With Karl-Anthony Towns, it’s always been complicated.
Since coming into the league, Towns has been the center of a heated debate:
Should a center be a defensive anchor and post-move savant? Or, is dominating with guard skills the most impactful version of a big man?
Merely a decade ago, this question was easily answered. The idea of the perfect center had the size and athleticism of Shaquille O’Neal, the footwork and touch of Hakeem Olajuwon, the defensive prowess of Kevin Garnett, and maybe, if the person describing the perfect center was feeling edgy that day, the mid-range jump shot of Tim Duncan.
Since then, the idea of the perfect big man has changed.
In today’s NBA, players with more traditional skillsets coveted during the 90s and early 2000s are seeing their value dwindle by the year. Players like the New York Knicks’ Mitchell Robinson, Jakob Poeltl of the San Antonio Spurs, and the Chicago Bulls’ Andre Drummond have all seen themselves reduced to role players, and they are not alone.
Players of their archetypes were considered key franchise building blocks in previous eras of the NBA. But in today's game, they are settling for salaries at or below the league average, only to serve as rim-runners and shot blockers if they ever hope to join a contending team.
All of this rapid change in the NBA boils down to one crucial thing, the ability to make the 3-point shot.
Towns, for multiple reasons, has always been at the center of this ongoing battle between old-school and new-school since joining the Minnesota Timberwolves as the No. 1 overall pick in the 2015 NBA Draft.
During his lone year at Kentucky in 2014-15, Towns emerged as the best player in his class by year's end, but he was not always a shoo-in to be the first overall pick.
Before that college season, college evaluators considered Duke center Jahili Okafor the prize of his recruiting class. With his fully developed post-game, Okafor was everything teams had been looking for in a center for the entirety of the NBA’s history.
Okafor was projected to be the first overall pick for years in look-ahead mocks, garnering comparisons to players such as Duncan due to his savvy post skills and measured, but skilled play style.
Towns was always seen as a high-level prospect, but Okafor was seen as the easy first choice following both players' senior seasons in high school.
However, during Okafor and Towns season in college, basketball changed overnight.
Teams like the Golden State Warriors and Houston Rockets revolutionized the game during the 2014-2016 range. According to shottracker.com, from 2014 to 2018, the league average of 3-point attempts per game jumped from 22 to 29.
This seismic change in the way basketball was played was outstanding for players like Towns, as it emphasized the need to be able to constantly have five players on the court who can shoot.
Along with helping the KATs of the world, the change dug the grave for players like Okafor. Players who thrived in the early 2000s at the center position saw themselves having to change their games completely to stay in the league, and those who didn’t quickly found themselves out of the NBA.
Now that we are through the change that made KAT being a franchise player possible, let's break down just how special of a talent Towns is.
To start, Towns is a truly dynamic shooter not just at his position, but league-wide. Towns is already the all-time leader in 3-pointers made by a true center, and he has set this record while shooting a whopping 39.7% from 3 over the course of his career.
Most career 3-pointers by position:— StatMuse (@statmuse) August 8, 2022
PG — Stephen Curry (3,117)
SG — Ray Allen (2,973)
SF — Paul Pierce (2,143)
PF — Dirk Nowitzki (1,982)
C — Karl-Anthony Towns (779) pic.twitter.com/htYbqUiz5J
In just seven seasons, Towns already has etched his name in the history books. But Towns’ 3-point shooting is much more than just a gaudy number, it’s an experience.
Towns is not your typical stand-still, spot-up, and wait for a drive-and-kick opportunity shooting center. Towns has displayed the ability to shoot on the move time and time again, something almost no one at his position can do.
In the first clip, Towns shows off his ability to completely manipulate the defense through a screen, calling teammate D’Angelo Russell over to run through now teammate Rudy Gobert. Russell is not going to mean much in terms of a screener on Gobert, but a small amount of contact from Russell causes Gobert to have to move back just a few inches.
Instead of doing what most people at his size would and using the gap to get a run on Gobert to the rim, Towns immediately recognizes the opportunity to hit a step-back 3, using his quick, guard-like release to get the shot up over the outstretched hands of Gobert.
