Karl-Anthony Towns has 31,650,600 reasons to enter this season with an edge.
Despite averaging 24.4 points, 12.4 boards and 3.4 assists last season while shooting 40 percent from 3-point land, Towns was not voted onto one of the three All-NBA teams last season. Receiving the honor at the center position were Nikola Jokic, Joel Embiid and Rudy Gobert. Had Towns gotten the nod over any one of the three, his five-year contract extension — set to commence this season — would have been worth $189,903,600. Instead, Towns’ deal is worth $158,253,000.
No one is shedding a tear for someone “only” making $150 million. And Towns likely isn’t shedding one either. It’s more of a status thing. When you think you’re the best at something, not even medaling is a tough pill to swallow.
Watching how Towns has been carrying himself around Timberwolves training camp this fall, it’s hard to not put two and two together and think that he’s at least a little irked about all of that. Within the lines of the basketball court, cocooned by new teammates, a new coach and a culture he loves, Towns appears to vacillate somewhere between happy and elated. Step out of those lines though, in front of the camera and you can almost feel how Towns carries the weight of what he seems to feel is an unfair representation of the player he has become.
At Media Day, Towns was skipping around the facility, eager to pose for pictures with his teammates, rocking one of those ninja headbands tucked below new and tightly woven braids. But that positive tenor changed to something more serious — teetering on perturbed — when he took the stage to answer questions from the gathered local media. When Towns perceived a question to be long-winded, he would begin spinning the microphone in a way that seemed to say wrap it up, and he took questions he didn’t feel like answering in other directions — typically back to the culture.
It’s hard to blame him for the irritability and implementing this tactic. After all, the media votes for the All-NBA teams. Of the 100 members of the national media that voted, only 20 ballots cast a vote for Towns (all third-place votes). Of note: The one member of the Twin Cities media that had a vote did vote for Towns.
More than anything, it’s just clear to see that Towns is resolute to change this perception. In his corner, very clearly, he has both Gersson Rosas and Ryan Saunders. Together, Rosas and Saunders have created a blueprint that plans on empowering him. They believe their 23 year-old center is special, and that it’s time to put together a system that recognizes him as such. Talk to anyone in the Wolves front office or on the bench and the sentiment is the same: The KAT we’ve witnessed the past few years was not optimized and has thus only scratched the surface of what he can become. If there is actually something far greater than the player who has averaged 20 and 10 on greater than 40 percent 3-point shooting the past two seasons, then the way he has been used has to evolve. And, well, an evolution, that quite literally is the plan.
Saunders describes the way the Wolves will use Towns this year similar to a quarterback in football. The offense is going to consistently “swing through Karl in the middle of the floor, at the top-of-the-key,” says Saunders. At the beginning of non-fastbreak possessions, Saunders wants Towns to be “the one making decisions.” In the aggregate, this should manifest in an offensive product that is representative of a far cry from the norm under the previous regime. But that inherently implies a fairly major structural shift.
This shift to more frequently functioning at the top-of-the-key, and less from the low-block, inherently creates additional reads for Towns than previous seasons. According to Towns, he’s ready for that.
“Let’s talk about basketball then if you wanna talk about it in the Xs and Os,” Towns said wryly at training camp, channeling his inner Deshaun Watson.
Watson, the Houston Texans quarterback, has made it his thing in his postgame press conferences to freely and deeply break down defensive coverages with the wit and vocabulary of a seasoned offensive coordinator. As a consumer, the depth of Watson’s responses are almost overwhelming. For the uninitiated, Watson’s breakdowns of “diamond fronts” or “zero rats” sets are reminiscent of the process of reading the thesis of a Ph.D. candidate — requiring a dictionary to understand all of the big words.
Towns similarly went off at training camp when asked how his reads change from the block versus the top of the key:
As it is with Watson, KAT’s response requires a basketball dictionary to decipher the information. In parsing those words though, there are four key tenets of change that he describes:
- The threat of his penetration of the defense
- The degree to which the defense adjusts on the backline to that threat
- The size of the slots for cutters that develop after the defense adjusts
- The importance of seeking simple passes so as to avoid turnovers
How boldly Towns is able to check each of those four boxes will directly correlate to the success of the blueprint, and will then begin to define the evolution of his perception.
The Threat of Penetration
The difference is really summed up best when Towns acknowledges how the additional space he has from the top allows him to be a greater penetration threat due to the additional force that comes with a run-up. Think Giannis Antetokounmpo; a player can gain so much more momentum when they start their drive 30 feet from the basket compared to post-up situations closer to the rim.
“From the post, obviously, I’m looking for wings, I’m looking for the corner, I’m looking for misplays by the defense, I’m looking for too much eagerness,” said Towns. “With me at the top, obviously everyone wants to collapse. You know no one is gonna let me get a step on anyone.”
While Towns did finish second in the league in post-ups last season, it’s not like this attacking from the top notion is exactly new. Ever since his sophomore season, when he really stretched his shot mix out to the 3-point line, Towns has used the potency of his jumper combined with his handle to burn bigs who over-pursue him on the perimeter.
This pump-and-go into freight train mode has always been part of the KAT Experience. But what Saunders and Towns are describing is using him up there less like a Wildcat quarterback (situational in nature) and more like a true pocket passer.
“Everyone always tries to tap me as the scorer. I do this, I do that offensively,” said Towns. “That’s not something I actually like to do. Ever since high school, I’ve been a person who’s just been very efficient with the shots he gets and usually trying to get everyone open on the offensive end.”
