Even though some have labeled Karl-Anthony Towns’ career as disappointing, it isn’t a stretch to say that he is the most offensively gifted center the NBA has ever seen. I know, I know. The “he hasn’t won anything” or “empty stats” labels are about to flood the comments, and you’re not wrong to do so. However, despite Towns’ already outlandish offensive numbers, we may have only seen him scratch the surface of what he could be for the Minnesota Timberwolves.
It wasn’t long ago that NBA General Managers selected Towns as the player they would prefer to start a franchise with. Since then, Towns has battled injuries, franchise dysfunction, coaching turnover, front office turnover, roster turnover, and a year from hell that would cripple most of us. Towns has reached the point where he is rarely even mentioned among the league’s best big men and has become surprisingly underrated and underappreciated.
Most of this is due to the Timberwolves’ complete aversion to winning, and the defensive struggles Towns has faced. But at 25 years old, Towns still hasn’t reached the peak of his career. For Towns to make the next step in his career and return to the All-NBA stratosphere, he needs to transform his game from being a primary scoring option to an offensive lynchpin who the offense runs through.
Since Towns first stepped on an NBA floor, his offensive talent has been pronounced. Unfortunately, the litany of coaching philosophies he’s encountered has failed to utilize and, more importantly, diversify his abilities fully.
Enter Chris Finch.
Fair point. I did just say that the coaching turnover has hurt Towns, so why would yet another new one work? The answer is simple because he’s done it before.
In Finch’s first year in Denver, Nikola Jokic made a significant leap as a player. Per Cleaning the Glass, Jokic’s usage rate increase from 19.8 percent to 24.2 percent (92nd percentile), his points per 100 shot attempts increased from 116.3 to 127.7 (93rd percentile), his assist percentage increased from 17.8 percent to 26.5 percent (98th percentile), and his effective field goal percentage increased from 53.4 percent to 60.4 percent (89th percentile), per NBA Stats. Finch isn’t solely responsible for Jokic’s leap on the scene, but he did help install the philosophies that have helped Jokic become an MVP candidate.
Finch isn’t exclusively living off a one-hit-wonder in Jokic. Finch also helped DeMarcus Cousins transform into a winning basketball player for the first time in his career. Unfortunately, Cousins’ season was cut short at 45 games due to injury, but the signs of growth were there. Compared to Cousins’ numbers with the Pelicans post-trade the prior season, his points per 100 shot attempts increased from 114.7 to 117.2, his assist percentage increased from 21.6 percent to 24 percent, and his assist-to-usage ratio increased from 0.67 to 0.73.
Besides just helping to improve the raw numbers, Finch also helped Jokic change his shot profile. The season before Finch’s arrival, Jokic took 53 percent of his shots at the rim, 34 percent in the mid-range, and 13 percent from three. From these areas, Jokic shot 61 percent, 44 percent, and 34 percent, respectively, per Cleaning the Glass.
After Finch’s influence, Jokic’s shot profile morphed into 44 percent at the rim, 40 percent in the mid-range, and 16 percent from three. No one has had a worse Public Relations department than the mid-range jumper because it isn’t a bad shot for everyone, as we can see in Jokic’s numbers. His at-rim field goal percentage jumped to 66 percent, his mid-range jumped to 59 percent, and he continued to shoot 33 percent from three.
The point of this isn’t to highlight the development of Jokic from five years ago, but instead to promote that Finch has a proven track record of finding the strengths of his best player and molding the offense to fit around that.
Throughout Towns’ career, he’s never had a coach capable of doing this. Due to time restraints and schedule complications, it is unrealistic to expect drastic changes (at least over the next couple of months). Still, as we advance, I absolutely hope to see signs of the Timberwolves using Towns in a much more diversified way.
Jokic and Joel Embiid are in the tier of active players that we should expect Towns to be mentioned with. I know that’s a high bar and far from reality right now, but Towns clearly has the talent to be in that group. So, why has the gap between Towns and the league’s elite centers grown so exponentially? A significant reason is the types of touches and shots Towns gets compared to Jokic and Embiid.
