clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Karl-Anthony Towns Is Unlocking His Defensive Potential

The Big KAT is moving his game into two-way territory.

NBA: Boston Celtics at Minnesota Timberwolves Harrison Barden-USA TODAY Sports

For a 23-year-old man-child who already holds Rookie of the Year, All-Star and All-NBA honors, Karl-Anthony Towns has been forced to scale a mountain of criticism throughout his young career.

Wielding an arsenal that encompasses potent post scoring, a deadly mid-range game and an effortless 3-point shot that most 7-footers would kill for, it’s not easy to besmirch Towns’ offensive game. However, it’s been a different story on the defensive side of the hardwood.

Despite making those All-Star and All-NBA squads, and appearing in his debut playoff series last season, Towns was consistently inferior when tasked with protecting the paint and making life hard on opposing bigs. Instead of being the anchor that he was supposed to be coming out of Kentucky, the Wildcat was rarely in the right position, and struggled to communicate to his fellow defenders effectively.

Even with principled defensive stalwarts like Taj Gibson and Jimmy Butler neighboring him in the starting five, the former first overall pick couldn’t find his rhythm on the gritty end of the floor. He finished the 2017-18 campaign ranked 47th among centers in real plus-minus (RPM) with a +0.44 overall score, and his 108.4 defensive rating graded out as the 407th worst mark of anyone who stepped foot on an NBA court.

The reasoning behind Towns’ struggles were unclear. Physically, he seems like a prime candidate to be defensively sound. Hanging off his broad shoulders are arms that could grab hold of both ends of a fallen oak tree, and he possesses hare-like quickness for someone his size. Alas, he was well below average. It was the Timberwolves franchise cornerstone’s biggest flaw, and the reason why he isn’t universally considered the best big man in the game.

Whether Towns was ever going to become the defender Minnesota need him to be was becoming a serious question, but recently, some of those doubts are starting to be alleviated. With the Jimmy Butler saga over, the pressure seems lifted off KAT, and his defensive intensity and execution is starting to dig itself out of a once ever-deepening grave.

Newcomer and Defensive Player of the Year front runner Robert Covington has deservedly garnered the praise from the national media, but Towns’ improvement has been just as impressive as RoCo’s staunchness. Whether it is altering and swatting shots at the coalface, calling out defensive coverages to help his guys move on a string, or using his newfound active hands to disrupt interior passes, the big man is doing it all.

In the 13 Butler-free games, Towns has posted a defensive rating of 101.9. Of players who have played over 20 minutes per game in that stretch, that’s the 45th best mark in the entire league. He has also boosted his RPM to +0.93, which isn’t elite by any stretch (the first 13 games of the season weigh it down dramatically), but it is more than double what he was able to muster up last season.

There is a whole host of game film that highlight how productive Towns has been at being well-positioned to oust pick-and-roll ball handlers, but for now we will focus on this one.

The enemy? Pick-and-roll mastermind Kemba Walker:

After Jeff Teague gets screened out of the play by Cody Zeller, Towns hedges out to prevent the barrage of speed and finishing ability that Walker packs. When the two-time All-Star does turn on the jets, Towns uses his long sidesteps to stay on his hip. He stays vertical, and worries the point guard into an out of control reverse layup. Unlike the days of old where KAT would be finished with his defensive effort, he immediately returns to the play and deters Michael Kidd-Gilchrist’s follow-up attempt.

Due to the poor rebounding positioning of frontcourt partner Taj Gibson, MKG eventually does get the putback, but the two previous misses lay solely on Towns’ brilliant pick-and-roll smothering. Even when the 23-year-old reverts back to his bad habits, he is becoming much more willing and able to clean up any mess he creates.

After his six-block night in a comeback win against the Charlotte Hornets, Tom Thibodeau heaped praise on his big man.

“Great activity the entire night. He is getting into a really good rhythm. He is trying to make the right plays. He is getting to his second and third effort defensively and that’s huge for us,” said Thibs.

The clip below is a blueprint of what Thibs is referring to. Towns makes an early mistake, but recovers with multiple effort defense.

Towns gets far too square on the ICE pick-and-roll coverage, allowing D’Angelo Russell to whip an easy pocket pass to rolling Brooklyn big man Jarrett Allen. With the lane opened up, Allen heads to the cup. However, instead of giving up on the play, Towns quickly recuperates position and stuffs the shot back into Allen’s afro. When Allen tries to recover the loose ball, KAT is there again to pressure him into a fumble:

While these two plays have been isolated incidents, Karl-Anthony Towns making positive plays on the end of the floor he has so often been hammered on is becoming regular viewing. Like Thibodeau said, it’s hard to quantify just how big that improvement is for the state of the team.

As a defensive leader and mentor to Towns and the entire Wolves roster, Covington has been a game-changer. And he knows it.

“The way I build myself you know, I’m holding guys accountable. The way I lead is I lead by example and it’s very contagious and you know, you can see already that guys are picking it up. That’s the effect that I want to have,” Covington told reporters.

It’s unclear whether it has been Covington’s presence and leadership, life without Butler, or a mixture of both, but Towns is thriving.

Offensively, KAT has booted down every door that needs to be opened in order to become elite. Now, he is beginning to crack open the defensive doors that need to be ajar for him to become a two-way talent. If he does continue the lockdown form that he is in, Towns will quickly change the reputation he has built for himself around the league, taking it by storm in the process.