Timberwolves

Timberwolves Preseason Guide: Karl-Anthony Towns

It’s go time for Karl-Anthony Towns. Yeah, yeah — he’s been going for four years now. But still, the time for KAT to show that there is even another gear is now. The team bonding in the Bahamas is great and all; we all know, according to Instagram, that the Wolves won the offseason. But if they are to win in any sort of meaningful way on the basketball court this season, it’s simple, Towns is going to need to be a different kind of influencer. Yes, Ryan Saunders is the new coach and Gersson Rosas is callin’ the shots, but this is KAT’s team.

It is worth noting that Towns’ gear shifting did begin after Tom Thibodeau was fired last January. Saunders completely handed the offense to his center, and KAT took it. The big guy jumped from ranking 34th in the league in terms of his usage under Thibodeau to 11th under Saunders (higher than any center in the league not named Joel Embiid). But this year it isn’t about Towns’ usage. That is going to be there by default. It’s about synergy. Go time for KAT means finding even more of himself while doing so within a team concept.

Even once Saunders took over last year, the direction was not precise. It was a lot of guess-and-check. Saunders knew he wanted his team to evolve their style of play away from the rigidity of the Thibodeau model. But with the rapid-fire nature of an NBA season, those adjustments came in bits and pieces and they were often jagged. The only real defining detail of the Saunders’ offense was that KAT was a big part of it. This season, Towns needs to not only be the fulcrum of the offense but also its sandpaper. It’s on Saunders to put together an effective system, and it’s on Towns to make it work.

At times, the offense will ask Towns to bash in the post (Joel Embiid-style). Other times, KAT will be asked to be the Wolves’ offensive hub; squared to the basket and orchestrating from the free-throw line extended (Nikola Jokic-style). And there will also be the need to for Towns to become more dynamic in the pick-and-roll game, not only rolling but also popping beyond-the-arc (Al Horford-style). One way or the other, it is go time for Towns. Because, let’s be real, we’re all thinking it: When the season tips, the clock will officially start on that Anthony Davis contract.

Strengths

Diverse Scoring Prowess

Only 43 players in the league attempted over 200 3-point shots and shot 40% on those attempts in either the 2017-18 or 2018-19 season. Of those 43, Towns is one of 10 to hit that mark both seasons — and he is about five inches taller than the next tallest player on that list (Klay Thompson). He is the manifestation of an NBA offensive evolution that asks you to forget about size and positional distinctions in the name of efficiency.

But buried in the modern NBA landscape it is easy to forget that Towns is also offensively elite in the traditional big man sense. He was one of five players last season to post up over 250 times and to average over 1.00 points scored per possession in those situations, per Synergy Sports. It’s a level of dominance just a tick lower than Kevin Durant and Kawhi Leonard’s effectiveness in isolation situations. Acknowledge that you can count the number of formidable shooters that have ever surrounded Towns in those post-up situations on one hand and you know he’s just special.

Offensively there’s just no one in the NBA like KAT: a brilliance of scoring dominance that is only extrapolated by its diversification.

Offensive Rebounding

A bizarre dark mark on Towns’ production is the Wolves inability to never be an even average defensive rebounding team in any of the four years of his career. That said, on the other side of the ball, Towns has also led one of the most dominant offensive rebounding charges in the league. For the past three seasons, the Wolves have finished in the top five in offensive rebound rate every year.

Even though Towns seems to stretch his game out further and further from the basket each season, he has not surrendered any of his tenacity — or effectiveness — in attacking the offensive glass. Towns attempted 27% of his field-goal attempts from beyond the arc last season, yet his individual offensive rebounding rate was higher than his rookie year where he was only attempting 8% of his shots from deep. It doesn’t matter where KAT plays on the floor, he’s an absolute goon on the offensive glass.

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Weaknesses

Defensive Awareness

In all four years of Towns’ career, the Wolves have surrendered more points per defensive possession with Towns on the floor than when he was off. It hasn’t mattered if his coach was Sam Mitchell, Tom Thibodeau or Ryan Saunders — the defense has always been worse when KAT plays.

The margin of error is decreasing, though. In Towns’ second season, his first under Thibodeau, the Wolves cratered nearly an additional ten points per 100 possessions while he played, and last season that number dropped to half a point under Saunders. For a player like Towns, who admittedly prefers to use his instincts rather than playing reactive, Thibodeau’s defensive system was a struggle. To his credit though, Saunders kept many of Thibodeau’s defensive tenets in place and Towns’ ability to react on his reads improved. But only to an extent. If the scheme broadly remains the same, playing with greater awareness when he retreats to the rim is perhaps the most important facet of the game for Towns to improve upon.

Executing on Passing Vision

After Saunders took over mid-season, Towns’ assist rate actually increased by 140% from where it was at under Thibodeau during the first half of the year. And he did this while decreasing his turnover rate. It was a massive stride and no small coup. But with the offensive allegedly set to run through Towns to an even greater degree this year, the Wolves are going to need even stronger quarterback play from their big man fulcrum. If Towns’ time at the free throw line area increases to Nikola Jokic levels, he is going to need to improve his ability to execute on passes from there.

Earlier in his career, Towns was wont to become overwhelmed by double teams when posting-up on the block. But he improved. His willingness to be patient enough for the double to commit fully unleashed his ability to find teammates on cuts and skip passes. It is definitively fair to say that Towns has improved as a back-to-the-basket passer. The question is can he similarly execute at the top-of-the-key when squared up to the hoop — where the number of reads he will have will at least double. If, as a passer, Towns can let go off some of those fancy dishes that drove Thibodeau crazy and instead use his QB vision for good, he can take the Wolves offense to another level.

Karl-Anthony Towns

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