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How Will Karl-Anthony Towns Defend The Perimeter?

Towns’ ability to guard in space is perhaps the most crucial swing skill in his move to power forward.

Los Angeles Lakers v Minnesota Timberwolves Photo by David Berding/Getty Images

The Minnesota Timberwolves have undergone massive changes in the 2022 offseason, and it’s worth wondering how exactly it will all come together for Minnesota in 2022-23 as they look to build on a promising year. Each week from now until the start of preseason in October, I will be writing about one specific thing for each potential rotation player that I am most intrigued to see in terms of how the team ultimately fits. For last week’s story on Rudy Gobert, click here.

The phrase “what we owe each other” is not just the name of the philosophical work that formed the spine of one of the most thought-provoking sitcoms ever. It’s also an effective starting point for NBA players adjusting to prominent new teammates.

Adding an All-Star talent often changes the way a team plays and requires everyone involved to make sacrifices for the good of the whole. The incumbent and incoming players all have to think about what they can do in order to help others succeed in a way that translates to wins.

Following the Rudy Gobert trade, many players will have to do just that, but maybe none more so than Karl-Anthony Towns. Last week, we pondered how Gobert’s interior offensive spacing will play in his new digs, with major consideration paid to how the Stifle Tower’s presence may affect Towns’ driving lanes. Now it’s time to flip it around and ask what Towns owes Gobert, and the most intriguing response is clear: Towns owes Gobert passable perimeter defense.

This aspect of the most crucial partnership on the team is important because it is what has diminished Gobert in the past. The notable playoff failures of his Utah Jazz teams were more due to the poor perimeter defense around Gobert than him getting played off the floor; Royce O’Neale was the only above-average outside defender in Utah’s postseason rotation the last two years, and Gobert wasn’t able to put out fires all over the court.

Minnesota certainly has better defenders than Utah did in Jaden McDaniels and Anthony Edwards alone, but there are concerns that need to be addressed. McDaniels is foul-prone, Edwards is inconsistent and D’Angelo Russell is still a target for opposing ball handlers. If Towns is a liability outside, things could get just as ugly as they did in Utah with some bad luck.

The question is, of course, can Towns hold his own out there? It’s not an easy query to answer.

Towns has been a center for much of his career and was shunted into a drop coverage, rim-protector scheme for a fair amount of that time, so we haven’t seen him defend the perimeter consistently. Now, playing the four in an increasingly pace-and-space league, it will be his primary responsibility on that end.

Minnesota’s best defensive stretch with Towns came early last season when using his athleticism in a high-hedge pick-and-roll coverage that blitzed ball handlers and sought out turnovers. It was smart to take advantage of Towns’ lateral quickness, and the relative success of that approach would indicate Towns can at least stay afloat defending the perimeter.

It would be a leap to assume this means he’ll thrive in his new role, though. Opponents wised up to the scheme and learned to pass over and through it, leading to big scoring nights and forcing Chris Finch to devise other game plans.

Plus, being a full-time perimeter defender and dealing with isolations, hand-offs, off-ball screens and more around the 3-point line is different from only venturing out there for PNRs, when by definition you have a teammate in the action with you. Can Towns hold up if put on an island? There are clips, such as the following against LeBron James, that suggest he can hang with the forwards and wings he’ll likely be assigned to.

But the fact remains that it’s no certainty. This is one of the more uncertain installments of this “one thing” series because we haven’t seen Towns in this role, and there aren’t really any defensive stats that can predict if he will be effective. But if he’s committed to making it work with Gobert, solidifying his perimeter defense should be KAT’s No. 1 priority. It’s what he owes to Gobert to ensure a clean transition and to a team that needs his effort in order to follow through on its big expectations.