Towns knows he is a threat every time he touches it out there. And Saunders knows that, too. So why not increase the volume? The thought process goes something like this: Let the defense react to the threat, and let Towns react to the reaction. By empowering KAT with additional touches up top, he can then decide if that specific possession is a moment to attack the rim or a time to facilitate a separate action for a teammate.
Reading the backline of the defense
Because Towns can’t really be contained by one defender out there, he is more concerned with the second line of the defense.
“And then if I do (get a step), the first man is already obsolete,” said Towns, continuing along in his Watson-esque response. “So I’m always looking at the backline, I’m looking at the second guy, I’m looking at the help guy. And well, if that help guy is already cheating in, my guy on the wing is already open.”
To extend the quarterback metaphor, Towns will have a hot read in these situations. But if the defense takes that read away, it’s time to hit the teammate whose defender has adjusted.
Again, this isn’t new. Particularly after the All-Star break last season, when Towns’ usage rate escalated from 26.6 percent to 32.2 percent, he was more frequently asked to catch up top and make this read. As you can see here against Sacramento, the attack is option one, but when Nemanja Bjelica stunts in to cut off the drive, Towns’ read changes.
This action requires synergy. It’s no surprise that what makes this work is the basketball IQ of wily vets, Anthony Tolliver and Luol Deng. Tolliver reads the back cut after Bjelica stunts, and Deng knows to stay home for what will become a very open corner 3.
“Sometimes it’s as simple as a guy that is at the wing, he comes in, he’s too much in at the free throw line extended, and he’s at the free throw line trying to stop me from doing a right-hand drive,” said Towns. “Just a simple shovel pass to the right gets the man wide open for the 3.”
Towns’ ability to make the initial read and his teammates acting accordingly are what makes this relatively simplistic action click. But spacing makes it even more seamless. And that space, if executed properly, creates the biggest positive impact of these five-out sets: Larger slots for cutters.
Increasing space for cutters
The geometry of a basketball court is pretty simple. Place your chess pieces further from the rim and there is more space to find angles for cutters. In his answer, Towns highlighted this. For him, it’s about making sure he not only delivers the pass to the cutter but that he hits them with enough space to make a move.
“Giving them the ball on the cut down the middle with a weakside coming over is putting them in a bad position,” said Towns “So I gotta find ways for the slot to open, the wings open and give them the ball.”
“If the weakside is able to recover, I’ve gotta fake ’em off. Maybe the corner is a cut. Maybe I’m telling the weakside to go through just to open up more of a side for the corner man to come up — do a step-up back-cut, give him the ball, and now he’s open. That’s a great play me and Wig do.”
Squared-up from the top-of-the-key increases the volume of reads Towns will need to make, complicating the process some. But, to use a football metaphor again: At least the defensive line is all in front of him. So much of where Towns has struggled as a facilitator thus far in his career has come from needing to read the defense while his back is to the basket.
There is no greater example of this than the playoffs series against Houston in 2018. Towns really struggled to properly adjust for the baseline double-team the Rockets brought at him time and again. Peering over just one shoulder, his vision was clouded. Finding cutters, or any pass, out of those doubles was a battle he lost.
By moving Towns to the top of the action, Saunders is betting that Tom Thibodeau was using Towns incorrectly in that series. Or, at a minimum, it’s an acknowledgment that the potency of Towns’ potential is pinched by limiting the ways in which he is weaponized.
Making The Right, Simple read
While Towns may be the quarterback of the offense, or whatever we want to call it, it’s not as if he is the point guard. The goal of getting the ball to Towns in this position is to increase the threat level of an offensive possession to a degree that outweighs the safety of running a traditional set through the actual point guard. To maximize that potential, Towns acknowledges he needs to be disciplined. As he said, he doesn’t need to be Magic Johnson.
“Sometimes it’s not about the home run pass. I know you guys love the fake, no-look, one-hand Magic Johnson showtime passes.”
A great sign of maturation for Towns as a facilitator will come from heeding his own advice. Historically, he has had a gunslinger streak that has cost him from time to time. The benefit of this shift is diminished unless that is toned down.
Jeff Teague is going to be the Wolves starting point guard, and Shabazz Napier will be his backup. And just as Towns is to theoretically elevate the effectiveness of his teammates when he is initiating actions, Teague and Napier need to elevate Towns when they are initiating the action.
“Just because there’s a lot of talk of KAT being a facilitator doesn’t mean that he’s not getting the ball from the point guard,” said Saunders at training camp. “People talk a lot about thinking that KAT is going to play point guard, but a point guard is a point guard usually. And he’s usually your best decision-maker, too.”
Particularly later in games, the game flow will shift more towards halfcourt sets. That’s just how the NBA works. And in those situations, the old, on-the-block KAT will show up. It will be the point guard’s job to find him there. Towns’ quarterbacking is simply a way to ensure the big man is utilized in the team’s mid-game possessions. If the preseason is any indication, the Wolves may legitimately play with the fastest pace in the league. If Towns’ bread and butter came from the post in an uptempo offense, he just wouldn’t get fed much. All of this is about maximization.
“I think he’ll be in different situations in different times of the game,” says Saunders. “You want to move him around early and try to see where teams are playing him, how teams are playing him. Late in the game, you might try to go to him, situations like that where you are going to him in the post.”
The greater point here is that for Towns to grow, he needs to be used in a different way. In the modern NBA, the challenge in having your best player being a big man is finding them in non-traditional big man situations. More than anything, it’s about making sure the volume of his touches in positive expected value situations increases. If Towns, Rosas and Saunders want to change the perception that surrounds Towns, then the opponent’s perception of the threat of KAT needs to grow. By placing him in an offensive blueprint that asks him to do even more, that’s how he becomes the most valuable center in the league.