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SportsColumnistsGreg Logan

Jahlil Okafor, Karl-Anthony Towns could be NBA draft's Big Two

This composite image shows Kentucky's Karl-Anthony Towns, left,

This composite image shows Kentucky's Karl-Anthony Towns, left, and Duke's Jahlil Okafor. Credit: Getty Images / Andy Lyons, Ronald Martinez

INDIANAPOLIS - It's called the Final Four, but for scouts from the Knicks and other teams selecting at the top of the NBA Draft, a better title for the final weekend of NCAA men's basketball would be the "Big Two."

As in 6-11, 250-pound Karl-Anthony Towns of Kentucky and 6-11, 270-pound Jahlil Okafor of Duke. Those two 19-year-old college freshmen, who are close friends after years of growing up together as elite national prospects, are No. 1 and No. 1A in whichever order the eye of the beholder views them.

Both have worked to keep the focus on their teams, although only one will be playing Monday night. Okafor has been a massive offensive presence on the low block for Duke, which beat Michigan State, 81-61, Saturday night to reach the national title game. Towns has displayed a more well-rounded game as part of a deep rotation that did not have to rely on him as heavily to reach on Saturday night's national semifinal against Wisconsin, which beat Kentucky, 71-64.

They shared the college game's biggest stage at Lucas Oil Stadium, and it's impossible not to see them coming down to the wire competing for the No. 1 pick along with the national title.

"Of course we're going to be competitors," said Towns, who shot 7-for-11 and had 16 points and nine rebounds against Wisconsin. "We aren't going to be in the spot we're in, playing for great universities, if we weren't competitors.

"But at the same time, No. 1 or No. 2, we both haven't declared for anything. We still are coming back for our sophomore years, looking to do more impressive things. So the day we declare is when we can worry about No. 1 picks."

Okafor, who shot 7-for-11 and had 18 points and six rebounds against Michigan State, echoed that sentiment, stressing how happy he is simply to reach the Final Four. But he said he peeks to see how Towns is doing.

"Just being a fan of basketball, I love watching Karl Towns," he said. "He's one of my good friends. He's such an amazing player, it's fun watching him."

Towns explained that his relationship with Okafor goes back to when they met at various junior competitions and all-star games.

"You always root for him," Towns said of Okafor. "We talk to each other on each other's birthdays. You always take notice when he's doing good. I send him a text message and say, 'Really great game.' "

Asked if he measures himself against Okafor as a player, Towns demurred. "That's the media's job," he said. "We're great friends, and we just worry about each other's well-being."

Well, it's also the NBA's job to sort out the strengths and weaknesses of each player. Okafor is averaging 17.5 points, 8.6 rebounds and 1.5 blocks and shooting 66.7 percent, but he struggles at the foul line as a 51.3-percent shooter and needs work on his defense. He also had a couple of disappointing games in the South Regional, averaging 7.5 points in wins over Utah and Gonzaga.

"I know I can play better, and my teammates continue to encourage me to play better and to stay with the process," he said.

As for his defense, coach Mike Krzyzewski smiled and said: "I think he needs to be with us four years, and then he'll really improve. He's a good defensive player. He's a hell of a player."

Recently, Knicks president Phil Jackson hinted he might lean more toward Towns if he has the No. 1 choice because he wants a big man who can defend. Towns, who is averaging 10.3 points, 6.7 rebounds and 2.3 blocks, said defense always has been a focal point of his development.

"Since I was 10 years old, my coaches told me I could be the best defender on the court, and I try to be," Towns said. "I always tried to make sure I not only was using my length to full advantage and my athletic ability, but also just having a defensive IQ."

Towns struggled on defense in Kentucky's Midwest Regional final win over Notre Dame, but he made up for it at the offensive end with 25 points. "We tried to combat it with defense, and they kept scoring," he said. "So we had to combat it with offense."

No matter how the Final Four turns out, the competition between the "Big Two" won't end until June 25 in New York when the NBA determines who really is No. 1.

New York Sports