Karl-Anthony Towns: Sophomore Slump or Too Much Too Soon?

With a slow start to the season, the Timberwolves bandwagon has shed the burdening weight that piled on over the course of the last 12 months. Even as the flashes of growth and competitiveness are still ever so present, it’s quite clear the team is nowhere near where we thought they would be.

After an abhorrent showing in the first month of November, there was still skepticism clouding the team and its future. But as we’ve trekked into the doldrum days of January, nearing the halfway point of the season, we know what we have on our hands regarding the Timberwolves.

Along with the less than mediocre start, the lack of satisfaction has gotten increasingly louder. The figurative complaint box, nailed to every corner of the internet dedicated to the NBA is brimming with arm-chaired criticism about how “Wiggins is streaky and can’t play defense,” “Dunn was a wasted pick that they should’ve traded,” “The bench is so awful and has no scoring,” (I’d like to think these are buried down at the bottom because this has been known for months) “Ricky Rubio needs to be traded right now,” If I have to hear another person say the team plays better when he’s on the floor but he also needs to be traded, I’m going to roll my eyes so hard that my retinas detach.

There are even complaints about head coach Tom Thibodeau, not even a full year after taking over, about how he demands too much from the players and they are lost in his schemes and tactics.

The only person that hasn’t gotten caught in the web of complaints is Zach LaVine. Maybe that’s because he’s far exceeding any expectations that have been placed on him since coming into the league. But to his credit, he’s been the most consistent night in and night out.

Even Karl-Anthony Towns isn’t shielded from the harsh grievances laid upon this team.

Towns was unanimously awarded Rookie Of the Year last season for his 18 and 10 output.

But now the man who, less than 6 months ago, was considered ahead of Anthony Davis by many fans, media members, players, coaches, and GMs, and in contention with guys like Marc Gasol and Boogie Cousins for best big man in the league, is being verbally lashed and given a quizzical tilt of the head as we collectively wonder “where’s the improvement?”

Towns was touted as the new Tim Duncan with better range and athleticism, and it was assumed that some of KG’s rage and intensity was going to rub off on him too. But his reliance of taking the 3 ball, disposition to want to do it all on offense, and a lackadaisical defensive effort have put the “sophomore slump” label on Karl.

There are quite a few reasons why it’s outright preposterous to even consider that Towns is slumping, or that he won’t eventually be what we all assume he will be.

Although his field goal percentages have dipped quite noticeably, his scoring numbers and rebounding are both up from last year -- something we’ve seen time and time again with second-year players. The problem is that Towns tries too hard to take over games on the offensive end. Putting up threes when they aren’t necessary, driving the lane instead of looking for the extra pass.

It’s frustrating to see, because you know that one day he’ll be capable of making those plays. But right now he should focus more on trusting the men that are around him.

Don’t get me wrong, his kick out options aren’t much better, but for all the weight that Karl already has placed on him as the face of this franchise, he does a great job and piling on the expectations even more, when it’s completely unnecessary.

The point is, he’s 21 years old and some change. He shouldn’t be expected to be able to take over games at this point. It’s not his fault that he’s trying to do everything on offense, the entire basketball world put it in his head over the summer that he has the automatic green light to be the savior of this team every night.

Now although I don’t blame KAT for thinking he can take over a game down the stretch, it’s not his free pass to continue doing it. There are guys on this team that still look lost in the offense. There are confidence issues just waiting to bleed out, most notably with Rubio. This really goes for the team as a whole -- if they can learn to trust each other more, we’ll be talking about a completely different team.

One other reason that it’s easy to call out KAT for not making as big a leap as we thought he would this season, is that he picked a very bad time to not make that leap.

The league is littered with great young talent and in that young talent is the resurgence and innovation of the spot-up shooting big man. Anthony Davis returned from his injury and doesn’t seem like he’s regressed one bit. Kristaps Porzingis seemed to hit a wall last year but he’s busting through it like the Kool-Aid man this season. And then we have the dark horse, the man that everyone forgot and counted out, Joel Embiid.

So in a year where all these big men are having great seasons, some of them far beyond what we expected, it is unfortunate that Karl-Anthony Towns isn’t putting up an all-star campaign season on a playoff contending team.

Once again, not something that is directly his fault. But it’s easy to count it against him. Less than a year ago he was seen at the forefront of this big man movement. Now, in the eyes of some, he’s trailing behind.

It’s not his fault we expected him to have a breakout year and be an all-star. And it’s not his fault that his colleges are also having great seasons. But Towns can’t get away with everything that easy.

His defense wavers from “passable” to “non-existent” and is a key reason that the Timberwolves struggle on that end. It’s one of the most perplexing things in the current NBA. It used to be, if you have a big man who is considered an “immovable object” you had great post defense. Now big men are expected to move and Towns has more movement than any other post player. His footwork on offense is near perfect every time.

But on defense he continues to get lost in switches, he’s not a great rebounder, or rim protector.

There’s no reason to believe that this side of his game won’t come along, though. Remember that he is still a 21-year-old kid doing amazing things on the basketball court.

But that’s also something he should keep in mind too. Slow down, let the game flow naturally, trust yourself as well as your teammates. Towns is going to be an impactful and fantastic player to watch during his time in the NBA, there’s nothing about his game that says otherwise.

But the biggest thing he has to realize this season, is that he is right where he should be, but nowhere near where he will be.

 


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