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Helping Karl-Anthony Towns on Defense

The Timberwolves’ center has made a long-awaited jump on the defensive end this season, but there’s more that can be done to augment the consistency of his development.

NBA: Los Angeles Lakers at Minnesota Timberwolves Jeffrey Becker-USA TODAY Sports

“Defensively is where Towns separates himself as a prospect,” Jonathan Givony and Mike Shmitz explained to readers of DraftExpress before the 2015 NBA draft. “He has the size and strength to defend centers effectively, but also the length and mobility to contain most 4s, giving him terrific positional versatility that is highly coveted in today’s NBA.”

Karl-Anthony Towns’ struggles as an NBA defender have been a bewilderment since he entered the league. Touted as a two-way anchor with abundant room for growth on the offensive end during a lone season at Kentucky, his output with the Wolves was an immediate contradiction. And while the leaps he’s enjoyed as a rim protector this season, however inconsistent, have made that ceiling feel increasingly attainable. His abilities as a twenty two year-old center can be maximized further under the right circumstances.

Towns has terrific timing as a shot blocker and he’s quick enough to recover from the perimeter in help defense; he excels when given the confidence to be aggressive roaming the paint. But he has also shown a frustrating knack for both finding himself out of position and biting on pump fakes. That’s why the team is considerably more dangerous on the defensive end when they deploy him alongside guards committed to sticking with their man. More specifically, with lineups that include backup point guard Tyus Jones.

Jeff Teague and Jamal Crawford are the Wolves’ most unsatisfactory man-to-man defenders, while Jimmy Butler, Taj Gibson, Jones and Andrew Wiggins—despite his lapses in help defense—all do a better job at standing their ground. The statistics above highlight the Wolves most regularly played three, four and five-man lineup combinations that feature Towns. They seem to outline a trend: when Towns is on the floor with groups that include Jones but exclude Teague and Crawford, the Wolves’ defense is elite. Though the sample sizes (between 250-500 minutes played together) remain relatively low, each of the six defensive ratings (DRTG) displayed would sit in the league’s top five as a standalone.

While he possesses all of the physical tools you would look for in a great rim protector, Towns has yet to show that he can make up for a teammate’s lapse in containment. And that problem can be exacerbated when he’s not playing behind a capable frontline.

Teague’s primary fault on the defensive end lies with a lack of reliable effort. His staple mistake is to allow a quick guard past him in an attempt to steal the ball from behind.

After watching him dance behind the three-point line, Teague sees Atlanta Hawks point guard Dennis Schroder fly by him and into the paint for an easy layup attempt. Towns is forced to shade toward Mike Muscala (career 40% three-point shooter) on the perimeter and Teague’s lazy attempt at the ball eliminates any chance for Towns to recover and contest. While Teague can be pesky in generating steals this way—he’s averaging 1.5 per game—it doesn’t justify the difficult situation it creates more often for defenders behind him.

On a similar play during the same game, Teague makes an attempt to poke the ball away but comes up empty and leaves both Gibson and Towns with no chance to catch up to the speedy Schroder.

Jones, meanwhile, tends to display tenacious effort in keeping up with whomever he finds himself guarding. Below he’s given the impossible task of defending Russell Westbrook. Although Jones will never have the athleticism required to stop a player like Westbrook on his own (I’m not sure anyone does) he takes away his initial drive right, slowing him and forcing an off-handed attempt, which gives Towns the time necessary to retreat and pin the layup against the backboard.

This isn’t to say that Jones has transformed into an elite stopper. He hasn’t. But he is pesky, and the marginal resistance he provides can make a world of difference, which has shown in the team’s performance with him on the court.

When Towns hits the floor with two or three adept perimeter defenders—affording him the aid needed as a young star—he diverts attackers and deflects shot attempts as well as one would expect him to at this point in his career. Towns has logged more than 300 minutes with both Jones/Butler and Jones/Wiggins—each of those combinations produces a more effective defensive rating than any with Teague or Crawford. And when Gibson is included that number plummets to an exclusive level.

After Teague went down with a knee injury against the Denver Nuggets in late December, Jones took his place in the lineup. In Jones’ second game starting—a 107-90 thrashing of the Indiana Pacers in which the Wolves jumped out to a 17-0 lead—we saw Towns’ defensive ability in full effect. He finished the game with just 18 points, but piled up 14 rebounds (13 defensive) and six blocks.

During the victory, the Wolves locked down Pacers wing players and Towns’ impressive block numbers hardly do justice to how good he was protecting his basket. The effort that both Butler and Wiggins put forth in slowing down opposing drives was key to Towns’ production. In these two clips, their fortitude is what allows him to get a block.

And when those two hit the floor with both Jones and Towns, there are few holes for the opposing team to attack.

At this point in his career Towns is a much more reliable defender when he isn’t called upon to cover up someone else’s weakness; and that’s rarely a cause for concern when Jones inhabits the floor. Not surprisingly, in the 13 games that Jones has played more than 25 minutes the Wolves are permitting just 99.6 points per game, far fewer than their season average of 107.0.

Butler’s devastating injury—which is likely to sideline him for up to six weeks—certainly throws a wrench in the Wolves’ defensive scheme. It’s a disastrous problem for a team that lacks wing depth to lose their best perimeter stopper; one of the league’s best at that. Nemanja Bjelica, who will replace Butler in the starting lineup, has been an up-and-down defender over his three seasons in Minnesota. He’s prone to fouling on the drive and lacks the quickness required to keep up with the league’s best small forwards. But on a good night, he’s more than capable of holding his own and adds size to an already big lineup around Towns.

Minnesota Timberwolves v Denver Nuggets Photo by Matthew Stockman/Getty Images

“You’re asking a lot of him to make big shots, get fouled, defend, run on every possession and he’s 22,” John Calipari, Towns’ head coach while at Kentucky, explained to the StarTribune earlier this year. “He’s still a young kid. Six years from now, he’ll be 28. What? What? He’s still growing.” And as Butler added: Towns can be “as great as [he wants] to be” on that end. While the young big man has demonstrated this season that such lofty expectations around his defensive ability are still warranted, the Wolves could do more to help him approach that peak.

Tom Thibodeau, a man notorious for the way he obsesses over his team, is undoubtedly aware of these facts. And while there are many peripheral variables he must consider, a seemingly simple way he could help Towns and the Wolves’ defensive woes would be to embrace these more formidable lineups for slightly longer stretches, especially during games in which the starters come out flat.

Teague remains a superior point guard to Jones. The ability he’s shown over over the last ten games to finish at the rim and hit the three has been everything the Wolves hoped for when they signed him to a three-year, $57 million contract last summer. And Teague does possesses the ability to play capable defense when he’s fully engaged. But Thibs is known for both holding his players accountable and embracing backup point guards; as the Wolves defense remains just 25th best in the NBA while they make their playoff push, only time will tell what Thibs is willing to do to provide relief for his third-year, all-star center.