By: Alex Berg
When the Minnesota Timberwolves won the NBA draft lottery for the first time in franchise history back in May, the initial feeling for fans was excitement. For many, including myself, questioning what to do with center Nikola Pekovic shortly followed that excitement.
The top-end of the 2015 draft class was, considered by most, centers Karl-Anthony Towns and Jahlil Okafor, and then everyone else. Pekovic's long history of injuries -- and the fact he is still recovering from surgery on his achilles -- made the choice to pick a center pretty easy. Not that considering team need over top talent in that draft position is ever a good idea, anyways.
Fast forward to today, after Towns was selected first overall and is a little over a month into his NBA career. Fans have to be encouraged by the 20-year-old's talent, attitude, and demeanor on the floor. His 14.8 points per game ranks second (Okafor's 16.9 is No.1) among rookies, and he leads all rookies with 9.1 rebounds and 2.2 blocks per contest. More impressively, albeit a small sample size, he is shooting 46.7 percent from behind the 3-point line and 82.4 percent from the free throw line.
Towns has already proven he can hold his own against some of the best centers in the NBA. In three games against Los Angeles Clippers center DeAndre Jordan and Detroit Pistons big-man Andre Drummond, the Wolves rookie has managed 17.7 points, 6.7 rebounds, 2.0 steals, and 1.7 blocks per game. An advantage he has over most centers in the NBA, including Drummond and Jordan, is his ability to stretch the floor and make shots outside of the paint. Here is a look at his shot chart, per NBA.com, through Monday's 110-106 loss to the Clippers.
Although Gorgui Dieng is not your typical back-to-the-basket center either, it has still been encouraging to see Towns and Dieng on the floor together -- even though it has not happened often this season.
You know who IS a back-to-the-basket center though? Pekovic.
I will be the first to admit, when Towns was drafted, I was hoping the team could find a team willing to take Pekovic and the remainder of his 5-year, $60 million contract. But after seeing Towns' ability to stretch the floor and shoot from outside, I am at least intrigued to see him play truly outside the paint with a bruiser like Pekovic inside.
Now I realize, even optimistically, we are at least a month away from seeing Pekovic in an NBA game. It's also obvious the team is not going to get "full value" from his contract, but what they still can do is maximize what they can get out of it. If you limit Pekovic's minutes and be extremely careful, there might still be value in keeping him around. Especially considering the team should not be in much hurry to throw around money just yet.
The easiest idea of limiting Pekovic's minutes is giving him the Kevin Garnett's role every other game. Alternating Pekovic and KG between playing 16-20 minutes and wearing street clothes might be the best way to keep both players fresh and useful deep into the season.
How does this affect Towns? Well, playing with Pekovic -- even if it is just 8-10 minutes a night -- should help the rookie stay out of foul trouble and should protect him from getting "beat up" as much by the more physical centers. Not to mention being able to space the floor and in-turn, give Pekovic more one-on-one looks inside than he is accustomed to seeing.
When considering whether to choose Towns or Okafor back in June, I imagine the Timberwolves front office and coaching staff factored in KAT's versatility (among many other things, of course,) when making their decision. We've seen Towns shine in several areas already this season, but I do not think we really will know how special Towns can be until we see him play with a bruising center. Whether he is a center or a power forward (if you must peg him at one position), when it is all said and done, it sure is exciting to think about him playing a little of both right now.