Jokic and Embiid have both taken a massive leap in production this season in large part simply due to better utilization of their talents. I know I’m about to sound like a fuddy-duddy (even more than saying fuddy-duddy) but posting up is still an area of value.
Jokic and Embiid have been genuinely dominant this season and the number of interior touches they are getting. Jokic’s post-ups have increased from 8.1 last season to 9.9 this season, while Embiid’s have gone from 9.8 to 13.6, respectively.
I know the post-up has become almost as reviled as the mid-range jumper, but just because it is a lousy possession for some players doesn’t mean it is for everyone. This season, Embiid is taking 9.4 shots per game in the lane and is shooting 67 percent at the rim. Similarly, Jokic is taking 11.5 shots per game in the lane and is shooting 68 percent at the rim.
The ease with which Embiid scores here is astounding. Embiid decisively establishes a deep position and then uses a crab dribble, a fake drop step, and pivots back into a right-handed hook to score and draw the foul.
Jokic is more than capable of making a similar move, but he better displays how the offense can be initiated from the post. Jokic doesn’t post-up to score himself but instead to create for teammates.
As Jokic receives the ball in the post, he has no intentions of scoring. His eyes are focused on his teammates, and once Paul Millsap cuts, Jokic delivers a perfect bounce pass for an easy layup.
The increased number of post-ups Jokic and Embiid are getting has a direct effect on their improved production. They put the defense in a precarious position because of their versatility and brutality. It also isn’t a coincidence that both players are averaging a career-high in free throw attempts per game.
The encouraging aspect of Towns’ offensive game is that we’ve seen him score and create out of the post. Towns doesn’t have the brute strength that Embiid has, but he has the footwork, quickness, and touch to create easy shots at will.
Towns has the quickness and touch to get that post-up shot whenever he wants. He’s gotten stronger, which allows him to move defenders more easily, but since his rookie year, he has excelled at that quick spin over his left shoulder into the right-handed hook.
Towns’ effectiveness around the rim is so dominant that he has never shot below 67 percent at the rim, including this season at 72 percent. The problem this season, though, is Towns was rarely used in the post. This season under Ryan Saunders, Towns averaged 8.5 post-ups per game and 8.6 shots in the paint. In the short spurt time under Finch, Towns has seen those numbers rise to 8.8 and 9.2, respectively. Towns’ free throw attempts have also increased from 4.6 per game to 5.2.
Towns has the talent to be a dominant post-up player like Jokic and Embiid. Given the touches, Towns can score at an equal rate as Embiid. While Towns isn’t quite the same level passer as Jokic, highlight assists to cutters or shooters like below are not uncommon.
If you thought the post-up talk was outdated, just wait until we dive into the mid-range conversation. That’s right! Towns needs to be operating more in the mid-range than he has been.
Before you completely blow a fuse, I’m not asking for Towns to be taking pull-up jumpers like a guard. Instead, he needs to be operating from the elbow and mid-post areas more frequently. The elbow is an extremely advantageous position for skilled big men to operate from.
It isn’t a coincidence that Jokic’s elbow touches rising from 7.9 last season to 9.5 this season coincides with his most prolific statistical season yet. While not as prolific as Jokic, Embiid still gets 4.1 elbow touches per game.
From this region, players can face up for an effortless jumper, attack the rim, or pass to cutters or shooters. Embiid is taking 5.8 mid-range shots per game while shooting 48 percent (77th percentile). Jokic is taking 3.4 mid-range shots per game while shooting 56 percent (91st percentile).
When the floor is spaced correctly, defenses are hesitant to send help. This decision frequently leaves big men on an island defensively in the open floor. Skilled big men, like Jokic, Embiid, and Towns, should feast in these scenarios. It doesn’t have to be anything complicated either.
As we can see below, Embiid uses a simple hang dribble to create space for a jumper. Jarrett Allen has to be aware of Embiid driving, so by using the hang dribble, Embiid freezes Allen for just a split second.
The elbow is also an excellent area of the floor to create for others. Jokic thrives at the elbow because defenses must respect his mid-range jumper. Once they do, he is smart enough to kick it out to an open teammate.
