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Karl-Anthony Towns and the Quest for Peak Efficiency

Andrew Wiggins is stealing the show in the box score, but it is Karl-Anthony Towns who unleashes the pack of wolves.

NBA: Philadelphia 76ers at Minnesota Timberwolves Brace Hemmelgarn-USA TODAY Sports

Karl-Anthony Towns has not shot a free throw in the last two games. But wait — this is by no means a sign of the apocalypse. There were actually four two-game stints last season when Towns did not shoot a free throw. At the beginning of his rookie season, last November, Towns went three straight games without shooting a free throw — the Wolves actually won all three of those games.

For a player with his gifts, who has already exceeded early expectations, it’s a bit curious that Towns is averaging only 3.4 free throw attempts per game through his first 93 games. Comparatively, in that same time span, Ricky Rubio has averaged 4.1 free throws per game and Andrew Wiggins has averaged 8.0.

The free throw attempt column on the box score has long been an indicator to coaches, scouts, and pundits of a team’s premier weapon.

When Towns gets to the line, making free throws is not a problem. Last season, Towns shot 81.1 percent on free throws. Rather than this being a condemnation of Karl-Anthony Towns, this, instead, can suggest room for great improvement and efficiency.

Basketball Efficiency in 2016

Over the past few years, the buzz word to mark basketball efficiency has become Moreyball. This is, of course, a hat-tip to Daryl Morey, general manager of the Houston Rockets. The goal of Moreyball is to take the most efficient shots the basketball court can render.

1. Minimize shots from mid-range

2. Maximizing three point attempts

3. Maximizing shots close to the rim

4. Maximizing free throw attempts

After recognizing this trend, Houston has led the Moreyball charge by taking 40 percent of their shots from three and only about 10 percent from mid-range. That 10 percent is less than half what the league averages.

The Utilization of Towns in 2016-17

There has been much ado about Karl-Anthony Towns “finding more post touches” in the offense, but instead many of his touches have looked like this:

There has been a propensity to give Towns touches in this above-the-break area of the floor. 19.2 percent of Towns’s total shot attempts have been above-the-break threes. This is a large uptick from 6.8 percent of his shot attempts coming from this range last season. While the sample is small this season the Wolves have utilized Towns skill set in more of a Moreyball fashion.

Towns shot 27.3 percent of his shots in the mid-range (10-19 feet) last season. This season it’s only 10.3 percent. Also, Towns has increased his shot attempts closer to the rim. 59.1 percent of Towns shot attempts this season have come from within eight feet of the hoop. That is an increase of 7.1 percent from last season.

Percentage of Shot Attempts as Above-the-Break Threes:

2015: 6.8%

2016: 19.2%

Percentage of Shot Attempts Within 8 Feet:

2015: 52%

2016: 59.1%

Percentage of Shot Attempts 10-19 Feet:

2015: 27.3%

2016: 10.3%

It appears this is the plan with Towns — more threes, less mid-range, and more shots near the basket. The difference is the shots near the basket will not be restricted to post-ups, rather shot attempts off the dribble attacking the basket. Regardless of how he’s getting them, Towns’ efficiency on field goal attempts near the hoop has remained high.

Towns shot well above league average within eight-feet last season, 61.9 percent and that number has only dropped to slightly to 59.6 percent this season.

The shot attempts are not worse, they are different. The general offensive set the Wolves are running more this season is called “Horns.” Horns starts with two players in the high post (often Towns and Dieng). Wings then cut off of pin-down screens from the opposite big.

Part of Wiggins’s success this season is definitely attributable to an exceptional offseason, but so too is the way in which the Wolves are utilizing him.

The threat of Towns with the ball in his hands above the break is real. The ability to shoot or drive from that spot must be respected by the defense. That added defensive attention allows Towns to tap into the third part of his triple-threat arsenal — finding open teammates.

Right now Towns may not be seeing a heaping helping of post touches, but they are still there. Rather than simply dumping it into Towns regardless of defender, the Wolves are looking for Towns in post mismatches. Most often, these touches are coming when a smaller defender switches onto Towns, he and the Wolves recognize, they clear out, they find him, and he dominates.

The frustration in wanting to give Towns more touches inside is understandable — it looks so easy. But there is a bit of a disconnect here. It is not as if Towns can simply do this regardless of defender, no one can. Thibs and the Wolves are instead picking their spots with Towns. And those spots work.

If we are picking nits — yes, the free throws are not there. Only eight players had a higher usage rate (>24.9) with a lower free throw rate (.239) than Karl-Anthony Towns last season (seven of whom are guards). But again, this is not an alarm, this is where the 21-year-old center will improve his efficiency.

Let’s instead recognize that it is time to be excited that Karl-Anthony Towns is evolving into the player that embodies peak basketball efficiency. And even more so, it is time to be ecstatic that the Robin to Towns’s Batman is also a freaking stud.

Trust the process.