“He can’t do s–t against me!”
That emotionally-charged outburst felt like the defining moment of Karl-Anthony Towns’ season. It could’ve been, considering his God-given talents. Towns is an elite shooter and post player. It would surprise no one that a fellow giant struggled to contain the former Kentucky big man. It should’ve been, had the phrase actually come from the man himself.
Instead, it came from the mouth of one Jimmy Butler.
The taunt came moments after Towns tried to post up Butler to no avail. In one of the wildest (reported) practices in recent memory, then-teammate Butler made his presence felt by not only punking Towns but doing so while flanked by second and third-teamers.
Nobody has ever questioned Towns’ talent. He may be the best big man shooter since Dirk Nowitzki. He has more counters on the low block than a run-heavy Madden playbook. The only hole in Towns’ game, at least offensively, was assertiveness.
He wasn’t quite the floater that teammate Andrew Wiggins has been accused of, but something was lacking. Butler’s presence on and off the court played a role, as did coach Tom Thibodeau’s questionable-at-times methods. Still, there was room for Towns to do more.
Butler was officially traded to the Philadelphia 76ers on November 11th. Thibs was fired on January 6th, (oddly, after a blowout win against the Los Angeles Lakers). During that timeframe (27 games), Towns averaged 23.3 points, 13.5 rebounds, 3.5 assists, 1.9 blocks, and was a plus-4.7. Since the Thibs firing, Towns has been en fuego from just about everywhere.
Towns is on a tear unlike many bigs in NBA history. Over his last 20 games, he’s averaging 27.6 points while shooting 62.4 percent from two (12.8 attempts), 42.4 percent from three (5.0 attempts) and 83.1 percent from the line (6.5).
The list of players to shoot 60 percent from two, 40 percent from three and 80 percent from the line for a season runs three-deep: Chris Mullin, Steve Kerr and Meyers Leonard.
Mullin did so on the most volume, averaging a whopping 10.0 shot attempts per game. For Towns to essentially double that while being that efficient is patently absurd.
Here’s the foundation of what he’s doing:
As Jeff Teague trots up court, Towns gets to work. He digs his shoulder into the chest of Danilo Gallinari. After receiving the entry pass, he bumps-and-grinds his way into a righty hook.
That’s what we call “quick work.”
Towns’ newfound aggression spells trouble for anyone who dares to guard him. He’s shooting nearly 53 percent on post-ups this season, via Synergy. Double teams don’t faze him either: He’s generating 1.17 points per possession when trying to score against two, placing him in the 88th percentile.
Towns doesn’t just get busy from inside, he’s a legitimate spacer as well. He’s been killing in pick-and-pop situations all season, generating 1.035 points per possession via Synergy. Even when he isn’t directly involved in the action, he still burns defenses. He ranks in the 79th percentile as a spot-up shooter, constantly feasting as the trailer in semi-transition:
When bigs close out, Towns uses his rare combination of strength and quickness to win on drives.
In short, good luck trying to guard him.
Abusing the help
Many underrate Towns’ passing ability. He showed flashes of making solid reads at Kentucky, though he was pigeonholed in John Calipari’s egalitarian system.
You won’t confuse Towns with Nikola Jokic, a guy that can legit run the offense and initiate pick-and-rolls as the handler. However, Towns is a guy that you can station at the elbow or the top of the key as an attacker. The Wolves isolate him from further out in order to attack slower bigs in space. That alignment inherently forces rotations.
From there, he has the vision and touch to pick out cutters:
He can also find shooters when the help arrives:
Towns isn’t just racking up assists—a career-high 3.3 this season, 4.8 over his last five games—he’s racking up the right kind. He has assisted on 41 shots at the rim and 10 corner threes since January 7th, per PBP Stats. That combined total (51) puts him in the ballpark with Blake Griffin (62), Al Horford (55), and Marc Gasol (49).
There aren’t many players more dangerous than Towns. The scary part is that he still isn’t being fully unleashed. His 28.6 usage rate since January 7th ranks 22th in the NBA and sixth among bigs. Despite that, he ranks second (21.4) to Giannis Antetokounmpo (22.1) in NBA.com’s PIE (Player Impact Estimate) over that time frame.
The elephant in the room
The only unfortunate thing about Towns’ recent run is the lack of team success that’s come with it.
The Wolves are currently riding a three-game losing streak and are 4-6 in their last ten games. The main culprit is the defense: The Wolves are giving up 117.1 points per 100 possessions over their last ten, third-worst in the league.
A lot of that boils down to the absence of Robert Covington, but some of that still falls on Towns, long-maligned for inconsistent attention to detail on that end.
He’s been more engaged than ever lately, but he still struggles walking the tightrope in pick-and-roll. Finding the sweet spot between cutting off a drive and being in position to defend his man is something Towns has sought his entire career.
Going against spacers only exacerbates the issue since the Wolves employ a “drop” scheme:
Yet, the Wolves have still been better with Towns on the floor during this stretch. The defense only marginally improves when he sits, but the offense is nearly 11 points worse per 100 possessions.
The Wolves (29-34) currently sit 5.5 games out of a playoff spot with 19 games to go. A playoff berth is improbable, but not impossible. With Covington rejoining the team soon, maybe there’s a late push to be made.
If the Wolves fall short, they can take some solace that Towns is the building block they always thought him to be.
Stats are accurate through games played on March 3rd.
Nekias Duncan is an avid NBA watcher with an appreciation for angled screens, Spain pick-and-rolls, and anything Khris Middleton does on the court. When he isn’t writing about or watching basketball, he’s dropping the best puns the east coast has to offer. Follow him on Twitter at @NekiasNBA.