Will KAT's Defensive Improvements In FIBA Translate To the NBA?

Photo Credit: Bruce Kluckhohn-USA TODAY Sports

Dominican Republic head coach Nester Garcia was trying to keep his team focused. “Calm down baby, calm down,” Garcia belted in English to his team during a second-quarter timeout in the game against Puerto Rico on Friday. At the time, the Dominican Republic was down double digits, playing wild and undisciplined. By halftime, the Dominican Republic would be tied with Puerto Rico.

That was due in large part by Karl-Anthony Towns taking the advice of his head coach and turning his, as head coach Chris Finch calls it “stray voltage” into lightning. In FIBA, Towns has shown that he has taken several steps to return to his pre-injury form. He still has warts in his game such as fouling, but his defensive understanding seems to be improving. He is also showing that confidence in attacking the basket is returning, and he’s willing to shoot threes. All those improvements in FIBA (albeit with lesser competition) could be hinting at a massive Towns season in 2024.

First we must talk about Towns and a giant blemish on his game before we dig into the positives. Throughout his NBA career, coaches have to consistently remind Towns to calm down. Towns has averaged a technical foul roughly every 10 games throughout his career and has led the league in fouls per game for 3 consecutive seasons.

Unfortunately, he hasn’t played more disciplined basketball in the FIBA World Cup. He’s averaging 3.67 fouls per game, which is almost identical to his career average of 3.4. That’s concerning given that FIBA typically allows players to play a more physical brand of basketball, and Towns is playing roughly seven fewer minutes per game in the tournament. Fouling less has been a constant critique against the Wolves center, and it would have been nice to see him make an improvement playing a more physical brand of basketball.

Fouls aside, FIBA Karl-Anthony Towns has been more comfortable playing in a drop-style defense. That’s important, given that the Wolves have switched their defense scheme to this more traditional drop-style coverage to accommodate center Rudy Gobert’s skill set.

A drop defense is essentially a type of pick-and-roll defense in which the post player “drops” toward the basket during the pick, with the guard fighting through the screen. In theory, this should take away a three-point shot or a layup, allowing a mid-range, less effective shot. That’s a contrast to the more fluid blitzing defense the Wolves ran on during Towns’ best defensive campaign in 2022.

Last season, Towns not only struggled with dropping too far to the basket, but he also struggled with the discipline required to successfully switch positions. Below is an example from the Friday game against Puerto Rico in which Towns shows improvement. He drops to defend against a roll, flashing toward the guard to take away the mid-range shot. Then he traps the opposing center under the basket for a travel violation.

In the FIBA games, Towns has shown a better understanding and positioning in this type of defense. Even in off-ball situations Towns has shown to stay consistent and stick with his matchup in the corners. It’s something Towns struggled with last season in Minnesota.

One could assume his center instincts would pull him away from his matchup toward a driving guard to help contest the shot, only to give up open corner threes. However, that hasn’t been the case. It’s great to see that he’s using FIBA to focus on his assignments and grow in his coverage overall.

It will help immensely if Towns can be a more capable drop defender this season because Minnesota’s defense has started to look like it could be a force in 2024. In his career, Towns is a net negative in ESPN’s defensive real plus/minus, rating a -2.04 and 54th among qualified centers. Just getting back to a 0.00 rating would be a massive improvement.

Towns is capable of that improvement. In 2021-22, he was an impressive +1.93, putting him at the 29 spot. Although the Wolves will run a different defense next year, the talent around him is significantly better than in 2021.

In FIBA games, Towns has shown that his offensive game is also back to 2022 levels. He appears to have his quickness back. In the clip below, Towns uses his quickness of the dribble and footwork to navigate through the paint for dunk. The burst out of his stance is an encouraging sign and displays Towns’ trust in his once-injured hamstring and in his body as a whole.

Towns’ paint game should give Wolves fans a lot of hope for this upcoming season. Towns has had a 64% true shooting average in his best-scoring seasons. True shooting average adjusts the values of three-pointers and free throws to give a more holistic look at a players’ shooting ability.

For reference, in Towns’ 2021 season, his true shooting was 64%, rating him ahead of Steph Curry, Kevin Durant, and LeBron James. If Towns can carry over his aggressiveness and efficiency displayed in the FIBA games, he looks capable of returning to that magical 64% rating. Below is Towns working the Puerto Rico defender for a drop-step hook shot, again showing flashes of the agility that makes him near-impossible to guard.

Below is another angle of that hook shot coupled with a tough finger roll off the dribble for Towns. Again acknowledging the lesser competition of FIBA, it is still impressive the quickness and trust he is showing in his legs.

Final observation is that Towns’ willingness to shoot from the three appears to be at an all-time high. Over his career, Towns has been a terrific shooter from three, averaging just under 40% for his career on 4 attempts per game. He’s averaging 5.3 attempts at 37% during FIBA.

The increase in volume may seem minimal. But if the attempts are extrapolated to reflect the difference in his minutes per game when he’s playing with the Wolves, which is usually 34 minutes per game, his attempts increase to roughly 6.5 per game during FIBA. Below, Towns hitting a jab step followed by a made three-point basket from the wing. That’s something Wolves fans will be familiar seeing, but it displays the trust again in his legs and his willingness to let the shot fly.

The increase from 4 attempts to 6.5 attempts may seem subtle. But with his 40% shooting percentage, and at 6.5 attempts per game, that would put him just behind Atlanta Hawks star Trae Young, who has an average of 6.53 attempts per game, for 37th in the NBA. The increase in volume would also fit well with Gobert, who’s typically in the dunker spot, and Chris Finch encouraging Anthony Edwards to drive.

Although Towns could probably still work on his “calm” in games, he has shown many flashes of returning to his pre-injury form while playing in the FIBA World Cup. Towns’ defensive understanding is taking a step in the positive direction in scheme, while staying the same in his fouls per game. Towns looks to be returning to his original offensive form, showing trust and confidence in his drives and 3-point shooting. If this is the Karl-Anthony Towns that shows up in Minnesota, the Wolves could go on a playoff run!

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Photo Credit: Bruce Kluckhohn-USA TODAY Sports

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