By Brandon Jefferson
Karl-Anthony Towns showed that he has the potential to be the next great big man in the NBA as a rookie, here’s a look at how he can fulfill that potential.
Karl-Anthony Towns wasn’t always thought of as a surefire, can’t miss prospect; but in two years’ time he has made himself into one of the most talented and versatile big men in basketball.
After dominating all of college basketball as a freshman, he was drafted by the Minnesota Timberwolves with the first overall pick in the 2015 NBA Draft and went on to have as good of a rookie year as any player in recent memory.
Towns’ can play both inside and outside on offense. He likes to use jump hooks when in the post, and his jumper not only looks picturesque, but has range out to the three-point line (shot 34 percent from deep as a rookie).
Defensively is where he really shines at the moment. At 7 feet and 244 pounds with a 7’4″ wingspan, Towns is the type of long and athletic big that is a force protecting the paint. He averaged 2.6 blocks per 100 possessions, and though his Defensive Rating (DRtg) of 106 is higher than Tom Thibodeau would like some of it can be chalked up to lack of experience — for comparison it took perennial First Team All-Defense selection, DeAndre Jordan, six seasons to get his DRtg under 100.
Towns also has the ability to guard on the perimeter, even switching onto a player like Steph Curry when called for. The Timberwolves were one of the first teams to implore the “switch everything” defense on the Golden State Warriors last year, and it was because they could trust Towns to defend any player on the court that it was successful.
With a Rookie of the Year award in his pocket and Minnesota bringing in Thibodeau, things are lining up perfectly for KAT. However, the 20-year-old cannot rest on his laurels. There are pieces of his game that could use strengthening.
Below, using examples of some of the best players currently in the NBA, I have mapped out ways that Towns can truly become the modern age big man. It is unlikely that Towns will add all of these skills to his game in one offseason, but if he is able to steadily add them over time it won’t be long before the potential that everyone sees in him is fulfilled.
Griffin, much like Towns, took the NBA by storm as a rookie. Griffin’s superior athleticism was unmatched by many of the other power forward and centers in the league. Night after night, Blake was making highlight reel play after highlight reel play. We even coined the term “Mozgov’d” after one particular posterization.
Yet, as Griffin continued to develop his all-around game, he has become even more of a hassle for opposing defenders to handle. Instead of relying solely on his athleticism and physical advantages, Griffin has become a great facilitator and playmaker, developed a reliable outside shot, and makes plays away from the ball.
Sam Mitchell didn’t run the most up-to-date offense in Minnesota, but there were opportunities for Towns to move without the ball. If he can become a smart and instinctive cutter he will be gift-wrapped easy baskets via Ricky Rubio dimes.
Where many are hoping to see Blake used more in the upcoming season is as a secondary ball handler. When Chris Paul was sidelined with an injury for 18 games of the 2013–14 season we got a glimpse of what Griffin can do with the ball in his hands.
His assists jumped to 4.4 per game with Paul out and Doc Rivers stumbled upon a potentially unstoppable play: Griffin and Jordan pick-and-roll. Griffin is fast enough to blow by most centers if the team chooses to switch and is a good enough playmaker to find a rolling Jordan if the defense over helps.
The Timberwolves are still working on finding the best fit in the frontcourt with Towns. At the moment he seems to be stuck in what I call, “Tim Duncan: Power Forward or Center Purgatory.” Once they are able to find the right piece for him, we could see the T-Wolves begin to use Towns like the Los Angeles Clippers have use Griffin the past few seasons.
He already has the consistent jump shot that took Griffin a few seasons to develop, but if he can continue to grow and develop his skills as an all-around player it will be hard for anyone to gameplan to stop him without leaving other players on the floor open.
If Karl-Anthony is the remix than Anthony Davis is the original. While his one year at Kentucky might’ve topped Towns’, the New Jersey native definitely can boast having a better rookie season than AD.
Yet, in short time Davis became a superstar in the NBA. In 2014–15 he led the New Orleans Pelicans to the playoffs and though they were swept by the Warriors in the first round they pushed Curry and co. to the edge in a few of the games.
Where Davis truly excels is his ability to finish around the basket. Much was made of Davis slender frame and supposed lack of strength when he first came into the league, though he hasn’t bulked up Dwight Howard style Davis has the strength and quick-twitch muscle necessary to score over and around bigger players.
