" in the draft.
"He's not just a catch-and-shoot guy," the ESPN analyst said. "He's looked at as if he were that at Kentucky. But I believe he can put the ball on the deck. I think he's good in transition. He's got good athleticism and he's big and strong. Handles the ball well. He is unselfish. ... I'm a believer."
Bilas said he htinks that Booker will be among the first 10 players picked.
'Great value pick'
A reporter from Oklahoma City asked about what players the Thunder might take with the 14th pick. Bilas mentioned two former UK players.
"I don't know if Willie Cauley-Stein will be taken in the top eight," he said. "He may drop."
Then Bilas said, "Trey Lyles would be a great value pick in that neighborhood."