Karl-Anthony Towns has always been one of the best basketball players in his level. In high school, he came out as a top ten prospect. After he left Kentucky, he became the first overall draft pick. Following his first NBA season, he was named the Rookie of the Year. He has had a historic start to his career after his first two seasons and will look to become not just one of the best big men in the NBA but one of the best players in the NBA this year.
Reaching immense heights
The expectations for Towns were high coming out of college, but he has reached an extremely high level of play sooner in his career than expected. In his rookie season, Towns posted 18.3 points, 10.5 rebounds, and 1.7 blocks per game while shooting 54.2% on his way to winning Rookie of the Year. In his second season, Towns continued his progression by recording 25.1 points, 12.3 rebounds, and 1.3 blocks per game while shooting 54.2%. This production was historic for a player as young as Towns. He became just the 15th person all time (all others are in the Hall of Fame) to record 2,000 points and 1,000 rebounds in a season and the first of this group to register 100 three-pointers as well. Towns proved that he is one of the most versatile players in the league by being able to play with his back to the basket, knock down three-pointers, and fight for rebounds.
While these end-of-season stats are impressive, but it is more impressive how he got to those numbers. After every half of a season, Towns improved and then carried that progress into the next season. The first half of his rookie season Towns averaged 16.5 points, 9.9 rebounds, and 1.4 assists per game. In the second half of the same season, he averaged 20.9 points, 11.2 rebounds, and 2.7 assists. These are massive jumps in numbers, especially for a rookie. You would not expect Towns to keep those gains entirely, but that was not the case at all. He picked up right where he left off. Towns averaged 22.9 points, 11.9 rebounds, and 3.1 assists per game. I hope you have picked up on the pattern here because Towns’ second half of last year was even better, yet again, as he averaged 28.2 points, 12.8 rebounds, and 2.2 assists. The fact that Towns not only shows improvement but continuously builds on it is a rare thing in the NBA, and something just the elite level players can achieve. While I don’t think Towns will come out quite as hot as he finished last season, mostly due to the offseason additions, I do believe he will start 2017 as one of the best players in the NBA.
Now after seeing the progression of Towns career, what does he need to do to be an elite level player? This is always a hard thing to measure with players at Towns’ level due to the fact that they rarely can do much more to improve their box score stats because they are already so impressive. Towns will need to focus on what he can do for his team off the ball and in the advanced stats categories. While the addition of Butler and Teague will take away some of the offensive numbers, Towns should still be the first option and will still get his numbers on offense. His offensive rating of 121 and PER of 25.9 will likely carry over or improve due to the offense working at a higher efficiency with their new options. For Towns to continue to make that jump in his production, he will need to work on his distribution. The Timberwolves added a lot of talent but teams will continue to double and shift over on Towns when he has the ball. Last year when Towns had the ball in the post, per Synergy, he was in just the 46th percentile when the defense would commit on him. He was extremely average finding the cutter and open man in these situations. This year he has two very good cutters and off-ball players in Butler and Wiggins. The ability to feed them when they cut to the hoop or roll to the open spot on the perimeter will make their offense more diverse and make defenses play him a little more honestly. This will lead to him being able to work with his back to the basket, face up, and attack the defense in a myriad of ways. It will also be nice to see Towns initiate more of the offense, especially on the break. We have seen some of this but having the ability to have your 7’0 center run the fast break adds an entirely new aspect to an offense that will be a nightmare for defenses.
Where Towns really needs to improve is on the defensive end of the floor which has been one of the only smears on his young career. Last year Towns had a less than ideal defensive rating of 110, per Basketball-Reference, which was the same as poor defenders like Jahlil Okafor and Frank Kaminsky. According to Synergy, Towns ranked in just the 58th percentile of defenders. As the big man in Tom Thibodeau’s system, these numbers are unacceptable. Towns doesn’t need to be the defensive player of the year but he does need to show more effort, awareness, and improvement on defense which I expect that to happen. Thibodeau is known to have a complex and demanding system so another year of familiarity and guidance will help Towns. The additions in the off-season will also greatly help Towns on defense. Taj Gibson will be able to not just help mentor and teach Towns but also take a lot more of the beating in the post as he is one of the most physical players in the NBA. This will help Towns have more life in his legs late in games and play better off-ball defense. Towns will also have a lot more help on offense with Butler and Teague joining the team. The last two years Towns has had to carry the majority of the offense due to lack of help on the roster. Now he won’t have to exert as much energy on offense which will allow him to work harder on defense.
There is a lot of hype around the Timberwolves this year and for that to really be fulfilled, Towns will need to make another jump in his career. Based on his career progression, I expect Towns to start the 2017-18 season in a similar fashion to how he ended 2016-17. His offensive game will continue to develop as he expands on his ability to score and distribute the ball. Towns will likely continue to be their most varied offensive talent. He will continue to stretch the floor and dominate the post but also add in a more impactful presence off-the-ball. He will also improve on defense as a lot of the responsibility is shifted from his shoulders to the team in general. He is entering his second year with Thibodeau and should see a big improvement in his overall efficiency. Look for Towns to continue to be one of the best players in the NBA as he fights to break the Timberwolves post-season drought and for not only an All-Star selection but an All-NBA selection.