What AD does a great job of is attacking before the defender is set. Many times Davis will get the ball in the block and go immediately into his move. At 6’10” with a 7’5.5″ wingspan and a 35.5 inch vertical he is able to get in the air and near the rim before the defender has the chance to move him off his spot.
Towns was mostly a perimeter big before enrolling at Kentucky, where head coach John Calipari did all he could to make him a threat on the low post. He is now comfortable working in the paint, but it still takes him time to make his move. Often, he spends a beat or two surveying the defense before initiating with his defender. Yet, if he were to take a page from Davis’ book and attack before the defense is set he could find it even easier to score down low.
Davis’ length also comes in handy when he is unable to get completely to the rim on his drives. Since he still is on the slender side in regards to big men, Davis tries not to take unnecessary contact when he doesn’t need to. He has a soft touch and the length to get a floater off over any defender and over time has used it to drop in points without taking hits.
Lastly, Davis is able to use the fact that teams lock in on him defensively to the advantage of his teammates. When the ball is thrown to Davis it is likely followed by all 10 eyes of the defensive players as well. The New Orleans Pelicans don’t really have another star caliber player to take some of those eyes off Davis.
However, the Pelicans do a nice job of sending cutters off of AD’s post ups and with all the focus on Davis most of these plays result in open looks for his teammates.
We know that Tom Thibodeau runs triangle schemes and plays in his offense and having Towns play in the pinch post is a guarantee for next season. If he is able to pass out of it like Davis did above those are open looks for players like Andrew Wiggins and Zach LaVine. After those two start running off highlight plays it’s likely teams will divert some attention from Towns giving him more one-on-one opportunities to score.
No article about developing a big man is complete without mention of DeMarcus “Boogie” Cousins. Another Kentucky product — not a coincidence — Cousins has become the most dominant offensive big in the league. Cousins is far from a one-trick pony as he too has the ability to blitz an opposing team from the perimeter or the paint.
Last season, Cousins became much more comfortable shooting from behind the three-point line (33 percent). One of the ways he got open looks was as the trail man. Cousins usually would take the ball out after a dead-ball turnover or made basket and would casually make his way down the floor as Rajon Rondo dribbled to set up the offense.
Most bigs guarding Cousins would wait around the opposite free throw line to pick up Boogie. Rondo would notice this and wait until Cousins was approaching the three-point line and flip the ball back to Cousins for a wide-open look.
Towns is the better shooter of the two, and even though he only shot a percentage point better than Cousins, Towns took 122 less threes on the year than Boogie. Imagine Rubio coming down the court with Towns behind him and if Towns’ defender is too far in the paint simply letting Towns spot-up and rain threes. It’s not too out of the norm, Minnesota was using Towns as a spot-up shooter in the opposite corner on plays during his rookie year.
Another trait of Cousins’ game that Towns could use is his ability to attack off the dribble. Whenever Cousins is guarded by a lumbering or slower big man he immediately sizes him up and drives right at their chest to get to the hoop. Here he is attacking Andrew Bogut on back-to-back possessions.
As the 2016 Taco Bell Skills Challenge Champion, KAT is more than adept with the ball in his hands and he will need to keep fortifying that skill so that when a team is forced to use a slower defender to guard him he can easily break them down off the dribble. In 2015–16 Boogie got to the line a career-high 10.2 times a night, those free throws helped him to score 26.9 PPG good enough for fourth highest in the NBA. Towns on the other hand only attempted 3.4 free throws per game as a rookie. If he were able to bump that up to double digits his rookie-high 18.3 PPG easily jumps into the mid 20’s.
Every rookie NBA big man should be forced to watch hours of Al Jefferson tape in the offseason. Big Al has the nimbleness, balance and elegance of a ballerina in terms of his footwork. Jefferson has enough drop steps, pivots, jump hooks, step throughs, and counters to make one of those grainy Red Auerbach instructional videos. Sit back and enjoy Big Al going to work against the Dallas Mavericks last season.
Big Al can barely jump over a phonebook, but he is able to rely on his array of post moves to score on just about any defender. Towns is still young enough that he can use his athleticism to get points, but if he is able to refine his post moves to Al Jefferson level it’s crazy to think of what he could do with his back to the basket. Even if he never becomes as good as Jefferson, simply having a go-to move and a counter will be sufficient enough in regards to his development going forward.
