So, in case you missed it, the prompt for this comes from The Ringer’s recent article where they ranked the top-25 players in these first 60 or so games. You can read it if you’d like, but here’s the gist of it.
The Ringer’s staff ranked Karl-Anthony Towns as the 18th best player in the NBA thus far. I think that’s too low, but the real issue I have is with the description that came with that ranking. Here it is from Justin Verrier.
What the heck is that? That’s a joke, right? “Nikola Vucevic Extra”? Come on, now. There are so many problems with this lazy analysis of KAT.
I know our very own Eric in Madison touched on this in the comment section earlier this week, but you’re selling KAT way short when you limit him to a “20-and-10 guy.” Over his past three seasons, KAT is averaging 23 & 12. That might not seem like a huge difference, but that is a pretty distinct difference between KAT and someone like Vucevic. Also, it’s worth mentioning that this 3 year period of Towns averaging 23 & 12 has been his age 21-23 seasons.
Next up is Verrier’s comment on Towns’ defense. I’m not going to argue that KAT is the best defensive big in the NBA, but Verrier’s comment suggests that Towns is the same terrible defender he was in his first few seasons. Anyone who has watched Towns play this season knows this is not the case. Among centers who have played at least 10 games this season, Towns ranks 14th in Defensive Win Shares per 48 minutes.
That isn’t All-Defense level by any means, but it places him right around average among starting centers which seems to back up the eye test. ESPN’s Defensive Real Plus Minus ranks Towns a bit further back (~36th of qualified centers), but still shows Towns making a positive impact (+1.28) on the Timberwolves defense. Big men, for the most part, take time to learn how to play defense.
Progress among prospects isn’t always linear, but anyone who’s been paying attention could tell you that Towns has improved greatly from last year. He’s been anchoring a defense that has had players such as Derrick Rose, Jeff Teague, Andrew Wiggins, and completely-checked-out General Soreness defending the wing. The narrative that KAT is still a poor defender is tired and, quite frankly, lazy.
Then comes the statement about Towns’ future outlook, calling him Vucevic Extra. I’ll be honest, I read that line about four times to make sure I wasn’t missing something. With all due respect to Nikola Vucevic, that is an embarrasingly bad comparison. Vuc is a really good player, but this has been Vucevic’s best season by quite a bit and has him averaging 20.5/12.1/3.8 on an efficient 52.1/38/77.9. That is in Vucevic’s age 28 season, which earned him his first all-star game bid. Good for him.
Karl-Anthony Towns, however, is already a two-time all-star in a wildly more competitive conference in terms of star power. Towns entered the all-star break averaging 23.1/12.0/3.2 on 51.2/38.9/84.7. That is roughly what Towns has averaged, I repeat AVERAGED, over his first three and a half years in the NBA. Over that same span, Vucevic has averaged about 17.2/10.1/3.1. Towns is already a bit better than Vucevic at age 23. I’m not sure what leads a person to believe Towns won’t blow those numbers away throughout his prime.
Will Towns ever be a top-3 to top-5 player in the league, a perennial MVP candidate? Maybe not. I’d argue Towns probably settles in among the 6-10 best players in the NBA at his peak. A peak, mind you, that likely is still a couple of years away. That doesn’t sound like disappointment to me. The suggestion that KAT is close to his peak is silly, and again, lazy.
Much of this stems from “blame the best player” syndrome, a classic pitfall for NBA observers. It’s easy but lazy analysis to pin a team’s problems—of which the Wolves have many—on the best/most visible player on the squad. The storied history of this sort of dubious thinking goes back to Wilt Chamberlain, has touched on guys like Charles Barkley and our own Kevin Garnett, and more recently took a swipe at Russell Westbrook, and now Towns.
The Ringer and Justin Verrier are the ones who prompted this, but it’s not like they’re the only ones who take shots like this at Towns. The TNT guys do it every time the Timberwolves come up. It’s time for the national media to catch up and figure it out. Give Karl-Anthony Towns the respect he deserves.