Since drafting Karl-Anthony Towns with the top pick in the 2015 NBA Draft, the Minnesota Timberwolves have been on the verge of relevance. In most years, that feels like it would be a win. So many high draft picks have yielded low results, and having a guy that not only gets Wolves fans excited but the national audience and media percolating about the future of this franchise seems significant. Towns became the hope of a franchise and the future of the league almost instantly.
It’s not hard to see why KAT has this effect on the basketball world. Watch him play a quarter of basketball and it’s obvious just different he looks than everybody else. This sport has been enamored with big men since the beginning. Show a talented, young big man in the NBA and you’ll start getting people looking for vapors to catch. Not everybody wants to admit this, but size always matters, especially in the NBA.
See the size of Towns on the court coupled with the nimble, cartoonish feet and you start wondering what he can’t do. See the entire physical stature of KAT on the floor combined with the dribbling, passing, post arsenal, and shooting touch, and some basketball nerds start needing a cigarette to calm their excitement. This is the effect you get watching Towns for the first time. This is the effect you get from watching Towns for a second time or over and over or 164 times in two years.
Eventually though, the vapors dissipate into the ether.
Draymond Green doesn’t really compliment a whole lot of NBA players. Green is a hyper competitive individual. He excavates slights about him or his team from the most barren of situations, satiating a never-ending desire to maintain hyper focus as an overlooked star. For him to find a compliment about another player means that he’s acknowledging greatness or inevitable greatness in another player. It offers up a potentially even playing field between him and another player or the possibility of Green having to play extra well to match such a specimen.
After playing Towns in KAT’s rookie year, Green couldn’t stop gushing about the young big man to Golden State Warriors media. Draymond Green. Going out of his way. To praise a rookie. That’s a big deal. Green felt like he had his hands full against a player who didn’t really know what he was doing yet. It shows you just how special Towns is and how much more incredible he can become. Green just kept telling the people around the team that Towns is a problem.
However, at a certain point, an expiration date comes up with that kind of hope. We’re nowhere near that threshold for “make or break” for Towns by any means. But when it comes to still holding that universal respect and almost respectful fear, there does come a tipping point.
A lot of that respect for Towns around the league comes from not just what he is at a young age but also what they believe he’ll turn into. If Towns never gets better than he currently is, he’ll make All-Star and All-NBA teams. Accolades will flow toward his résumé. In order for KAT to keep the fear of what he could be in the minds of his peers, complacency can’t exist.
We saw a lot of good come from Towns improving in his second season. Tom Thibodeau mostly ran the offense through Towns. There was more nuance and creativity to it than when Sam Mitchell ran the offense through Towns, but there were still plenty of issues for putting KAT in the best spots with the best opportunities. Some of this was a flaw in design (spacing, activity off the ball, etc.). Some of this came from KAT’s decision-making when faced with double or triple team action.
His numbers by the end of the season were insane:
He put up 25.1 points and 12.3 rebounds per game with shooting splits of 54.2/36.7/83.2. Only 11 other second year players in NBA history put up 25 and 12 the year after their rookie season, prior to Towns. He became the 12th. The other 11 guys all ended up making the Hall of Fame. Of those 12 seasons, Towns had the highest true shooting percentage at 61.8%. He’s also the only guy who was a 3-point threat, but David Robinson did go 1-of-7 from deep in his second season.
Where KAT the sophomore changed his attack
We know that Towns’ production shot through the roof this season, but where and how did it get there? For the most part, we saw KAT’s offense improve across the board. And that was even amid a very big shooting slump in the first half of the season. When Towns started shooting the ball well, there wasn’t anything you could do to stop him on that end of the floor. He was virtually a perfect offensive weapon.
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
Everything started falling. Everything started clicking. The growth we hoped to see immediately at the start of the season took a couple of months to round into form. He needed more familiarity with the new system. He needed to know where his teammates were going to be on the floor at all times. And the NBA starts defending you differently as they get to know you better. Towns quickly learned that you need to adjust what worked before because it won’t necessarily continue to work, no matter how talented you are.
You can see how his Synergy Sports numbers rated out from his rookie to sophomore season:
The Synergy possessions are defined as those situations ending in a shot attempt, foul, or turnover. For the isolation and post-up possessions, it also includes passes made to teammates. KAT had a lower percentage of his possessions happen as a pick-and-roll big but had more possessions overall. He also killed in those situations. Towns showed pretty remarkable improvement in every area except spot-up shooting and isolation plays.
The spot-up dip has entirely to do with the first half struggles shooting the basketball. In the first 41 games of the season, Towns scored just 68.3 points per 100 spot-up possessions on a putrid eFG of 33.5%. In the second half of the season, Towns put up 131.8 points per 100 spot-up possessions on 63.6% eFG. However, the dip in isolation effectiveness comes strictly from not being able to make shots when isolated on the right side of the floor. He killed as a rookie; he was killed as a sophomore.
