Kentucky basketball has a 21-foot, three-headed monster.
Fear not, the monster is not a cousin of Godzilla. The monster is the center position. Kentucky has three 7-foot centers destined for the first round of the NBA Draft on the 2014-15 roster.
Junior Willie Cauley-Stein, sophomore Dakari Johnson and freshman Karl-Anthony Towns will battle for the starting spot this summer. Undoubtedly, the big men vying for the center position will be as combative as they are massive.
Head coach John Calipari may become overwhelmed by an emotional combination of joy and anguish when determining who will receive the majority of the minutes next season, but having the ability to choose between three dominant big men is more of a luxury than a burden. The first center Calipari considers may be the man who started the last game for the Kentucky Wildcats a season ago.
Johnson is the incumbent for the Wildcats, having been the starting center when Kentucky nearly brought home its ninth NCAA Championship. Johnson’s first start came on February 1 and he only looked back twice, starting 18 of the final 20 games. Calipari brilliantly inserted Johnson into the starting five by swapping him for Cauley-Stein, a move that served two purposes. The first was to light a fire under Cauley-Stein. The results were excellent, as his presence off the bench was crucial for the Wildcats when making the tournament was not a guarantee.
The other purpose was for the massive Johnson to set the tone early for the Wildcats. Johnson is a force in the middle, despite his lack of athleticism, because he refuses to quit on any play and provides more for the Wildcats than statistics suggest.
Grabbing a loose ball, boxing out the opposition’s best rebounders and forcing opposing scorers to alter their shots are basketball plays that tragically, frequently go unnoticed. Johnson commands the paint for the Wildcats without blocking many shots, which is actually beneficial.
The blocked shot is wildly overrated. Yes, it is an excellent defensive play when it results in a change of possession or stops the ball from going through the hoop. However, when Cauley-Stein or other prolific shot blockers swat a shot, the ball often sails out of bounds or back to the other team.
Johnson may not be a great shot blocker, but he is a magnificent shot-changer. When Johnson extends his arms to defend, the shooter is much more likely to miss, creating a rebound opportunity for Kentucky.
On the offensive end, Johnson excels at finishing around the rim. Johnson shot 56.9 percent from the field last season and scores points when needed. Folk hero Aaron Harrison monopolized every clutch-moment memory of the Wildcats’ postseason run, but Johnson may have quietly been the most crucial Wildcat in the Sweet 16 victory over Louisville. After Cauley-Stein went down in the first half, Johnson played a career-high 31 minutes and scored 15 points on 7 of 10 shooting from the field.
Almost unquestionably, Johnson would not have received those minutes had the man too big for one last name been healthy.
To the surprise of NBA scouts, Wildcat fans and maybe even himself, Cauley-Stein is back again for Kentucky. The junior clearly felt he had personal unfinished business, as Cauley-Stein reiterated his frustration regarding his inability to play in the final three games. Cauley-Stein was projected to be a lottery pick but said no to the NBA, which means two things.
Cauley-Stein is desperate for a championship and to improve his game even more. After a freshman year full of diving plays and spectacular blocks that won the hearts of the Big Blue Nation, Cauley-Stein had a somewhat-disappointing sophomore campaign. Despite averaging nearly the same exact number of minutes as his freshman year at 23.8 per game, Cauley-Stein’s field goal and free-throw percentage, as well as his scoring, both decreased.
Cauley-Stein did average more blocked shots and less fouls per game. The case could be made that Cauley-Stein was the true center for the Wildcats last year, as he averaged nine more minutes per game than Johnson.
Cauley-Stein will certainly push for the starting position this offseason, but just like the last two years, may be better suited leading the second unit. Cauley-Stein, Johnson, the Big Blue Nation and the rest of the country may be in for a surprise. A freshman could emerge as the starting center in this three-player position battle.
Towns was a highly-touted, 16-year-old member of the Dominican Republic national team in 2012. Calipari has been adamant in reiterating that he had no idea who Towns was before accepting the head coaching job with the DR team, but clearly, Calipari knows now.
Towns is indeed a foreign player—foreign to Kentucky at least. Towns has Dominican heritage, but was actually born and raised in New Jersey and led his Saint Joseph of Metuchen High School to a New Jersey State Interscholastic Athletic Association state championship victory before winning the NJSIAA Tournament of Champions.
Like most successful Wildcats, Towns comes into Kentucky with winning experience, but what could set Towns apart from his teammates is his unrivaled ability to dominate in nearly every facet of a basketball game.
After his senior season concluded, Towns was awarded the Gatorade National High School Player of the Year award. Some may argue Towns was undeserving because he is considered the ninth-best player and third-best center in the 2014 recruiting class.
Without watching a second of game film, the reasons why Towns won the award are nearly answered. Towns’ staggering senior year stat line is as follows:
20.9 points per game, 13.4 rebounds per game, 6.2 blocks per game, 4.3 assists per game, 1.8 steals per game, 1.0 three-pointers made per game.
After watching Towns’ game highlights, the question why Towns was named player of the year is answered with authority. Towns can grab a rebound, bring the ball up the court and either pass the ball to an open teammate with accuracy, dunk the ball with ferocity or drain a three-pointer with buoyancy.
Towns probably enjoys confusing the opposition by drilling three-pointers just as much as he loves to play the game of basketball. Towns is a spectacle on the court, because a lack of explosiveness does not seem to restrict him from overpowering the opposition on both ends of the court.
However, Towns is definitely still a work in progress. Towns has a tendency to stray out to the three-point line too often, abandoning his natural ability down low. Towns appears to be reluctant to fully embrace the center position, which could stir some anger from his head coach. Calipari has coached some of the best centers in college basketball, but former Massachusetts big man Marcus Camby is a microcosm of Calipari’s philosophy when it comes to big men.
Camby possessed an excellent jump shot and became a deadly shooter in the NBA from the top of the key, a.k.a. college three-point range, but while at UMass, Camby attempted only 13 total three-pointers. As a member of the US national team in 2012, Anthony Davis once drained a three-pointer against the Calipari-coached DR team, was fouled on the shot by none other than Karl Towns and proceeded to jokingly point and talk trash to Calipari. Why did Davis do this? Calipari did not want his championship-winning center stepping behind the three-point line under his watch at Kentucky.
Unlike former center Demarcus Cousins, Towns could change Calipari’s mind about centers jacking up three-point bombs, but the chances are slimmer than Anthony Davis. Having already played for Calipari is advantageous for Towns, as he likely has some understanding of what Calipari wants from him, but will the experience be enough for Towns to beat out a junior and a sophomore for the starting center position come November?
No, I predict Johnson will be starting center for the Wildcats when the 2014-15 season begins, but the jostling for the position will continue well into the highly-anticipated season and Towns could shoot past the veterans to the starting spot.
The Kentucky basketball starting center competition will be absolutely thrilling this summer, but the most useless bit of information is often who starts a game. The big man who plays the majority of the minutes and helps deliver a victory for the Wildcats in crunch time is who should be considered the true center. Only one player can start at the position, but when three are capable of starting on one team, the rest of college basketball should be petrified.
Kentucky basketball already had two skyscrapers in Lexington, but with the addition of new Towns, the Big Blue Nation is growing geographically, metaphorically and literally. Calipari may feel more pressure than ever this season, especially regarding who to play among the three centers.
If Calipari does not want his starting center to be one of the two big men already in-house at Kentucky, Calipari could always rent the Karl-Anthony “Towns-house.”
But that lease will probably only last one year.
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