Year after year, Karl-Anthony Towns continues his trend toward one of the most versatile offensive big men in the league’s history. Last season’s improvement came from Towns’s rim pressure as he ranked second among all centers in drives per game with 7.9 (only behind Julius Randle) and ranked first among all centers in points from drives with 6.6, per NBA Stats. The Minnesota Timberwolves’ center can continue expanding his offensive versatility this season by weaponizing the dribble hand-off (DHO).
Last season, the DHO wasn’t a focal point of the Timberwolves’ offense as they only ran it on 4.3% of their possessions (20th in the league), even though they found success when they did run it as they scored 0.93 points per possession (PPP) (11th in the league). Given the Towns’s offensive versatility, you’d assume that he would be a frequent participant like we see with teams like the Miami Heat, who use their skilled center Bam Adebayo frequently in the DHO to spark a myriad of looks to set up counters. However, Towns only recorded 0.5 DHO possessions per game last season (2.3% of his overall play types). He did, however, register 1.00 PPP, which ranked in the 72nd percentile in the league, per NBA Stats.
It would be surprising if Towns’s DHO usage skyrocketed to the top of the league this season, but it feels like a missed opportunity not to utilize it more. One of the most important aspects of running a successful DHO is having a dynamic scorer and decision-maker receiving the handoff.
Circling back to the previously mentioned Miami Heat, they thrived in this set primarily because of the shooting threat that players like Duncan Robinson, Tyler Herro, and Max Strus present. Those players’ collective ability to make a quick decision, move the ball, and immediately relocate makes it such an obnoxious action to defend. When we insert the Timberwolves roster, it’s tough not to get excited about how their offense could look running a few more DHOs per game.
Anthony Edwards and D’Angelo Russell are versatile enough as scorers to create mismatches against unbalanced defenses. Even when you throw in Jaden McDaniels, Jaylen Nowell, Bryn Forbes, and Austin Rivers, the defense has to deal with a lot of perimeter scoring pressure. However, what takes the threat of the DHO to the next level is a skilled big. Over the years, Towns has proven that he can punish defenses from the post, in the pick-and-roll, spotting up, and on drives. By running more DHOs, the Timberwolves can further accentuate Towns’s versatility while also introducing the threat of another scorer.
Here, the Timberwolves stack the right side of the floor as they run a quick DHO between Towns and Edwards at the top of the arc to get Edwards a downhill drive on an empty left side. As they execute the DHO, Josh Primo goes way under Towns to ensure that Edwards doesn’t get a free driving lane. Towns and Edwards quickly audible into a pick-and-roll that Primo goes over the screen on. This action forces Jakob Poeltl to show on Edwards’s drive, leaving Towns. Towns pops out for the wide-open 3.
The DHO is a beautifully simple action that teams can quickly get into and use to spark different actions, as we just saw. From an aesthetic standpoint, though, the DHO is at its finest when it highlights two players who thrive off of taking what the defense gives them. Next to the pick-and-roll, it is the pinnacle of the two-man, read-and-react aspect of basketball.
Most offenses run the DHO to put shooters in motion and their premier scorers in an advantageous position. The elite offenses, though, use their handoff-man as a scoring threat and decision-maker (see the Miami Heat and Denver Nuggets). With a skilled big who can score in various ways, the keeper action out of the DHO can be deadly.
Here, Towns and Russell run the DHO toward the empty corner. Once Will Barton decides to go over the screen, Aaron Gordon knows he must help on Russell since he doesn’t have any help to his right. Towns also knows this and immediately attacks the lane once he feels Gordon go with Russell. Towns attacks the rim hard and beats the rotating defenders for an easy layup.
This time, Towns and Russell are in almost an identical situation. However, Russell is instead relocating to the top of the arc, away from the empty corner. This setup now allows Towns to attack the empty corner. As Towns keeps it, Precious Achiuwa doesn’t bite on the Russell movement, and he actually plays this as well as possible. Unfortunately for him, he gives Towns enough of a cushion that allows Towns to get a clean driving lane where he doesn’t have to worry about a help defender. Towns uses his long strides to beat Achiuwa to the spot and finish at the rim.
Watching a big successfully execute a DHO keeper is one of the more oddly satisfying plays in basketball. They are given a rare opportunity to highlight their awareness, skill, and mobility. For most teams, it’s almost like when a linebacker checks in at tight end, catches a goal-line touchdown, and you find yourself exclaiming, “oh, that was pretty neat.” Not only is Towns part of the small pool of bigs who have evolved out of that category, but he also can do more out of the DHO than most of them. Not only can he attack the rim when Towns catches his defender hesitates, but he can also punish them from the perimeter off the bounce.
Here, Towns runs another DHO with Russell, where Towns has the opportunity to attack the empty corner. This play is setting up to mirror what we just saw against Achiuwa, but as Towns keeps it, Dillon Brooks gives him a shoulder that knocks him off his driving lane. Instead of killing his dribble and being done with it, Towns regains his balance, recognizes the cushion Brandon Clarke is giving him, and knocks down the step-back 3.
This season, using Towns more as the ball-handler in the DHO feels like a no-brainer. However, if head coach Chris Finch wants to get weird, he could use Towns more as the receiver. This would allow Towns to put opposing bigs in motion defensively, enable him to generate momentum getting downhill, and free him up for 3s.
Here, the Timberwolves start in horns set before Patrick Beverley sets a down screen for Towns. As Towns comes off the screen, Edwards makes the pitch-back to Towns. Towns doesn’t hesitate and knocks down the 3 off the catch.
From a scoring standpoint, the sky is the limit for Towns in the DHO. The next step that he must take, and this isn’t exclusive to the DHO, is his decision-making and ball security. Last season, Towns had a turnover percentage of 14.4 (38th percentile), per Cleaning the Glass. While the DHO can open up an array of scoring opportunities for him, it could also put him in more vulnerable positions to commit a turnover. We’ve seen Towns operate as one of the more impressive passing centers in the league, but he has struggled to find consistency with his ball security. That may improve some with the addition of a dominant vertical spacer in Rudy Gobert, but it is the only thing holding Towns back from being an absolute menace in the DHO.