First Karl-Anthony Towns went off the board, taken by the Minnesota Timberwolves to start the NBA draft. That was expected for weeks. But then the Lakers shook up the whole night, shook it up like few drafts in recent years, by taking D’Angelo Russell at No. 2 instead of Jahlil Okafor, the former Duke star everyone had going to Hollywood to team with Kobe Bryant.
This is what the Knicks desperately wanted, what the Knicks had prayed for: A shot to get Okafor, the best scoring center in the draft who could play in Jackson’s Triangle offense, or any offense.
“Okafor is going to be able to come in and dominate in one area right away,’’ said ESPN analyst Jay Bilas, discussing his fellow Duke alum. “He will dominate in the low post. He can do one thing great right now and that’s score inside. People say he can’t play in today’s NBA. That’s crazy.’’
Jackson knew all that about Okafor, and that’s why he never thought he’d get past his old team, the Lakers. Throughout their history, the Lakers have always had the top big men, whether it was Wilt Chamberlain, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, or Jackson’s unstoppable big man from his L.A. three-peat days, Shaquille O’Neal.
But the Lakers passed on Okafor, maybe thinking they would get a better, proven big man in free agency in a few days. So it was then the Sixers who ruined the Knicks’ draft party. GM Sam Hinkie is always the wild card in the draft and he was at it again. Okafor is their third straight big man in the draft. That might be some sort of record.
Two years ago, they wound up with Nerlens Noel, the Kentucky power forward. But Noel came in with a bum knee and couldn’t play at all as a rookie. Last June, the Sixers selected another wounded big man, to the astonishment of everyone, by taking Joel Embiid, the injured Kansas center. Embiid never got on the court for a single game because of a foot injury that still hasn’t healed correctly.
That’s why the Sixers went with Okafor, who never worked out for them in the lead-up to the draft. But here’s all you need to know about Okafor: He didn’t need crutches to get around the Barclays Center and shake hands up on stage with NBA commissioner Adam Silver. He’s 6-9 1/2, strong and healthy.
And so the Knicks had to settle for the top European big man, 6-11 Kristaps Porzingis, out of Latvia. The 6-11 part is fine. It’s the 220 pounds that cover his frame that are the reason he is not considered to be NBA ready. Maybe not for another two or three years. The talent is certainly there for this 19-year old. Some scouts think he has all the tools to be the kind of skilled big man out of Europe we haven’t seen since Dirk Nowitzki, whose next stop after Dallas will be the Naismith Hall of Fame.
“Offensively, Kristaps is going to be fine, whatever (system) we put him in,’’ Jackson told reporters. “The big thing about his learning process will be defensively. We understand it might take a year. We like the fact that he’s willing to work. He has the intestinal fortitude to go after it. The risk is great, but the reward is great, too.’’
But there’s no guarantee, of course, which is why the Knicks fans who came in droves to the Barclays Center, making it seem like a typical Knicks game here against the Nets in the regular-season, lustily booed the pick. Earlier, when the Sixers went with Okafor, they let out a groan that could be heard back across the East River, all the way to the Garden.
To his credit, Porzingis didn’t let the negative welcome rattle him.
“It’s a dream of mine to play in New York,’’ he said. “It’s a magic feeling to be drafted by the Knicks. Hopefully I can be part of something special.’’
That remains to be seen, of course. Jackson doesn’t know what he’s going to come away with in free agency. Let’s just say he has less of an idea than the Lakers, who obviously have a good idea that they’ll be able to land a quality forward in Kevin Love or LeMarcus Aldridge on July 1. Why else would they have drafted Russell, who is rated by many as the most talented player in the draft?
Russell gives the Lakers a successor to Bryant in the Lakers’ backcourt. We’re not saying he’ll be Bryant, a first-ballot Hall of Famer. But the Ohio State product has a chance to be a genuine star, with all of his scoring ablity and the kind of passing we haven’t seen out of a rookie since maybe Jason Kidd 20 years ago. If they didn’t know they’d have a great chance to get a dominant scoring forward like Aldridge or Love via free agency, it stands to reason that they would have taken Okafor. They must know something or else this is a real gamble by GM Mitch Kupchak, who normally plays it safe.
So Jackson’s significant other, Laker exec Jeanie Buss, is looking at a real fast rebuild after the Lakers bottomed out last season, losing a franchise record 61 games. Meanwhile, Jackson and the Knicks didn’t get lucky. Again.
He had no luck on lottery night when he saw the Knicks get the No. 4 pick after spending most of the season with the worst record. They finished with 17 wins and 65 losses, the worst record in franchise history. Now on draft night, they had no luck when Okafor fell close enough for Jackson to think he’d make it to No. 4, only to see him go to the Sixers.
When that happened, when Philly jumped at a healthy big for once, all of the Knicks fans in Barclays groaned in unison. The boos for Porzingis were to follow. Tough night to be a Knicks fan, but that comes with the territory.
Longtime New York columnist Mitch Lawrence continues to write about pro basketball, as he’s done for the last 22 years. His columns for NBCNewYork.com on the Knicks, Brooklyn Nets and the NBA, along with other major sports, will appear twice weekly. Follow him on Twitter @Mitch _ Lawrence