If you want an indication of how valued big men are in college basketball today, consider this:
Eighteen months ago, Columbia was the only Division I school heavily recruiting 6-foot-9 forward Sean Obi. On Monday night, after one season at Rice, Obi announced he would transfer to Duke, where he will have three seasons of eligibility beginning in 2015-16.
The moral of the story? Every program in college basketball is desperate for big men -- except Kentucky.
John Calipari’s squad projects to have unmatched depth and star power on next season's front line. That’s not only due to Willie Cauley-Stein’s surprising decision to return for his junior season but also because of the continued development of incoming freshman Karl Towns Jr.
When Towns and Trey Lyles signed with Kentucky in November, they did so with the assumption that Cauley-Stein and Dakari Johnson would be moving on to the NBA. While Johnson has yet to announce whether he will enter the NBA draft, there's a chance they will all be in Lexington together, along with the likes of Marcus Lee and Derek Willis, two 6-9 rising sophomores who could very well be starters at almost any other program in America.
The Towns who signed that national letter of intent might have been expecting to walk right into the starting lineup, but that doesn’t mean he was ready for it six months ago.
I will be the first to admit that I didn’t like everything I was seeing from Towns when I first saw St. Joseph (N.J.) High play this season. The knock on Towns has been that, while he’s highly skilled, he’s apprehensive to mix it up inside. He did nothing to dispel that reputation early on this year. He was too willing to hang out around the 3-point line and settle for fadeaway jumpers. I didn’t think he was physical or assertive enough on the glass, but most of all, I was concerned with the way he was moving. He looked slow and almost methodical at times, and I questioned how he would defend at the next level, specifically on ball-screen coverages or against more mobile perimeter 4-men.
But the Towns I've seen over the past six weeks has been a different player. It began when he led St. Joseph to its first title at the New Jersey Tournament of Champions. While he was reportedly solid at the McDonald’s All American Game practices, his impact was very clear at the Nike Hoop Summit, as he was the international team’s only interior defender with any chance of slowing down Jahlil Okafor. At last week’s Jordan Brand Classic, I watched Towns move far better than he had four months ago, still stretching the defense from the 3-point line but also going to the low post equally often, where he put away the fadeaways in favor of jump hooks over both shoulders.
In short, it’s all starting to click for Towns, and the result is that while Kentucky can afford to bring him along slowly, his development dictates he should see major minutes from day one, regardless of who else is in the rotation.
Towns' skill set is as good as advertised, but now his body is starting to catch up and he’s becoming more confident and assertive as a result. In recent weeks, he has kept up with the best big men in the country changing ends of the floor, bodied up with Okafor to bang in the post, established himself as a better low-post presence on the offensive end and asserted himself as a capable weakside shot-blocker.
For Calipari, it’s no longer a matter of getting Towns ready to play major minutes but instead finding minutes and opportunities, not only for him but also for the five other highly talented frontcourt players.
The assumption is that Cauley-Stein and Johnson will continue to split time at the center position, as they did this season, but can Calipari justify using only those two players for a combined 40 minutes? Even if the answer is yes, that leaves Towns, Lyles, Lee and Willis to split 40 minutes at the 4 spot, and that’s the equation that is almost impossible to solve.
I don’t see any way Calipari can justify playing Towns fewer than 20 minutes per night, while Lyles will require similar minutes. (Both would be playing 30-plus minutes almost anywhere else.) Then there is Lee, who not only paid his dues this season but also proved himself in the Elite Eight, rising to the occasion after Cauley-Stein went down with injury for 10 points and eight rebounds in just 15 minutes against Michigan.
Conversely, there are many more available minutes at small forward. Devin Booker is bound to get the majority of his minutes there, especially if the Harrison twins return to log all of the backcourt minutes along with Tyler Ulis. Otherwise, there isn’t another wing Calipari has to get on the court. Should the Harrisons depart, there will be even more minutes to offer, with Booker likely splitting time at the second guard spot.
In other words, we’re looking at a Kentucky team that might go big at times next season with three frontcourt players on the floor together. While none of the six candidates is a true wing, both Towns and Willis have the skill to play on the perimeter offensively. Defensively, they will struggle to contain quicker wings away from the basket in Kentucky’s gap-oriented man-to-man defense, but if Calipari used more zone, it would be an easier transition.
Kentucky played zone defense on just more than 5 percent of its half-court defensive possessions last season, according to Synergy Sports. While the man-to-man is likely to always be its primary defense, increasing the amount of zone would allow them more flexibility to find minutes for all six frontcourt players while also using their collective size and length.
It’s a strategy that would be similar to what we’ve seen from Syracuse over the years, a team that annually finds itself atop many major defensive statistics. This might be the season that Kentucky follows suit.
Imagine a lineup that has Cauley-Stein, Johnson and Towns on the floor at the same time; it’s probably feasible only if they’re playing zone. If keeping all his best players on the floor is a top priority for Calipari next season, we could very well be seeing more zone in Lexington.