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Karl-Anthony Towns: A Superstar Rising

Reviewing Karl-Anthony Towns’ stellar sophomore season

NBA: Minnesota Timberwolves at Los Angeles Lakers Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Karl-Anthony Towns
21 years old
Contract Status: $5,960, 160
2nd year of Rookie Contract

Numbers: 37 minutes per game (5th in NBA), 25.1 points per game (12th in NBA), 12.3 rebounds per game (6th in NBA), 2.7 assists per game, 1.3 blocks per game (19th in NBA).

.201 WS/48 (16th in NBA), 5.0 BPM (17th in NBA), 5.4 VORP (9th in NBA).

Karl-Anthony Towns is going to be a superstar. That, in of itself, is noteworthy, but does make it challenging to effectively write anything new or interesting about Towns that does not simply laud his achievements without end.

Towns is basically in a class of an elite few of most valuable young players in the NBA. One can quibble over the ordering of the top three of that group, Towns, Giannis Antetokounmpo, and Anthony Davis (Nikola Jokic might belong in there too), but at the end of the day, all that matters it that Towns has proven he belongs with them.

Taking a different tack, examining his weaknesses, also does not provide much new information, as the story about Towns is quite familiar. His defense is certainly a work in progress, to put it lightly, and while he puts quite a public burden upon himself as being the leader of the team, his play to date does not reflect that of a true superstar who is able to transform his team on both ends of the court.

However, as we also are all too familiar with, Towns is the ripe age of 21 years old. There are a select few in NBA history that are able to do what Towns has done at such a young age and even fewer who are able to translate that level of production to meaningful wins. The players that have done so are basically just LeBron James and Shaquille O’Neal, so I am fairly comfortable in withholding judgment about the fact that Towns did not drag the Wolves to the playoffs this year.

The Good Stuff

Let’s start with the things that went well with Towns, of which I will certainly only be able to compile a brief list if this article is to be shorter than 5,000 words.

Following up on one of the most impressive rookie seasons in recent NBA history, Towns made great strides his sophomore year, improving his counting stats in almost every category, while his usage increased and he played the second-most minutes in the league (Andrew Wiggins was first).

Towns is the youngest player, was previously Shaq, to score 2,000 points and grab over 1,000 rebounds in a season. He is also the only player in NBA history to do so while making 100 three-pointers. That’s pretty good.

Towns added more versatility to his already well-rounded offensive game, working in a Dirk-esque one-legged fadeaway shot, shooting more threes, and slowly learning how to pass out of double teams.

In a season dominated by incredible individual highlights and absurd offensive statistics, Towns’ game against the New York Knicks on November 30th, where he scored 47 points along with 18 rebounds was the 13th highest game score (a metric which tries of create a single game evaluation of a player’s performance) of all players this season.

Towns dramatically cut down the number of long two-pointers he attempted and greatly increased the amount of three-pointers he shot, which raised his true shooting percentage from 59 percent to 61.8 percent, which was 14th best in the league.

  • 2015-2016 - .076 three-point attempt rate
  • 2017-2017 - .186 three-point attempt rate

Increased his assist percentage (from 11.3 to 13.2) while lowering his turnover percentage (12.6 to 11.3). Increased his free throw rate from 23.9 percent to 28.9 percent.

In NBA history, of players in their first or second season, there are only 9 players who have had a VORP above 5, BPM above 4, and WS/48 above .2. KAT is now one of them (as is Nikola Jokic). The rest of the list is filled with players like David Robinson, Shaquille O’Neal, Michael Jordan, and Lebron James.

With that same criteria, there are only 12 guys this season in the NBA with similar advanced statistics. All of them, other than Rudy Gobert and Jokic, were All-Stars. They are also all Capital S Superstars.

All of this simply illuminates time and time again that Karl-Anthony Towns is an extraordinarily special NBA player. There simply is little historical precedent for being able to achieve what he has done at such a young age and what numerical contemporaries we can find point to the fact that KAT is on track to be a Hall of Fame Caliber player. Now that is not said lightly, but, at this point, that is certainly the type of player that KAT projects to be.

Towns is one the most dominant offensive players in the NBA in his sophomore season. He will likely get some consideration from 3rd team All-NBA. He will almost certainly be competing for All-Star spots and All-NBA spots next season. He is, quite clearly, the best player that the Timberwolves have had since Kevin Garnett.

What Needs to Improve

Defense, Defense, Defense.

Towns did not have a great year on defense. He was frequently late on rotations, seemed to chase blocks rather than being in the right place, and did not execute well out of the pick-and-roll.

The advanced statistics bear this out. While Towns has an extraordinarily high BPM, his defensive BPM is 0.3. This is a statistic that often is much higher for Big men, as rebounding carries a heavy influence. In DBPM, Towns ranks 134 among all Forwards and Centers (which somehow includes guys like Rudy Gay and Jae Crowder). In ESPN’s RPM, Towns ranks dead last among all Centers, behind known defensive sieves of Jahlil Okafor and Enes Kanter.

Nate Duncan collated a tweetstorm that he had while watching the Wolves, which you can check out here, and it highlights some of the issues that Towns (and the Wolves in general) had all year.

There are a lot of accompanying factors to this defense issue, not the least of which is Towns’ age, as the general rule of thumb in the NBA is that the defense is the hardest part to pick up and do well at. The NBA is simply too fast for college players to adapt to, not to mention they cannot rely on their athleticism to save them. Everyone is too good, too fast, too smart, and too strong. It just takes time to catch-up.

Additionally, Towns has had to adapt to a new defensive system underneath Tom Thibodeau. The Wolves, in a slight understatement, did not have the smoothest transition to the ICE-defense, nor to the concept of defense in general. The easiest way, albeit in a drastic simplification, to express Towns’ problematic issues on defense is the clear correlation between Towns playing and the Wolves being bad on defense. Towns played the 2nd most minutes of any player in the NBA and the Wolves ranked 27th in defensive rating in the league.

Of course, the problem is that Towns is not the only young player on the Wolves playing heavy minutes. As we know all too well, the Wolves relied upon young players for major minutes and responsibilities more than any other team in the league. In that respect, the bad defense seems like an obvious end result. However, Towns just has to get better on the defensive end of the court, as he will be acting as the fulcrum of the Wolves defense for years to come.

What’s Next

Karl-Anthony Towns will likely spend the off-season working extraordinarily hard to get better. That is just the type of player that he is. He certainly has all the tools in place to improve his capabilities, as he will have a full summer and training camp under the watchful eye of Tom Thibodeau, who shall hopefully be more successful at getting his young players to execute on defense rather than simply talk about executing.

But that should not overshadow just how amazing Towns was this season. It is so easy to take it for granted when you watch him play game in and game out, as we come to expect the 30 points and 15 rebounds performances. We are always wanting more, waiting for that next step to be reached, regardless of if he is ready to take the team there. That is the burden of the superstar.

Karl-Anthony Towns’ rookie season demonstrated that he was one of the most promising young players in the NBA. His second season further proved this point and he has propelled himself along the path of becoming an NBA superstar. The Wolves may not have achieved the success they were hoping for this season, but Towns will ensure that the disappointment is temporary. He is just that good.