Later in the clip, Towns once again uses the smaller body of Russell to shield Gobert. This time, Towns uses his unusual amount of mobility to run Gobert into Russell once, flash back around Russell to create the appearance that he is rolling to the rim, and then cuts back behind Russell and stands just in front of the Timberwolves halfcourt logo, gathering a pass from Russell and immediately firing a 3 from Curry or Dame range.
These are just a few examples of KATs extraordinary shooting prowess, and Wolves fans know better than anyone how much Towns flashes his spectacular skill on a game-to-game basis.
On top of his shooting ability, Towns is also one of the NBA’s best rebounders, averaging over 10 rebounds per game in all but one of his NBA seasons, and that one where he didn’t, he pulled down 9.8 rebounds per game, so let's just go ahead and round that one up.
While Towns’ dynamic, guard-style 3-point shooting, and game-changing rebounding are the most noticeable aspects of his game on a statistical level, there are other parts of his game that deserve their flowers as well.
KAT is patently insane as a scorer.— Jack Borman (@jrborman13) June 11, 2022
I will never understand or entertain arguments that suggest trading him is smart.
Towns is a generationally great and versatile scorer who is only going to get better as Ant grows. I can't wait to see what he'll add to the bag for '22-23. pic.twitter.com/JTwh4tF5Xh
Towns' ability to put the ball on the floor is also something we have not seen at his size in the history of the NBA. Countless times, Towns has shown the ability to put the ball on the floor and break down his defender like a starting point guard, but it is not merely the fact that Towns can put his defenders on skates that makes this such a useful skill.
Towns’ main use of his handle is setting up his lethal step-back. As is shown in both of the clips above, Towns peculiar ability to put the ball on the floor often throws his defenders off and uses that unease, mixed with an impressive ability to decelerate, to create space to get off his shot over long defenders.
In some situations, Towns also uses his shiftiness to create passing lanes to open teammates, a skill that will come into effect more than ever this season, as Minnesota has done a good job of filling out its roster with plus-shooters to surround Towns and his co-star Anthony Edwards.
While Towns is everything that the modern basketball fan could want in the center position on the offensive end, defensively, Towns has been average at best to this point in his career.
Towns shows the ability, at times, to be a source of disruption on the defensive end, but he has never been able to consistently be a positive on that end of the court for Minnesota.
Karl-Anthony Towns' defense at the rim since the coaching change (min 5 DFGA/g).— Alan Horton (@WolvesRadio) March 16, 2021
Last 8g -- 49.2% (#2)
First 11g -- 63.2% (#32) pic.twitter.com/UE97hpOIT9
Towns is a decent rim defender and capable low post guy. He has never averaged less than a block per game in any of his seven seasons, but he has received some criticism, fair or not, for doing the ole’ Hassan Whiteside, hunting for blocks but being a minus defender overall.
Towns biggest flaw on defense is his inconsistent effort, but that appeared to change during last season's playoff appearance, and when Towns really buckles down he can be a very good defensive player.
Strong post defense from Karl Anthony-Towns against Jusuf Nurkic— Jackson Lloyd (@JacksonLloydNBA) January 26, 2022
AND, Jaylen Nowell pushing tempo, showcasing handle and touch pic.twitter.com/8y1G4brfZo
Even if Towns wants to continue to use most of his energy on the offensive end, Minnesota’s acquisition of Gobert alleviates KAT of rim protector duties, and he can use his shiftiness and athleticism to help Gobert on the weak side or play high-level perimeter defense on certain power forwards.
Despite lacking some of the defensive skills to make him an Olajuwon-level shot blocker, Towns is the perfect modern big man.
From his ability to shoot the three at a high enough level to win the three-point contest to his ability to make crafty passes at the level of a point guard, Towns is the very idea of the “stretch big” brought to life, and then multiplied by ten.
With Minnesota bringing in Gobert, Towns’ biggest weakness has now been taken care of.
While he may not be Hakeem-like on the low-block, Towns is a 6-foot-11, 250-pound sharpshooter, which unlocks all the other elements of his game that make him a supremely versatile offensive weapon. In 20 years, maybe the next generation of centers will be going to KAT camp to learn how to lace the 30-footer, instead of going to Hakeem camp to learn how to have perfect footwork down low.