This is going to shock everybody, but recently as I’ve been watching the Minnesota Timberwolves, I’ve loved what I’m seeing with Karl-Anthony Towns. It isn’t just that Towns is exceeding even historic standards for rookies this year. His counting stats are incredible. His advanced stats are historic. He projects to be a Hall of Fame worthy player, even after just 75% of his rookie season.
That’s not the only thing I’m loving. I love the production and I love the presence, but I’m growing more and more impressed with the ways in which the Wolves are utilizing their rookie big man within the offense. It’s not just that they’re featuring him and he’s been one of their most reliable scoring options in his first season. It’s the way he’s moved around at times in the offense that are just uncommon with a lot of big men.
We see a few plays each game in which the Wolves appear to believe that Towns is the big man version of Richard Hamilton. And maybe he is. It’s a bit disorienting to watch a 20-year old big man running around screens like a former mid-range assassin like Rip, but this is a fun wrinkle the Wolves can have with Towns in the offense and build upon over the years no matter who ends up running the show.
Probably my favorite play they run to get him an open jumper is a variation of what looks to be a Pistol set. The Wolves start it off with a dribble hand-off between Ricky Rubio and Towns, which is immediately followed by a back pick from Andrew Wiggins on the low block.
From there, Rubio is getting a screen from Gorgui Dieng to cross the plane around the top of the 3-point arc as Tayshaun Prince is setting a cross-screen on Towns’ defender in the middle of the lane. This serves two purposes: 1) it clutters the middle of the floor, giving Towns’ defender and obstacle course to get through in the paint, and 2) it gives Towns time and freedom to get to his spot on the baseline, catch the pass from Rubio, set his feet, and let that pure jumper fly.
Here’s the diagram of the play in .gif form:
The Wolves seem to attempt to run this a couple times a game for Towns. I haven’t gone to check this but it feels like we see it from them early in the first quarter and early in the third quarter, almost as a warning sign to the opposing big men of just how much they’re going to have to work against the rookie phenom.
Here’s an example of the play a few minutes into the game against the New York Knicks. You can really see the traffic jam it creates for Kristaps Porzingis, who does a good job fighting around everything in order to get to a decent contest on the jumper.
It’s really a brilliant play to run for a big man who is nimble and capable of being a successful jump shooter. There aren’t a ton of big guys in the NBA who can have this kind of play called for them and executed consistently. We already know Towns is special, but this just adds another level to that quality of play and his diverse skill set.
Here’s the play again in the third quarter of that game, but from a different angle.
You could even ask Prince to have a bit of a stronger pick presence on the play or throw a wrinkle in there where you put Dieng or the other big man down in the lane to almost create an elevator doors type of pick play for Towns. It might make things a bit crowded but as Towns gets more and more comfortable moving in this play, he’ll be able to navigate it. And in the future, maybe he even extends this play into a corner 3-point attempt.
The one thing to worry about is making sure the weak side pickers are clearing the lane in time and don’t have a great play ruined by a three-second violation.
Another play they ran recently came against the Toronto Raptors. It looks like a variation of a Floppy set in which Towns goes from the low right block in a Box formation to coming around two screens to curl into the paint for a drive opportunity. Here is the play without the defenders in the diagram because I don’t think it’s as important to see how the defense gets picked off. It’s fairly straightforward.
Again, there just aren’t many big men who run these types of plays, and Towns can consistently be one of them. They ran it on a sideline out of bounds play, but it’s not pertinent to do it only in that situation. You can run it pretty much in any situation, although I’d like to see the Wolves execute it with a bit better spacing.
Here’s the example from the Raptors game:
You can see Gorgui looks for the post-up advantage in the paint right away, which isn’t a bad idea. After setting the screen, he has solid positioning on Luis Scola, who isn’t exactly Dikembe Mutombo down there. But where I’d like to see this play run is with someone like Adreian Payne, Kevin Garnett, or Nemanja Bjelica in the role of Gorgui and see them clear to the corner while Wiggins sets up more toward the wing. You can even imagine it in the future if they go small with Shabazz Muhammad at the 4, setting the screen up for Towns’ movement.
We can even see Gorgui flaring off into that corner, but there just should be a bit more space for Towns on the drive to force the defense into a decision about whether they want to risk giving up a kick-out pass to the perimeter and start chasing the ball movement or concede the layup attempt and just hope Towns’ defender makes a play. We’ve seen the Wolves run this type of play for Andrew Wiggins quite a bit.
Having Towns run it is kind of insane, but I think we’re going to feel that way about a lot of things he does over the next 18 years.