Scaletta’s Summer Top 100 is a ranking of returning NBA players. For a full explanation of our methodology, read our intro.
If you’re a Minnesota Timberwolves fan, you can’t say the name Karl-Anthony Towns without breaking out in fits of spontaneous giggles of delight. There aren’t many rookies who screamed “franchise player” out of the gate the way “KAT” did, and the other ones who did went on to win rings. For a team with as moribund a history as the Wolves, there is finally cause for hope.
Not only that, there is a new coach in town with a legacy of making good defensive players into great defensive players. Tom Thibodeau has coached three players who went on to win Defensive Player of the Year: Joakim Noah, Kevin Garnett and Marcus Camby (though, Camby won after he went to another team). He’s also worked with David Robinson, Dikembe Mutombo and Dennis Rodman, who won before he coached them. And that doesn’t factor in guys like Manute Bol and Yao Ming who never won. Let’s just say his resume of defensively dominant big men is pretty impressive. Now Towns will join that list.
Last year, Towns became the seventh rookie in history to average 25 points, 15 rebounds, two assists and two blocks per 100 possessions (keep in mind possession stats only go back to 1973-74):
|Totals||Per 100 Possessions||Shooting|
A glance at those names shows what kind of company he’s in. He’s not just a potential top-10 player. He’s there with some players who are in the discussion of best players of all time. With Towns, it’s not a matter of whether he’ll be elite, only of how long it will take him to get there.
It’s hard to see Towns dropping to No. 20, but there is a possibility because there is just so much talent on the roster. He’ll be competing for touches with Zach LaVine, Kris Dunn and Andrew Wiggins, and with only one ball it might be tough for him to get enough shots off to maintain the same scoring pace. Even then, that would also likely mean a big climb by the Wolves in the standings, so that would still help his ranking.
What separates Towns from most of the others on the list above is his shooting. Only Sabonis — who was more than a decade older than Towns his rookie year — had three-point range. We like to say certain players are “unicorns,” but Towns really is one. In many ways, he’s a traditionally great big man, but he is one who does the things that we want the modern big man to do as well.
He may very well be the prototype for the new species of center.
Look at this shot chart from last year, bearing in mind it belongs to a 7-foot rookie:
One thing that makes KAT so extraordinary isn’t just what he does well; it’s the completeness of his game at such a young age and his thriving to improve. One thing that could improve is his passing. He has exceptional court vision, but last year’s offense didn’t ask him to do much distributing. If Thibodeau brings in some of those high-post wrinkles for Towns that had Noah dropping dimes via hand-offs and cuts, look for the big man to put up some really insane numbers.
Last year, the Timberwolves were a pretty horrendous team defensively, which is odd because they have a number of players who have defensive ability, including Towns, Gorgui Dieng, Andrew Wiggins and Ricky Rubio. Towns had a -0.22 Defensive Real Plus-Minus according to ESPN, but this seems a case of flawed accountability.
Per his “Insider” page at ESPN:
Towns’ potential is equally great at the defensive end. He blocked shots at an above-average rate as a center, though he still has improvement to make as a rim protector. Yet Towns also moves his feet well enough to comfortably defend power forwards and even switch onto guards. He offered a hint at his potential in a late-season road win over the Golden State Warriors, switching out on MVP Stephen Curry and holding him in check. That kind of flexibility should be a major weapon in Thibodeau’s defense.
It is not ability but the system that held him back last year. That won’t be the case this season.