The best player selected in Thursday’s NBA Draft went first.
Minnesota’s Karl-Anthony Towns is, as Flip Saunders said when he locked in and decided on him as the No. 1 pick, “the real deal.”
It’s no surprise Sportsbook.ag has placed him as the co-favorite (+500) alongside Philadelphia’s Jahlil Okafor upon releasing early 2015-16 NBA Rookie of the Year odds.
Oddsmakers have made the right call there, but unlike last year when Andrew Wiggins won as chalk, this year’s favorites carry an added burden. Historically, the transition from college to the pros is toughest on big men.
Keep this in mind as you consider the co-favorites, Towns and Okafor. The last player that measured 6-foot-10 or larger to be named Rookie of the Year is Clippers star Blake Griffin (2010-11), who snapped a five-year drought for power forwards and centers as the first winner since Emeka Okafor (’04-’05).
That’s it. Big men have won two of the last 12 awards.
Together with last year’s No. 1 pick, reigning Rookie of the Year Wiggins, Towns will try to elevate the Timberwolves, who have nowhere to go but up after finishing a league-worst 16-66. Although he’s going to get ample minutes to put up numbers, Nikola Pekovic, Gorgui Dieng, Anthony Bennett, Adreian Payne and mentor Kevin Garnett are going to take some of the pressure off him, affording Saunders the luxury of easing him into the fray.
Okafor probably won’t have to compete for playing time with injured former No. 3 pick Joel Embiid, since the 76ers are likely to take a cautious approach with the foot injury that kept him out all last season. It hasn’t healed properly, so it’s likely that Embiid will be playing catch-up when he does manage to debut.
Sportsbook.ag included him in their odds (+800 after opening at +2000), but he’s not worth the investment given how much Philadelphia has at stake in ensuring he gets fully healthy. Expect the 76ers to err on the side of caution, which doesn’t bode well for his chances of outplaying the entire 2015 rookie class.
Okafor will have to avoid the pitfalls of foul trouble and the day-to-day grind while also competing for touches with the more experienced Nerlens Noel. The 76ers have the league’s worst guards, complicating matters further for a kid who is going to need the ball in the post to get comfortable.
We’ll go over a few of the other top picks in a bit, but for my money, Detroit’s Stanley Johnson (+2500) isn’t just a sleeper worth backing due to value. He’s got a very real shot to pay off as the most impactful of next season’s rookie class.
Johnson wasn’t shy about calling himself “the best player in the draft.” Among the wings selected, he’s got the best chance to be the top two-way player immediately. Orlando’s Mario Hezonja (+1500) has a steep learning curve ahead of him, while Miami’s Justise Winslow (+1800), Phoenix’s Devin Booker (+3500), Washington’s Kelly Oubre (+5000), Houston’s Sam Dekker (+2500) and Dallas’ Justin Anderson (+5000) should all have challenges consistently getting minutes.
Johnson, who has a chance to be a Kawhi Leonard-type difference maker, already seems like someone the Pistons will be counting on immediately.
“The more we talked to people, we became very confident that this is a guy driven to be great. Not just talking about it, but will put in the work to do it,” said Detroit president and head coach Stan Van Gundy. “I think he’s got the body. I think he’s got the physical strength and stuff to be able to play next year.
“Of all the guys, we brought in 57 guys, he was easily the most aggressive defensively in the workouts. He’s got a long way to go before I’d say he’s really good defensively because he’s got a lot to learn, but he definitely has a mentality that he wants to take on a challenge and go at somebody, especially the best players. That mentality went a long way with us.”
The Pistons are unlikely to bring Greg Monroe back, freeing up cap space to chase the likes of Danny Green, Tobias Harris and DeMarre Carroll in free agency to play opposite Kentavius Caldwell-Pope on the wing. If they come up empty, Johnson might find himself in the starting lineup right out of the gate.
Although you can expect Detroit to do all it can to try and sign outside help, getting 250-1 odds on Johnson prior to July 1 is well worth it since oddsmakers will certainly readjust after Summer League, where you can expect he’ll open more eyes.
Johnson bought into the team concept in his one season at Arizona, so his numbers (13.8 ppg, 6.5 rpg) weren’t off the charts, but the former 5-star recruit from famed Mater Dei HS still won Pac-12 Freshman of the Year. He was 135-5 in high school, helping lead his school to four straight state titles. It’s not easy to make an immediate splash in the pros, but this is certainly one 19-year-old capable of doing so.
“We love the fact on defense that he can guard multiple positions. He was the best rebounding wing in the draft,” Van Gundy said. “On offense, he’s a guy that can get to the free-throw line and he’s improved every year shooting the 3 to where he shot it well this year. It’s hard to find guys that get to the free-throw line and shoot the 3. There’s just not a ton of them so we loved his versatility.”
Given how this draft shook out as far as players landing in situations where they’ll find immediate playing time, I’ve got Johnson as a likely First Team All-Rookie selection alongside Towns and Okafor up front. Lakers guard D’Angelo Russell (+750) and Nuggets selection Emmanuel Mudiay (+1000) make up the projected First Team backcourt, since both should see extended minutes as their teams continue to rebuild.
Russell will have to share the ball with Kobe Bryant in addition to Jordan Clarkson and whoever the Lakers manage to land in free agency, so despite the spotlight, he’ll have some adjustments to make. Mudiay is likely to wind up starting when Denver moves Ty Lawson, but his team should be a lock for 60 losses as it transitions to a new brand of ball under new coach Michael Malone.
Johnson has an opportunity to make the playoffs in the Eastern Conference if Detroit continues to make strides. Andre Drummond, Reggie Jackson and Brandon Jennings, who is looking to try and be ready for training camp after tearing his Achilles in late January, make up a strong nucleus that should create a lot of opportunities for Johnson and newly acquired stretch-four Ersan Ilyasova.
Sacramento’s Willie Cauley-Stein (+1500), New York’s Kristaps Porzingis (+2000), Indiana’s Myles Turner (+2000) and Charlotte’s Frank Kaminsky (+2500) may all get early opportunities to contribute and loom as wild cards in the Rookie of the Year race, but the big man factor also plays in each of their situations.
Towns and Okafor are going to be gems, but they’re only favorites because someone has to be. Ride Stanley the Manly. At +2500, he’s the longshot most likely to pay off.
Tony Mejia is a national sports writer and senior contributor at VegasInsider.com. He’s also the owner and operator of Antony Dinero, the most successful documented volume handicapper in the industry. View his analysis daily at VegasInsider.com. Contact Tony at [email protected].