By: Dan Slaubaugh - 9 minute read
With the first pick of the 2015 NBA Draft, the Minnesota Timberwolves select "Karl-Anthony Towns".
It was that exact moment when the Timberwolves' ceiling transformed from “let’s see how far Wiggins can take us in five years” to “we now have not one, but two building blocks to build around for the next nine years”.
Two years later, the Wolves have made a fury of changes to the franchise.
One of KAT’s best friends, Zach LaVine, was shipped to Chicago for two years of all-star wingman Jimmy Butler. Ricky Rubio is off to Utah. Jeff Teague is here to replace him but as a scoring-first point guard. Taj Gibson was brought in to accelerate the defensive progress. Jamal Crawford chose Minnesota hoping to play a healthy part of a franchise who hasn’t made the playoffs in 13 years. And last. Target Center is undergoing a renovation. The team sports a new logo. And most importantly, Minnesota now seems like an extremely desirable place to play, landing on several all-stars “preferred destination” lists over the 2017 offseason spree.
So there you have it. Although the team wasn’t able to win more than 31 games in each of Towns’ first two years in Minnesota, the culture has shifted.
With ample amount of talent, coaching experience, and veteran leadership, Tom Thibodeau has surrounded Towns with a team built to make a deep playoff run.
Now the pressure is on Towns to take the next step in his NBA career. What exactly does he need to do to accomplish that feat? Let’s take a look.
Expand an already lethal offensive skillset
Only 11 players in NBA history have put up 25 points and 12 rebounds the year after their rookie season, prior to Towns. Last season, he became the 12th.
As a sophomore, 'KAT' placed himself in elite company. However you want to look at the numbers he registered, he ranks right up there with the best rookie big men to ever throw on an NBA jersey, including the likes of Hakeem Olajuwon, Shaquille O'Neal, Tim Duncan and David Robinson.
The statistics back up the claim, too. Towns is the first player in NBA history to register 2,000 points, 1,000 rebounds, and 100 three-pointers in a season. He did this all as a 21/22-year old, which, as a 21-year old myself, doesn’t make me feel to great considering my biggest accomplishment over the past year was growing a pretty trash mustache for which I get made fun of a lot. It is, sadly, not a beautiful caterpillar.
To dissect Towns’ game at a larger clip, I think it’s appropriate to take a dive into his unworldly second half performance last year.
To begin, Zach Harper (Fanrag Sports) had this to say about Towns’ performance over his final 41 games of the season in his season review over at A Wolf Among Wolves:
“For whatever reason, the basket just started looking like the ocean to Towns at one point. Check out his splits from the first 41 games of 2016-17 to the last 41 games:
1st 41: 64.0% Restricted Area | 32.9% Jumpers | 30.5% 3-pointers
2nd 41: 71.8% Restricted Area | 45.7% Jumpers | 44.4% 3-pointers”
Towns also excelled in the pick-and-roll last season, finishing second behind Anthony Davis with 5.4 points per game (57.5%) as the “roll-man”. Overall, Towns ranked 12th in OPA (offensive points added) with 286.4, further establishing himself as one of the premier offensive players in the game.
To help visualize how dominant Towns was offensively last season, let's compare his offensive numbers to Pelicans forward/center Anthony Davis, who is largely considered one of the NBA's most dominant big men on both sides of the floor.
While Davis bested Towns in a few areas, Towns obliterated Davis in others. At this point in their careers, Towns - with ample amount of offensive weapons - is assuredly the better offensive player out of the two, and it shows in this graph.
Another one of Towns’ biggest competitors for “most skilled big” in the NBA is Nuggets center Nikola Jokic. Finishing 3rd on the most-improved player ballot, Jokic suggests to be a poor man’s KAT but with a more diverse passing game. For example, Jokic finished the 2016-17 campaign with a 26.6 AST% with a 2.10 AST/TO ratio, while Towns finished with a 12.7 AST% with a 1.04 AST/TO ratio.
To be fair, Towns’ role is Minnesota’s offense is more triggered towards scoring and offensive rebounding, but chasing a desired skill that Jokic possesses is something Towns should strive for next season. Especially now with a team full of ball-dominant players like Jimmy Butler and Andrew Wiggins, this is an area where Towns could certainly improve. This would not only expand his game to a greater level, but it would also take pressure off of Jeff Teague distributing within the offense.
