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Top Rookie Matchups to Look Forward to This Season

When it comes to some of the most intriguing games on the NBA schedule this season, a fair number of them will feature matchups between members of the 2015 draft class. While there are plenty of gems in this rookie class, a lot of them were selected based on helping in the future, not necessarily what they can do this season. With 11 of the top 20 picks still in their teens, the NBA basement dwellers have high hopes that their star rookies can help pull their respective teams out of their recent doldrums and return them to the promised land sooner rather than later.

Karl-Anthony Towns vs. Jahlil Okafor (First meeting: November 23 @ Minnesota) — During their one-and-done season in Lexington and Durham, respectively, Towns and Okafor constantly flip-flopped on the draft charts. While one is more of a flexible offensive talent, able to step outside the paint and knock down jumpers, the other is a throwback low-post player. Both also have their perks on the defensive end, with length and versatility versus formidable junk in the trunk.

Unfortunately, a head-to-head college matchup never took place last season, so we are left with measuring stats in which Okafor clearly won the individual matchup thanks in part to the Kentucky platoon limiting Towns’s numbers. On paper, Minnesota should come out the winner in its matchups with Philadelphia, but look for the two bigs to post similar numbers, with Okafor possibly having a bit of an edge because he’ll be featured more:

Jahlil Okafor vs. Frank Kaminsky (First meeting: November 20 @ Charlotte) — The first time the two big men featured in the 2015 NCAA title game will see each other in the NBA comes early this season. Both the Sixers and Hornets are on the rebuild (Charlotte less so), but the pressure to produce lies heavier on Okafor’s shoulders than it does on Frank the Tank.

As with Towns, Kaminsky provides the Hornets with more offensive versatility than the former Blue Devil does for Philadelphia, although there are questions about both of them defensively. The Hornets, who just lost Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, still have a solid base to build their franchise around with Kemba Walker, Al Jefferson (for now) and Nicolas Batum (for now), which will ease the load on Kaminsky this season, whereas Philadelphia will give Okafor as many minutes as he can handle, and then some. Look for Charlotte to be the better team, but chances are the stat lines will favor Okafor.

Karl-Anthony Towns vs. Willie Cauley-Stein (First meeting: December 30 @ Sacramento) — The former Wildcats big men will have to wait a bit before heading into battle with each other. Much has been documented about Towns being the big man of the future with his inside-outside offensive versatility, but Cauley-Stein’s defensive prowess is just as impressive.

Plugging Cauley-Stein beside DeMarcus Cousins will give the Sacramento Kings a solid defensive presence on the interior. While he does have limitations on the offensive end, Cauley-Stein’s athletic ability as a seven-footer will allow him to pick up easy baskets in transition or in pick-and-roll sets with Rajon Rondo for lob dunks; images of a young Tyson Chandler come to mind. As with many other clubs, the Kings are well ahead of the Sixers in terms of win/loss success, but are still falling short of expectations:

D’Angelo Russell vs. Emmanuel Mudiay (First meeting: November 3rd @ LA) — The top two point guards selected in June’s draft face each other early in the season. Both clubs are turning control of the ball over to teenage point guards, both of whom are predicted to be among the elite floor generals at some point in their careers. Based on their physical measurements, Mudiay has the edge in size with about 20 pounds in his favor. And whereas Mudiay comes in the explosive mold of Russell Westbrook, Russell counters with more of a dissecting Stephen Curry form.

As was the debate in the 2005 draft when Deron Williams and Chris Paul were selected with the third and fourth picks, respectively, this matchup will hopefully be heavily argued for many years to come. The determining factor when weighing out the success of Russell comes in the form of two factors: Kobe Bryant, who despite his age and health still commands and demands the ball, and the continuing improvement of backcourt mate Jordan Clarkson.

Mudiay, on the other hand, doesn’t really have to look over his shoulder for anyone other than veteran Jameer Nelson. If you were to place a bet on who’s going to have more success individually in their first years, Mudiay would be the safe call. However, when the Mamba finally decides to hang up the kicks, only then can you fairly grade Russell. Team-wise, both squads will likely struggle:


Stanley Johnson vs. Justise Winslow (First meeting: November 25th @ Detroit) — Potentially the top two small forwards in the 2015 draft both went to teams that will more than likely rely on their draft picks to highlight their second-unit lineups for the immediate future. The Detroit Pistons added Marcus Morris to their roster after selecting Johnson in the June draft, presumably to man the small-forward position while Johnson gets his feet wet.

Over in Miami, Luol Deng still holds down the 3-spot for the Heat, but it’s only a matter of time before both rookies are inserted into the starting lineup. While neither Johnson nor Winslow do anything exceptionally well, both provide solid all-around games that will help their respective clubs on both ends of the floor.

Entering the pre-draft mayhem, some thought these players could’ve gone top five, but favorably, both have gone to teams that will have patience for growth and maturity. In terms of a head-to-head-matchup, look for Johnson to come out slightly ahead, but Winslow and the Heat will find more success as a team.

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