After setting the screen, Jokic wisely rolls to the elbow. We see most big men either roll hard to the rim or slip out behind the arc. Jokic isn’t much of a lob threat, so rolling hard through traffic doesn’t make sense. He is also just an average three-point shooter so popping out to three isn’t necessarily the right play. Instead, Jokic rolls to the elbow where he knows he’ll either get an open jumper in an area he’s shooting 56 percent, or the defense will scramble and leave one of his teammates open. As Jokic receives the pass, the defense rotates on queue, and Jokic kicks it to the open corner shooter.
The elbow and mid-post areas are spaces that Towns should be able to dominate. Unfortunately, Towns averaged a measly 2.5 elbow touches per game and 1.8 mid-range jumpers this season under Saunders. In the few games under Finch, this number leaped to 4.6 and 2.8, respectively. This number is still too low, but it is a trend in the right direction. In Towns’ last healthy season (2018-19), he shot 45 percent from the mid-range. Defenders must worry about a Towns face-up drive, which frequently leads to them sagging off. When they do so, Towns can effortlessly knock down a jumper.
The mid-range is a horribly inefficient region of the floor for most players. For skilled big men who can shoot, pass, dribble, and see over everyone else, though, it is an area that can spark a creative offense.
To be clear, I am not vouching for the total elimination of Towns’ outside shooting. He is the best shooting big man of all time, and in his last healthy season, he shot 40 percent in above the break threes. It is a tremendous asset, and it opens the floor for him to do a myriad of other things. Most notably, it creates driving lanes that most big men aren’t privy to.
Towns is not only a tremendous shooter, but he is also extremely mobile for a big man. As the floor continues to spread out, driving lanes for big men are becoming more prominent. Jokic’s drives per game have risen from 3.2 last season to 4.3 this season, while Embiid’s have increased from 2.4 to 3.7.
Under Saunders, Towns was averaging 3.6 drives per game. This number, on the surface, isn’t as much an indictment as the previous disparities. Once we think about the drives each player is getting, it becomes more worrisome that Towns didn’t average more.
We’ve already established that Jokic and Embiid have played more on the interior this season than the previous season. This fact tells us that most of their drives are likely coming on mid-post face-ups or from the elbow. Both players are decent three-point shooters who can surprisingly still get defenders to bite on their elongated shot fakes, but they don’t necessarily have the footspeed to blow past defenders. Instead, they use their strength and physicality to bully their way to the rim. It is practical and a useful tool for their team’s offense, but it is the biggest difference compared to Towns.
Towns being the most dangerous outside shooting big man creates a plethora of driving lanes. Defenses have to respect him well beyond the arc. Once Towns has them on an island on the perimeter, a simple shot fake is typically enough to make them bite. The second they take that slight step forward to contest, Towns is already past them with an open runway to the rim.
Towns is also skilled enough that he can create for teammates out of the drive. Again, Towns easily beats his defender off the dribble, this time from a rotation. Instead of reacting late to their rotations, the defense is fully keyed in on Towns. He could easily barrel into them to try and draw a foul (sometimes he does this to no avail or his detriment). However, Towns wisely decelerates and kicks to the open shooter.
Attacking off the dribble is something we rarely saw from Towns under Saunders. Under Finch, Towns’ drives per game jumped to a much more impressive 5.8. With how versatile Towns is and how spaced their offense is, Towns attacking off the dribble is a mismatch against most opponents as long as he isn’t racking up a bunch of offensive fouls.
As we play out this season from hell, I don’t expect to see an entirely new offense between now and the end of May. It just isn’t realistic given the time frame. I do, however, expect to see incremental changes to how the offense revolves around Towns.
Chris Finch has proven in the past that he can maximize an offense that is centralized around a versatile center. He needs to increase the number of touches Towns gets per game and diversify the regions of the floor in which he gets them. Finch needs to draw on his experiences with Jokic and Cousins and examine what has worked so well for Embiid this season.
Karl-Anthony Towns is a three-level scoring threat who can also create for his teammates out of any situation. He isn’t a facsimile of Jokic or Embiid, but he can learn a lot by modeling and changing his game as they have. Towns has all the tools to be the focal point of an offense and be mentioned as an elite center. It’s about time we see him play like one.