The Minnesota Timberwolves are having their best season in quite some time, and a primary reason for that is Karl-Anthony Towns reemerging as an All-NBA level player. Towns has always been an extraordinary scoring big man, but he’s added something to his game that very few centers can consistently execute. By increasing the volume and versatility of his drives, Towns continues to emerge as one of the most versatile scoring big men ever.
Whenever the word “ever” gets used, the initial, almost involuntary, reaction is to push back with every ounce of ferocity that your body can generate because it has turned into such a lazy way to describe something. However, when I say Towns continues to emerge as at least one of the most versatile scoring big men ever, is it really that controversial?
Please take a second and really think about how I’m phrasing this. I’m not calling him the greatest center ever or the greatest defender or the greatest post player. I’m specifically talking about the variety of ways he is scoring, which has never been done by another center when we look at the history of the league.
Towns has always had a quality post-up game, even though he struggles with the more physical defenders. His length, touch, and footwork have always made the post-up a viable option. Additionally, Towns is the best shooting big man of all time. I know he faced backlash earlier this season for stating that, but it’s not really that close. All due respect to Dirk Nowitzki, who walked so players like Towns could run, but Nowitzki’s career average of 38% on 3.4 three-point attempts per game pales in comparison to Towns’ career average of 39.7% on 4.1 attempts, especially when we factor in the variety of shots taken. This also isn’t to say that players before Towns were incapable of doing similar things, but this era of basketball has allowed players like Towns to venture into realms previous eras prohibited.
So, Towns has proven to be a dominant shooter and legit post player, so what else is there? What Towns has added this season is a bridge to those two worlds. Instead of simply worrying about his shot or his interior scoring, defenders now have to worry about his drives.
This season, Towns is currently averaging 7.8 drives per game, which is the most for any center by 2.3, per NBA Stats. (Side note, when you filter by center, they also show Julius Randle at 9.0, but that feels fraudulent given Randle is more of a power forward.) Among all players, Towns also has the third-highest points percentage on drives at 83.5 and the fifth-highest field goal percentage of 57.8. Even though it feels like the Timberwolves regularly get a bad whistle, Towns is being fouled on 16.4% of his shot attempts (74th percentile), the highest mark of his career, and is being fouled on the floor on 3.4% of the team’s plays (91st percentile), per Cleaning the Glass. Both of those foul numbers are directly attributable to the increase in drives by Towns. Towns’ combination of inside-outside scoring has always made him a matchup nightmare for opponents, but now that he has added a versatile driving repertoire to his game, he is proving to be one of the league’s best scorers.
Here, we see Towns receive the handoff in the early offense at the top of the arc. Towns is a fan of this trail three, so Wendell Carter Jr has to promptly react to his shot fake. As Carter closes out, Towns attacks Carter’s high foot. Carter initially does an excellent job of moving his feet to impede Towns, and this defensive effort would be good enough against almost any other center. Towns, however, now has the strength, speed, and ball-handling to fight through the contact and turn the corner on Carter before finishing with the monster dunk.
This time, Towns exploits his defender out of the pick-and-pop instead of in the early offense. After screening, Towns pops out to three and drags Jakob Poeltl to an area in which he is extremely vulnerable. Towns again uses a shot fake, which gets Poeltl to barely leave his feet. This subtle bite by Poeltl is enough for Towns to fly past the slower defender and finish with the dunk.
What sets Towns’ drives apart from other centers is his ability to change angles. Towns isn’t solely reliant on using his strength or quick first step on straight-line drives. This year, Towns is utilizing his footwork to change both the pace and angles of his drives.
Here, Towns receives the ball at the top of the arc with his momentum already going towards the rim. Towns doesn’t hesitate against the smaller defender and immediately attacks. Montrezl Harrell does a good job of cutting off Towns’ path, but Towns counters with ease. As Harrell starts to position himself to take a potential charge, Towns perfectly coordinates his footwork with his rip through as he steps across Harrell with his right foot to change the angle of his drive and finish with his left hand.
While the threat of his shot is a significant factor in how Towns creates driving lanes, he isn’t solely reliant on it. Here, Towns keeps the ball out of the dribble handoff (DHO) and drives to his right, hoping to capitalize on a potential defensive mix-up. Steven Adams initially does a good job staying with Towns, but as they approach the lane, Adams is forced to turn his hips to keep up with Towns. Now that Adams’s hips are parallel to the baseline, it is almost impossible for him to meaningfully contest any shot attempt Towns takes that isn’t a continuation of his drive. As Towns gets to the block, he firmly plants his right foot, shows an impressive level of deceleration, steps behind Adams with his left foot, and readjusts in mid-air to avoid the weak side contest of Jaren Jackson Jr.
One of the biggest frustrations with Towns’ post-up game over the years is how easily he gets pushed out of the paint and is forced to initiate his post-up much further away than desired. This has resulted in either a labored post-up attempt or a face-up jumper in the past. Now, Towns has the versatility to turn these hindered post-up attempts into fruitful drives.
Here, Towns receives the ball at the elbow and gets ready for the DHO. As he extends the ball, Trendon Watford swipes at the ball, and Towns counters with a blindingly quick spin move. Watford and the weak side defense can barely react in time as Towns finishes with a dunk in the blink of an eye.
This time, Towns is in a similar area of the floor matched up against the smaller, but freakishly athletic Keon Johnson. Johnson tries to be disruptive with his flashy jazz hands, but Towns is unaffected. With a firm jab step with his right foot, Towns sends Johnson the opposite direction before driving to his left and finishing with a floater off the glass with his off-hand.
Karl-Anthony Towns has always been one of the NBA’s best scoring big men because he can score in the post or step out and knock down the three. More and more centers are doing this every year, though. Towns has yet again emerged from the pack by adding a versatile driving repertoire to his game. He leverages his shooting gravity to generate driving lanes. He utilizes his post footwork to change speeds and angles on drives. By bridging his post-up game and his shooting with his new driving ability, Towns has continued to shine as one of the league’s most versatile scoring centers.