Friday, December 21, 2012
Battle of the nation's best centers
By Dave Telep
FORT MYERS, Fla. -- Take the nation’s highest-rated center from the Class of 2013 and match him against the best from the Class of 2014 class and I’m in. No matter the place, and apparently with no concern for the time.
Jahlil Okafor and Dakari Johnson, the nation's two best centers, went head-to-head Thursday night at City of Palms.
You get these chances only a few times a year. A high-level pick 'em game involving two high school giants. A tip of the cap to the tournament director who undoubtedly had a conversation with the officials regarding the definition of fouls in the post, and we were ready.
No. 1-ranked Montverde needed overtime to beat No. 9 Whitney Young team. The difference was point guard Kasey Hill, and he was wearing a Montverde jersey. In any year other than this one (see Andrew Harrison), Hill would be a great choice for the top point guard. The pressure he can put on a defense with his athleticism and speed changes Montverde and takes the team from a Porsche to a Lamborghini. Hill had 12 points and five assists, while junior wing DeAngelo Allen scored 17. Montverde also received a double-double from Devin Williams (17 and 13).
But as an evaluator, this game was about the two biggest players, literally. Okafor finished with 16 points and 12 rebounds; Johnson tallied 11 points and 17 boards. The two friends from USA Basketball got after it inside. Johnson had a rough night shooting in the lane and went 3-for-11 from the field; his rebounding numbers were partially a product of him following his own misses, which isn’t a bad thing. Okafor was 6-for-13 and his rebounding numbers didn’t spike until the second half.
The takeaway coming out of the game is that each one of these guys is a terrific prospect with pro aspirations. Head-to-head, there wasn’t a knockout punch delivered by either. I’m still of the opinion that the higher-rated Okafor is the better prospect.
Regardless, here’s a breakdown of who has the edge in a variety of categories between the two:
Post Skill: Okafor (edge in post moves)
Touch: Okafor (uses both hands, better finisher)
Intangibles: Okafor (carried USA Basketball this summer)
Passing: Johnson (both are good passers)
Mobility: Johnson (runs the floor better)
Rebounding: Okafor (though Johnson is gaining; Okafor better in traffic)
Athleticism: Johnson (slimmed down, gets off floor better)
Free-Throw Stroke: Johnson (slight edge)
Face-Up Ability: Johnson (Okafor passed on three free-throw line J’s)
Playing in Traffic: Okafor (wide body, great hands)
Post Defense: Okafor (anchors himself well)
Shot Blocking: Johnson (neither is great, Johnson is better)
Overall: I'm comfortable with each player’s ranking in their respective classes. Neither is particularly long or explosive, two traits the NBA guys put great stock into. Both are highly productive, though. Johnson is growing into the role of go-to guy; Okafor has always been that kind of player.
Okafor is the No. 2 overall junior, while Johnson is the No. 12 overall senior. Okafor was ranked ahead of Johnson when they shared the same class (Johnson reclassified to 2013 earlier this fall) and would continue to get the nod in an overall head-to-head.
In this particular game, you have to believe Okafor’s defense was a reason for Johnson’s poor shooting numbers in the paint. When they didn’t guard one another, each went right at the mismatch for buckets. Johnson was a more controlling presence throughout the game as a rebounder.
Okafor gets the slight edge overall in this game, but I can’t stress enough how much fun it was to watch the battle and how thin the margin was. You could tell me they’ll play at 4 a.m. in a rematch and I’ll be there watching them warm up at 3:30.