Al Horford is an All-Star NBA center. While slightly undersized by traditional standards, Horford has sufficient size for most nights in the NBA. With a different skill set, LaMarcus Aldridge has made a giant leap forward this season with his move to being a full-time power forward. Hawks fans watch Aldridge and naturally wonder if a similar move for Horford would benefit both Al and the Hawks. The problem is there are very few players in the NBA or current prospects with the skill and talent to provide what Horford brings to the center position. The challenge is not simply bringing in a 7-foot center, but one with enough skill for the Hawks to improve by moving Al.
In the 1998 NBA Draft, the Los Angeles Clippers used the #1 pick to select Pacific Tigers 7-foot Center Michael Olowokandi. In his last year of college, Olowokandi managed to score 22 points, 11 rebounds and nearly 3 blocks per game while playing in the not-so-talented Big West Conference. Despite the gaudy numbers, the film showed that what Olowokandi was really good at was being tall, long, and having a wingspan. His 46% free throw percentage and non-existence of an offensive game outside of 5 feet were readily overlooked by the deeper desire to taste the sweetness of having a dominant NBA center. The Clippers used the #1 pick on a player who would fail to show any basketball skill while posting 2.5 win shares through 9 seasons in the NBA. Meanwhile, Mike Bibby (#2), Antawn Jamison (#4), Vince Carter (#5), Dirk Nowitzki (#9), and Paul Pierce (#10) were all selected with 5 of the 9 picks that followed. The appetite for a dominant big man led the Clippers to miss out on 5 players who would impact the NBA for a decade as the Clippers toiled in obscurity. Nearly every year, some NBA team falls victim to the fanatical addiction GMs and especially fans have for the sweet taste of Olowo Candy -- the big man who will dominate the hardwood palette for the decade ahead. When a player's best attributes are a physical description, the team drafting them is likely to end up with a stomach ache.
In recent years, NBA teams have seemed to undergo a 12-step program to reduce their cravings for Olowo Candy. Since Yi Jianlian was selected with the 6th pick of the 2007 NBA Draft, only 2 lottery picks have been made by teams growing obtuse on unskilled height delight: Hasheem Thabeet (#2 in 2009) and possibly Alex Len (#5 in 2013).
With an increase of quality wings and point guards entering the league in 2003-2006 and a quickly fading number of big men, the 2006 NBA Draft became the holy temple for the Olowo faithful. Thirteen big men were selected in the first 38 picks, including Andrea Bargnani, who is still labeled a bust as the #1 choice. Bargnani (Italian for "when healthy") can currently be found playing
shooting guard center for the New York Knicks. LaMarcus Aldridge, selected 2nd, is the only one of the big men to match the expectations held for him by the team selecting him. The Atlanta Hawks doubled down on Olowo Candy in 2006 by taking Shelden Williams with the #5 pick and Solomon Jones at #33. The Hawks felt pressure based on need to select a center in the draft. Williams career win shares of 9.9 is higher than all the big men drafted behind him. The Hawks did not choose the wrong center. They drafted the wrong position.
So what does that have to do with the 2014 NBA Draft? The Atlanta Hawks appear to be most in need of talent at the wing position, but certainly the right center would be a sensible selection. Kansas Center Joel Embiid would be an easy choice for the Hawks, but it is highly unlikely that he would be on the board for Atlanta. The only non-European option hovering in range for the Hawks is Kentucky's Willie Cauley-Stein who has been connected to the Atlanta Hawks in recent mock drafts. Could he be a player capable enough of playing center to allow Horford to move to a more natural position of power forward? Could the Hawks let him backup Al for a year and then slide over when Millsap's contract expires?
It is easy to watch highlights of Cauley-Stein and get caught up in all the height, wingspan and even the hair. Against inferior competition, a film of first-round-caliber highlights (versus Providence) is a fun watch:
Willie Cauley-Stein Full Highlights 2013.12.01 vs Providence - 15 Pts, 9 Blks. (via Dawk Ins)
Cauley-Stein has some serious athleticism, yet his off-court intelligence rarely reveals itself on the basketball court. Natural instincts for the game are lacking. He is slow to respond to double teams and appears confused about how to attack players of equal size. Blocking shots and reducing turnovers are the only areas where he has shown improvement over his freshman season. Averaging just over seven points, six rebounds, and three blocks a game, Willie has not benefited from playing alongside an often double-teamed Julius Randle. His minutes and statistics remain static in a year where most NBA-level players show progress.
Cauley-Stein is likely to be an effective NBA role player (much better than most of the stiffs drafted in 2006), but he does not project the capacity to develop enough offensively to be an NBA starter. With nimble feet and active hands for his size, he could develop into a great defensive player. He does chase blocks on occasion, but for the most part he plays vertically in the lane. He moves his hips well and does a really good job of staying in front of perimeter players. However, he commits lazy fouls and is prone to simply disappear from games--particularly when the game demands more physicality. Prior to his recent 18/11/6 game against Ole Miss this past week, he averaged 2 points, 3 rebounds, and 1.5 blocks over the previous 6 games--unacceptable for a player of his size, intelligence, and athletic abilitiy. He flashes some decent offensive post moves, yet goes long periods of time without showing any of them. If he played with enthusiasm and resilience (like this) all the time, he could be graded as a lottery pick. Unfortunately, his motor and offensive post skills are uneven at best. Neither deficiency is helped by his horrid free throw shooting (47% presently), which would prevent him from closing games even if his offense improves. This far into his college career, he should be showing more than mere flashes of greatness to be considered a lottery pick.
Currently, the Atlanta Hawks are slotted to pick 16th. My advice: stay away from the Olowo Candy. If looking for a center to develop, the Hawks would be better to use a second round selection on Baylor's Cory Jefferson (who I like better than his teammate Isaiah Austin), Florida's Patric Young or UNLV's Roscoe Smith than using a top-20 pick on Cauley-Stein who has not shown near the college production of the others. It is possible the Hawks could look at International prospects Clint Capela or Jusuf Nurkic with a first round selection, but with Lucas Nogueria already overseas that would seem less likely. The Atlanta Hawks would be wise to avoid selecting a center in the first round of the 2014 Draft.
For those discouraged by such news, keep in mind that the Hawks selected two centers in 2006. Twice, the Hawks chose the need for a center over players who demonstrated more skill. After Bargnani and Aldridge, 12 giant busts went off the board before the 47th pick of the 2006 NBA draft. With that selection, the Utah Jazz chose this guy.
Do not fail to see the forests among the trees. Next time you get too strong a craving for Olowo Candy, just stop and taste the Trillsap.
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