Timberwolves

Two Ways Karl-Anthony Towns Can Evolve His Game Next Year

Photo Credit: Chris Nicoll (USA TODAY Sports)

In his first six seasons, Karl-Anthony Towns has already cemented himself as the second-best player in Minnesota Timberwolves history. Statistically, the former No. 1-overall pick out of Kentucky is everything fans could want in a franchise player. Towns is one of just 17 players in NBA history to average more than 22 points and 11 rebounds per game in their first six seasons in the NBA. That list includes 15 Hall of Famers, Joel Embiid, and Towns. With that company, you would think KAT was on the fast track to the Hall of Fame himself — but not so fast, my friend. He plays for the Timberwolves, where nothing is guaranteed.

KAT won the Rookie of the Year award in 2016 after a stellar season in which he averaged 18.3 points and 10.5 rebounds per game. The Wolves won 29 games during his rookie campaign, up from just 16 wins the year prior. Before his second and third seasons NBA, GMs voted Towns as the player they’d want to build a franchise around the most. Towns finally married individual and team success during the 2017-18 season. With Tom Thibodeau roaming the sidelines, Towns, Jimmy Butler, and Andrew Wiggins led the Wolves to their first playoff appearance since 2004. KAT also earned his first trip to the All-Star game and an All-NBA Third Team selection.

Alas, that was the high-water mark for Towns’ career thus far. In the ensuing three seasons, KAT was berated by Butler, who called Towns and much of the team soft on his way out the door. Thibs iced himself out of the franchise, and Towns hasn’t returned to the playoffs in the past three seasons while adding a second All-Star appearance in 2019. Last year was a lost season for Towns, who only played in 35 games between injuries and COVID shutting the season down. After a tragic offseason that saw his mother Jacqueline and several other family members pass away due to COVID-19, Towns struggled through a few more injuries before finishing this season strong.

Now, six years in, Towns is in a much different place in his career. Fans and media members are doing everything they can to get Towns out of Minnesota as fast as possible, even though the man himself said he wants to remain in Minneapolis for his entire career.

NBA fans underrate Towns. He is possibly the poster boy for the “good stats, bad team” guy and is now the veteran leader on a young up-and-coming team. The most important questions facing Towns this offseason are what is his next evolution will be, and how does he get even better next season?

KAT is already a unicorn when it comes to huge people who can shoot threes — he’s 39.4% from deep in his career — but there are two areas on the court that he can improve to claw his way back to the top of the NBA mountain.

The first is his passing. Karl-Anthony Towns has always been a decent passer, averaging three assists per game for his career. He started to show off his playmaking abilities once Chris Finch took over as head coach. Towns averaged 4.8 assists per game under Finch, ranking 53rd in the NBA over that span and sixth for all players over 6’10”.

Finch coached Nikola Jokic during his one season as an assistant in Denver, and Jokic is who Towns should watch if he wants to improve his playmaking. Jokic finished seventh in the NBA with 8.3 assists per game and ninth with a 37.7% assist rate on his way to claiming the first MVP award by a center since Shaquille O’Neal in 2000. Jokic picked defenses apart, making the second-most passes per game (74.9) and easily leading the league in overall touches (101) and elbow touches (8.8). Finch could similarly use Towns (69.8 touches and 3.9 elbow touches per game under Finch), positioning him at the elbow where he can use his height to direct traffic and find cutters in the lane or whip his patented over-the-shoulder pass to spot-up shooters in the corner. Towns is slightly more efficient from the elbow than the MVP, scoring .566 points per elbow touch to Jokic’s .544.

If Finch can simulate the Denver Nuggets offense by making Towns the hub, D’Angelo Russell can play the Jamal Murray role and become a ball-handling off guard who can get open around the perimeter off the ball or cut to the rim where Towns delivers an easy pass.

To make the final leap, Towns also needs to transform himself into a defensive stalwart. KAT has improved dramatically since he was one of the worst post defenders in the NBA early in his career, but there is more progress to be made if he wants to lead a team deep into the playoffs.

Most advanced metrics have him as a league-average defender this season. He boasts a defensive box plus-minus of 0.2, and FiveThirtyEight’s RAPTOR ratings give him -0.2 wins above replacement, both down from his career-high marks last season. Historically, he chases blocks and swipes at the ball on drives, leading to him being out of position, allowing easy putbacks, and collecting bad fouls. With a young team around him, the most important thing Towns can do on defense is to simply be in good position.

He’ll likely never be an elite rim protector like Rudy Gobert, but Towns can become a versatile defender with his switchability, similar to Bam Adebayo. Towns showed this year he has the quickness to switch on the perimeter and keep up with smaller, faster players. He could be best deployed alongside a shot-blocking center (perhaps Evan Mobley if the Wolves keep their pick) who can protect the rim, allowing Towns more flexibility on defense.

Towns will be 26 years old for the majority of next season and is just reaching his prime. He’s already an exceptional player who should constantly be in the All-NBA discussion. The promise of a generational superstar is still there. If he can raise his game by continuing to improve as a playmaker on offense and maximize his versatility on defense, he could finally go from a “good stats, bad team” guy to a great player who makes his team an annual contender. He’ll need help. Finch has to put him in the right position and give him the right teammates, but he can still evolve into the ultimate team building block that GMs thought he was just four years ago.

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Photo Credit: Chris Nicoll (USA TODAY Sports)

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