Everything else is a huge improvement for KAT. Thibodeau used him much more out of the post and it worked like gangbusters. Nobody posted up more in the NBA than Towns did. Marc Gasol was the next closest (8 possessions behind) but not nearly as effective (93.8 points per 100 possessions). While post play is largely thought of as obsolete, Towns made it a rarity in its efficiency for the Wolves. Towns was the only player with at least 300 post possessions to crack 100 points per 100 possessions. Towns had 477 post possessions.
It makes you wonder as the Wolves get better around Towns and he continues to understand the game more, just what can he accomplish on that end of the floor? Will he become a 30-point per game scorer regularly? Will it eventually cause teams to swarm him at all times and he becomes a much better passer? Is there going to be a point in which opponents know they have to live with Towns giving them buckets and they have to stop everybody else?
Player to study this offseason: Tim Duncan
When I mentioned earlier that those vapors we catch for young players eventually go away into the ether, this is the danger I mean. I tried to keep framing everything as “Towns on offense” because that’s where he truly shined out there. If you’re talking ill of how he attacks a defense, then you’re just picking nits in the hopes of finding something actually bad. However, if you want to criticize him then look no further than what Towns gives the Wolves on defense.
To describe it as inconsistent is probably the nicest way to critique his defensive production. Towns seemed confused or just late on a lot of defensive possessions in his first year under Tom Thibodeau. KAT showed a lot of promise as a rookie, but you’re usually judging that based on what you expect from a rookie. Rookie big men are rarely good defenders, let alone team altering presences. Instead, they typically foul too much and don’t know how to contest shots. By the end of his rookie season, we kept watching that clip of KAT sniffing out scoring attempts by Steph Curry and thinking we were looking at the future of league dominance.
Instead, the lack of Kevin Garnett working with KAT every day seemed to really hurt Towns’ defensive consistency. Towns didn’t seem to pick up the system right away. ICE’ing pick-and-rolls on the side of the court resulted in too many layups. The accountability of Thibodeau’s system was new to the Wolves’ young guys and you saw just how fragile their defense could be if they didn’t embrace it all. The communication was key and often the communication was either lacking or muffled.
That’s mostly on the big man to direct coverage and for the rest of the defense to load up based on that call. The Wolves, especially KAT, struggled with this. While the easy connection to make is for Towns to study a younger KG to learn how to play defense, that may be too familiar for Towns. And if it’s too familiar, he may mentally cut corners feeling he knows the person so he knows how they’d play defense.
Instead, studying Duncan as a defender is probably the most beneficial to Towns and the Wolves. Studying KG is great and he’s arguably the best all-around defender we’ve ever seen in this league. KG also came into the NBA as a small forward and would play all over the court. Thibodeau and the Wolves need KAT to be an anchor, not a buzzsaw. That’s where studying Duncan’s defensive tendencies, abilities, and effectiveness become so important.
His block numbers won’t reflect it, but Duncan is arguably the best defensive anchor we’ve ever seen. He communicated with brilliance and clarity. He could cover things on the perimeter but always made sure to show until he needed to retreat, knowing his presence inside was most important. Even at the end of his career, he was so smart defensively that his inactivity from a physical standpoint rarely hurt him or his team. That is the stuff Towns needs to learn.
Towns went from allowing 49.6% at the rim as a rookie to 52.2% as a sophomore. That’s a trend of someone like Andre Drummond. Nobody outside of Minnesota should want KAT to emulate Andre Drummond on defense. You need KAT being the protector everybody thinks he can be. The scoring is great but the defense is what will make the Wolves great.
KAT allowed 48.2% at the rim in the first half of the season and 55.2% in the second half. That’s not acceptable. He admitted that when he tried to freelance and make hero plays on defense, he actually hurt his team. Sticking to the script and getting everybody reading from the same page should correct a lot of their defensive issues. But it starts with him like it started with Duncan for San Antonio.
The improvement for next season
It is all about playoffs. We still have to see how this offseason goes for the Wolves. Thibodeau smartly slow played his first offseason and decided to rely on the young guys learning. He didn’t overpay for veterans just to have them and chase victories now. The Wolves are chasing a much bigger picture.
If KAT plays like he did on offense while also adding the defensive anchoring the team is desperate for, the Wolves will make the playoffs next season (assuming relative health). There aren’t individual benchmarks for KAT to chase, unless that’s trying to get himself into the Defensive Player of the Year conversation. We know how good he is and how good he still can be. We know that he impresses Draymond Green and others around the league.
Don’t let those vapors dissipate. Keep them coming. If he can do that, the Wolves will finally be relevant. He is that good.