Towns’ passing ability is alive and well, but this is an area where marked improvement would help both his overall development and the well-being of the Timberwolves offense. Operating out of the high-post enough to watch the offense develop in the half-court, Towns will have every opportunity to hit slashing Wiggins’ and Butler’s for easy two-handed dunks.
With the ability to post-up, handle the ball, and shoot, the 2016-17 all-star snub has established himself as one of the top offensive forces in today’s game.
What will truly lift Towns to All-NBA and All-Star level is on the other end of the court.
Time to play some defense
In case you forgot one of the primary negative themes of last season, I’ll run a few quick numbers by you:
-112.8 This was the Wolves defensive rating (points allowed per 100 possessions). It ranked fourth worst in the league.
-107.1. This was their D-rating without Towns. Instead of playing at a bottom-5 NBA level defense, the Wolves defended at a top-6 rate in the NBA.
-113.6. Their D-rating with Towns playing. This was just a hair better than the Lakers, who were the league’s worst defensive club.
KAT’s defensive rating was 110.8. As the numbers above make clear, this is awful, meaning the Wolves defended at essentially a league-worst level whenever Towns was on the floor. Nemanja Bjelica’s defensive rating was 103.4, which is a mind-boggling difference. For example, the Nuggets and Hawks were about 7.5 points apart in D-rating, with Atlanta ranked 4th in defense and Denver ranked 29th; a jump from the top of the NBA down closer to the bottom. Sure, this may be a testament to Bjelica’s defensive progression last season, but it still says a lot about how far Towns needs to come.
Above, I compared Towns' and Davis' offensive value by play type. Now, I'm going to compare them in regards to defensive value. It's not pretty.
Comparing a a second year center to an All-Defense First Team center may seem silly, but if you wanted to showcase how far Towns has to go defensively, here's your graph.
In reality, Karl-Anthony Towns was expected to be a major part of last years projected defensive improvement with an alien-like wing span, speed to contain pick-and-rolls and athleticism to be a serviceable rim protector. That, obviously, did not happen, as Towns showed very little effort on defense and finished with 35 fewer blocks than in his rookie campaign. Additionally, he seemed to lack the defensive IQ needed to excel on that end as well, seemingly always being a step to late on basic defensive rotations.
In today’s NBA that boasts a surreal amount of electric playmaking guards, it is of vital importance for bigs to adjust defensively in pick-and-roll situations. Like I said above, Towns has the speed to contain pick-and-rolls, evidenced on multiple occasions by switching onto a guard and putting the clamps on. Just ask Bradley Beal.
or two-time league MVP Stephen Curry…
Towns has the physical tools to succeed as a defensive stopper, but he has a long way to go. Exerting more effort and pure desire to be great on that end next season is the recipe for KAT to round into a more-complete player.
Following after his OG
As KG once said “defense is our backbone,” and young Mr. Towns needs to play like he’s fighting for his life on that end. This year he has the fortune of going to war with a defensive-minded power forward by his side in Taj Gibson. Combine that with the cruel tutelage of Tom Thibodeau and improved perimeter defense spearheaded by Jimmy Butler, Towns SHOULD become at least a respectable defender and rim-protector in year three. All things considered, Towns should not have to worry so much about providing last-minute help defense as he did in 2016-17. This will allow him to lock his focus on his assignment every night.
In a season that will be undoubtedly labeled “playoffs or bust”, Towns has a chance to officially rise into “superstar” status and help a franchise return to the playoffs for the first time since 2003-04. With an offensive skillset that has opposing coaches scurrying for ways to slow down the generational big, the simple, but complex, next step in ascending into one of the league’s top 10 best players all starts with one word: defense.
In 1995, Kevin Garnett was drafted by the lowly Minnesota Timberwolves, and he was dubbed “the Kid.” That kid would grow to become one of THE greatest defenders of his generation, if not all time. Two decades later, Karl-Anthony Towns was drafted by the equally as cellar dwelling Wolves. Only time will tell if KAT can follow in his mentor’s footsteps.