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Who better for Towns to emulate than the last face of the franchise for the Minnesota Timberwolves, Kevin Garnett? Garnett was a mentor for Towns throughout his rookie season, even when he wasn’t playing. KG is still a defensive ace as his career comes to a close, but for the sake of this piece I am going to highlight his play during his time with the Celtics when Thibs was acting as the team’s defensive coordinator.
An area Towns was very good at off the bat was blocking shots as a weakside defender. Again his combination of length and athleticism is what allows him to be good in these situations. The way he is able to close space in short bursts is top-notch. Yet, blocking shots isn’t the only way to be an effective help defender. Here you see Garnett is able to strip the ball free from Andrew Bynum as he goes into his move.
Garnett was able to make many plays like this and had an uncanny knock for getting the ball without making contact to the offensive player’s arms or hands as he attempts to steal the ball away. Like most rookies, Towns was prone to fouling (3.4 fouls per 36 minutes) and if he can get to the point where he is able to cleanly strip the ball away as a help defender without fouling he’ll have an even bigger defensive impact for Minnesota.
Another one of KG’s defensive staples was his ability to help and then recover back to his man in time to keep them from scoring. In the sequence below we see two such instances where he helps off Pau Gasol, but then retreats back to him in time to stuff Gasol’s shot.
We saw during last season that Towns has what it takes to switch on to and defend guards for extended periods of play. However, being able to help and recover is a totally different situation. The defensive awareness needed to recognize someone other than your man is open and then rotate back to the player you were originally guarding once your teammate is back in position is high-level stuff. It may seem simple when you read it, but every night you’ll see plays where a player gets wide open and two teammates are left looking at each other befuddled as to who was supposed to be covering who.
After picking on his older brother in the KG section, it’s best to show little brother Marc Gasol the love he deserves. Starting out as an afterthought in the Lakers trade for Pau, Marc has turned into one of the best defensive centers in the NBA. Marc doesn’t have the athleticism of some of the other highly-touted defensive bigs — Davis, Jordan, etc.—but he is one of the smartest defenders on the basketball court.
One of the reason Gasol is effective at protecting the rim despite a lack of athleticism is because he has mastered the rule of verticality. The rule of verticality states that a defensive player has the right to air space as long as he is jumping straight up with his arms raised vertically. Marc isn’t the first player to use this rule to mask less then stellar athleticism, but he continues to be the best at it.
Towns is often caught in the air on pump fakes or is over eager in his attempts to block a shot and will bring his arms down onto an opposing player creating a foul. Once Towns is able to implement the rule of verticality into his defensive arsenal not only will he average more blocks, but he will be able to stay on the court for longer stretches without having to worry about foul trouble.
Gasol also does a great job of jumping after the offensive player has started their shooting motion, especially on jump shots. Marc has blocked more jumpers without fouling than any big man I have actually seen play the game with my own two eyes. In one of the clips below you see him go from guarding an Evan Turner inbounds pass, to double teaming Nick Young, to swatting his tying three-point attempt out of bounds to end the game.
With the amount of switching Towns is likely to do for the rest of his career, this could be key in any hopes of transitioning into a potential Defensive Player of the Year. Towns’ size and length should allow him to bother most shooters by extending his hand up as they shoot, but if he is able to time it and not leave the ground until the shooter is already off the ground then he could morph into a seven-foot version of Kawhi Leonard and I don’t even know if the world is ready for such a creation.
Like KAT, Draymond Green switches onto any and every player as part of the Warriors defensive scheme. Where Green really excels in these situations is that he has active and quick hands as a defender. Often times the player catching the ball will go to make their move only to find Green’s hands are already there anticipating it. His ability to create turnovers on the perimeter allow the Warriors to get out in transition where they are basically impossible to stop.
Karl-Anthony Towns is going to get better. His game will develop and change as he continues to learn the nuances and subtleties of the NBA game. I don’t expect him to suddenly morph into a Voltron of the players I covered above, but I do believe that if he takes these pieces from their games and adds them to his game as he continues to develop than there should be no stopping him from one day becoming the best player in the world.
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