The Minnesota Timberwolves are off to great start to the season with a 5-2 record including a sweep of a four-game home stand. They’ve defeated the reigning Eastern and Western Conference champions, along with another title contender, the Boston Celtics.
A surprising aspect of the Wolves great start is just how poorly the team’s longest-tenured cornerstone, Karl-Anthony Towns, has played. Although it’s a sample size of just seven games, Towns has registered career-lows in points per game, two-point field goal percentage, three-point field goal percentage and free throw rate.
His offensive game has been poor in almost every area, with his worst game coming on Monday against Boston when he scored just seven points and committed seven turnovers before fouling out in overtime. It was just the 17th time in Towns’ entire career that he failed to score double-digit points.
Despite KAT’s less than ideal play on offense, the Timberwolves have still found a good deal of success with him on the court. The Wolves have a net rating of +11.8 with Towns on the court. For reference, Towns’ next best net rating for a season is +6.1 in 2017-18.
Towns has also been successful on the court with Rudy Gobert, something that was a big question mark coming into the season. In the 138 minutes the two have shared the court together so far, they have a net rating of +10.6. Last season, their net rating was +0.6 over 529 minutes.
The offense with both of them on the court, which was a big issue last year, especially stands out with an offensive rating of 118.9. The only other two-man pairing for the Timberwolves with at least ten minutes played that has a higher offensive rating is Towns and Jaden McDaniels.
Even with KAT having a brutal start to the season, he has still been able to provide value for the Wolves in different areas of the game. Let’s take a look at what some of those areas are and what he can do to improve to fully unlock this already-dangerous Minnesota squad.
When the Timberwolves traded for Gobert in the summer of 2022, one of the biggest questions was how would the pairing work defensively. There were ups and downs, but so far this year, the two have shown to be a great defensive pairing, especially in the half-court.
Towns has shown the ability to both guard out on the perimeter, as well as down in the paint, something that will be required of him all season as he plays both power forward and center.
In the game against the Celtics, Towns did a good job guarding wing players when switched on to them. In the clip below, KAT does a good job staying in front of Jayson Tatum and getting him to settle for a tough 3-point shot at a key moment in the game.
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In the game against the Denver Nuggets, Towns played more of a traditional center role on defense, guarding Nikola Jokić. This allowed Gobert to lurk off of Aaron Gordon and better guard the paint. This was a strategy that worked well for the Timberwolves in their playoff series against Denver last year and worked well for them a week ago Wednesday.
In the clip below, Towns does well containing the drive to the rim, recovering back to Jokić, staying in front of the two-time MVP, and maintaining verticality, allowing McDaniels to block the shot.
Through seven games the Wolves have the best defensive rating in the NBA by a good margin. While Gobert is the anchor of the defense and the main reason for the Wolves stellar play on that end, Towns’ improved play and his ability to play multiple different roles on that side of the court has been a large reason for the Wolves’ jump in defensive production.
While Towns has had great struggles getting the ball to go through the basket, he has had good moments as a playmaker that have generated easy shots for teammates. Finding Gobert around the basket will be especially important for Towns as the defense collapses when he drives to the rim.
The Wolves as a team have done a better job this season of throwing lobs to Gobert, but Towns has done a good job of finding Rudy near the rim in transition.
Towns has also had some moments of letting the game come to him and making the simple pass. In the clip below, Brown gets a little too focused on Towns, which allows Jaden to cut backdoor. KAT makes the easy pass to McDaniels who lays it off to Gobert for the easy dunk.
The hope now is that KAT can more often show he can make the easy pass within the flow of the offense, which will in turn lead to more open shots for himself.
Areas of Improvement
It may sound simplistic, but the first aspect of KAT’s game he will need to improve is to make shots. Towns has had a hard time putting the ball in the basket this year, and the first step toward improvement is just simply making his open shots.
Karl is shooting a career-low 30.8% from beyond the arc this season. That is over 8 percentage points behind his career mark of 39.3%. He is also shooting a career-low on two point shots at 48.6%, compared to his career average of 57%.
While there may be concerns over KAT’s demeanor with the officials and his offensive fit with Gobert, it just seems impossible that he will continue to shoot this poorly for the remainder of the season.
From a schematic point of view, one way to get more offensive production out of Towns is to use him more as a floor spacer when Gobert is on the court.
In the play below, Towns is set up in the weak-side corner. When Gobert rolls to the rim, Towns’ defender has to make the impossible choice between helping defend the lob to Rudy and defending Karl in the corner. Whichever one he chooses, the other will be open.
When Gobert is off the court, the Wolves can go back to getting the ball into Towns’ hands. With Gobert out of the lane, Towns’ post-ups and drives from the top of the key will both be more effective.
Overall, it is a great sign for the Wolves as a team that they have been able to win games with Towns playing so poorly. If they can get Karl-Anthony Towns back to playing at an All-NBA level, there is no telling how good this Timberwolves team will end up.