When Karl-Anthony Towns entered the league, the skill set expected of him was very different to the one the All-Star shows us now. Coming out of Kentucky, the first overall pick was known as a defensive force with a raw offensive game. However, his offensive game was borderline-elite from day one, and he has had trouble converting that staunch defense to the big leagues.
When he got his first taste of NBA Summer League action, the transcendent 7-footer displayed another tantalizing talent that had Timberwolves fans salivating: a penchant for spectacular passing. In the very earliest days of what would become an already brilliant career, Towns looked like he would stroll into the league as one of the best post-passers around:
While riding the ups and downs of his first three NBA seasons, Towns has become a dominant three-level scorer, a ferocious rebounder, and an improved defender. What he has rarely flashed though is that jaw-dropping passing ability.
With a scoring repertoire that rivals any big man in the world, the 23-year-old draws double-teams like moths to a flame. In the past, blitzing Towns in the post has been a solid way to force him into shooting a bad shot, or forcing him into throwing a rushed pass that results in a turnover.
Now into his fourth season, the big KAT has had hundreds of reps against swarming post defenses, and he is learning to pounce on the opportunity to dish to the inevitably open man. Whether it’s a diving rim-runner or an open 3-point shooter, Towns has taken a page out of the Nikola Jokic, Al Horford, and Marc Gasol handbook, becoming far more reliable when it comes to surveying the court and finding the right teammate.
Last season, Towns only registered six games with five or more assists. In just 37 games this season, he has already registered seven such games, including four in Minnesota’s last five outings. He always had an eye for cutters while he was posting up, but lately KAT has been locating and hitting them perfectly.
After his latest run of playmaking, Towns is now averaging career-best marks in assists per game (2.9) and assist percentage (14%), per NBA stats. It’s not quite at Nikola Jokic or Marc Gasol table-setting levels, but Towns is rapidly becoming one of the most impressive post-passers in the NBA.
When he is whipping passes around, he makes it much harder for the defense to double-team him. Throwing multiple defenders at him guarantees there is an open player somewhere, and when Towns is finding the free man consistently, defenders hesitate to leave their marker.
That’s big, and it leads to more buckets for Towns himself, which is a fruitful recipe for the Wolves. In those seven games that Towns has registered five or more assists, he is also putting up 26.7 points per game, and the Timberwolves hold a 5-2 record.
He is becoming fluent in lobbing passes above the arc, and stepping through double-teams to drop off easy dimes. However, it’s his gorgeous no-look, over-the-head helper that has become a staple of Karl-Anthony Towns’ post passing.
In the compilation below, you can see the wide range of assists that Towns has been throwing regularly:
The eye-test and statistics are undoubtedly trending upward for Towns and his passing ability, but he can still make some boneheaded plays. Sometimes he passes when he should shoot, or tries to pull off the hardest possible pass. When you’re able to score with the best of them, there is times when trying to make a world-beating pass just isn’t necessary.
When Towns does make a silly pass that sails out of bounds or gets easily picked off by a lurking defender, coach Tom Thibodeau goes absolutely nuts. Thibs is probably the most easily-irritated coach in the league already, but when KAT starts making immature passing mistakes, he resembles a bright red steam train that’s about to derail.
These problems are mostly an easy-fix. Towns needs to just take a second to process his options and not rush into irrational decisions. Cleaning this up will likely come with more experience. With how good he already is, it’s easy to forget that the All-NBA team member is still just 23-years-old.
The clip below is a prime example of a pass that gets Towns into trouble. After he clings onto a nice pick-and-roll dish from Derrick Rose, Towns has a quick decision to make. He can either use his scoring prowess to skittle Skal Labissière, who is on an island in the paint. Or, he can make the simple pass to Taj Gibson, who is cutting from the corner to the rack. Instead, Towns tries to get a little bit too fancy, throwing a wild no-look, round-the-back pass to the corner, where Gibson was no longer located:
These turnovers are frustrating, but it’s evident that his decision-making is becoming sharper by the game. Every time Towns reels off another spectacular passing performance, his confidence in his own passing clearly prospers. He is starting to look like the unique playmaking big man that the Timberwolves thought they had drafted after his lone summer league appearance.
There are still some rough edges to polish, but the Karl-Anthony Towns dishing experience is becoming too obvious to ignore. He already possesses one of the most effective post-games in the league, his jumper is a mid-range moneymaker, and his 3-point stroke is the stuff that big men dream of. Now, Towns is rounding out his game with his passing.
Have fun defending that.