Karl-Anthony Towns is the most underappreciated player in the NBA
He doesn't have the in-your-face Instagram game of Joel Embiid, or play under the lights at Madison Square Garden like Kristaps Porzingis. He doesn't even have a ubiquitous nickname like The Brow, aka Anthony Davis.
But he'll don his first NBA All-Star uniform this weekend, so it's time to pay attention: Karl-Anthony Towns has arrived.
Towns, in just his third season, is the most underappreciated player in the NBA. The Dominican-American 7-footer is an efficiency monster on offense and a wall on defense. In just over 220 games, Towns has proven himself to be a true franchise centerpiece, and one who — barring a free agency departure — should anchor his Minnesota Timberwolves for the next decade.
There's no denying that Towns will be the next great superstar in the league. The real question is when people outside hardcore NBA circles will begin to take notice.
Coming into the 2017-18 NBA season, the Timberwolves were supposed to finally reach their awesome potential, having traded for Chicago Bulls star Jimmy Butler. Adding Butler, with his scoring prowess and lockdown defense, was the headline, but the Wolves also savvily signed veteran point guard Jeff Teague to run their offense. Long a Western Conference doormat, Minnesota was finally pegged to make a big jump.
Heading into All-Star weekend, the Wolves are indeed thriving, holding down the fourth seed in the tough Western Conference ahead of the star-studded Oklahoma City Thunder and within shouting distance of the Golden State Warriors-Houston Rockets-San Antonio Spurs triumvirate. And while Butler has been his usual incredible self, it's Towns who is the engine of the Wolves' rise.
After winning Rookie of the Year in his first season, Towns went on an incredible tear to cap off his second season, averaging more than 28 points and 13 rebounds per game after the All-Star break last year. But with the addition of Butler over the summer, Towns was asked to take a step back on offense.
Rather than stifle the burgeoning big man, refining Towns' role on offense actually helped him. This year, Towns is taking only the third-most shots on the team, behind Butler and freakishly athletic wing Andrew Wiggins. He's scoring a lot less — about 20 points a game versus 25 last year — but he's honed his marksmanship from long range. It would be easy to plant Towns in the post and in pick-and-rolls to let him hike up his percentages, but Minnesota is letting him rip it from downtown: He is shooting slightly more 3-pointers this year than last year, but he's hitting them at a sharpshooter rate of 42.5 percent, versus 36.7 percent last year.
As a result, Towns has improved his True Shooting Percentage — which takes into account a player's prowess shooting 3-pointers and free throws as well as regular field goals — from an already impressive 61.8 percent last year to a ludicrous 64.5 percent so far this year. That's good for fourth-best in the league, behind big men Clint Capela of the Houston Rockets and DeAndre Jordan of the Los Angeles Clippers, who take their shots within a few feet of the rim. (At the top of the list is Golden State Warriors phenom Stephen Curry, who does things like this.)
Meanwhile, Towns' player efficiency rating — a metric designed to evaluate a player's overall contributions on the floor — has remained at an elite level. This season, his 24.9 PER is good for 10th in the league, ranking above the likes of Boston Celtics point guard Kyrie Irving, as well as his teammate Butler.
That's a lot of numbers that all point to the same thing: Towns is the most versatile offensive big man in the league. His long-ball abilities have opened up driving lanes, as opponents are forced to defend him out to the arc. His free throw rate, which measures the ratio of free throws to field goal attempts, has shot up to .328 — a good indicator that Towns is slicing his way into dangerous positions and drawing fouls when he gets there. He's also added some nifty post moves that have helped him create separation in the paint, resulting in him having less of his shots blocked than he did last season.
Towns has also moved a good portion of his shots out of the inefficient mid-range, opting for more attempts from either inside 16 feet or behind the 3-point line. That means he's shooting better quality shots, and at a higher clip. While his assists numbers have dipped slightly, as the ball has been taken out of his hands in favor of Butler and Wiggins, he still has shown improved instincts for finding the open man. Take a look at his All-Star compilation video and you'll see this new side of the big man's game: The over-the-shoulder assist to Taj Gibson roughly 25 seconds in is not a play he would have made last season.
Towns' only real competition for the title of Most Complete Young Big Man right now is Embiid, of the Philadelphia 76ers — which is part of the problem, because Embiid is among the league's best at promoting himself on social media, deploying some savage antagonism alongside goofy behind-the-scenes looks. There's also the New York Knicks' Porzingis, who was having a fantastic year prior to his unfortunate ACL injury — but whose star undoubtedly benefits from him playing half his games at the World's Most Famous Arena. Davis, meanwhile, now shares the paint for the New Orleans Pelicans with DeMarcus Cousins. After Cousins was felled by a ruptured Achilles, the Pelicans lost five of six games until Cousins called Davis to snap him out of his funk.
The other reason that Towns has slipped under the radar is that he's not even the most important player on his team. That would be Butler, who arrived in Minneapolis just as Towns was beginning to emerge and has been having a revelatory campaign of his own. Along with his usual lockdown defense, Butler has upped his own offensive efficiency since moving north. Add to that the narrative effect of the offseason trade and you get an easy story to summarize the Wolves' rapid ascent: Sure, they had potential with Towns, but it was Butler who elevated them to a true force.
The truth, however, is that Butler's emergence as the de facto top-dog has allowed Towns to flourish like never before. He abuses opponents on offense who can no longer throw double teams his way, and he's also been afforded the latitude to improve the weakest part of his game: defense. The Wolves are giving up 3 fewer points per 100 possessions this season than they did last year with Towns on the floor. Where Towns used to often be caught out of position, this year he's racking up the blocks, swatting a 12th-best 1.41 shots per game — a sign of his improved reads as well as increased mobility.
Towns should be a superstar. And not one in the making, either, but one that has already arrived — quietly as ever — in the upper echelon of the league's big men.
Towns' inclusion in the 2018 NBA All-Star Game should open casual fans' eyes to the true anchor of the upstart Timberwolves. And when the Wolves make their expected strong run in the Western Conference playoffs this spring, that should be enough to propel Towns into the stratosphere.
It's time to stop wondering about his potential. Karl-Anthony Towns has arrived, and he's a force to be reckoned with.