Last January, Karl-Anthony Towns scored a then-career-high 32 points in a Timberwolves loss to the Utah Jazz. The rookie was so despondent after the game you’d think he just lost to Wisconsin in the national semifinal. “I played terrible. They were scoring. Couldn’t do nothing. I was like a brick out there for my team,” Towns said. “I played like crap today. … My teammates are the ones that made the stat sheet.”
This was the moment I knew Towns would someday be a superstar. That level of self-awareness and character is rare. It would be easy to get a big head while making millions and having everyone in the world telling him he’s the next big thing. It was noble for Towns to shoulder the blame despite a career-best night. That’s the type of character found in leaders. It’d take only time for Towns to reach that superstar level.
From that night forward, Towns averaged 21.3 points, 11.3 rebounds, 2.7 assists, and 1.5 blocks per game to cap off one of the greatest rookie seasons ever. Towns was unanimously voted Rookie of the Year. After Tom Thibodeau was hired as the Wolves head coach last summer, making the playoffs was the expectation heading into the 2016–17 season.
That’s where Towns and the Wolves have hit a bump in the road. Through 41 games, on January 17, the Wolves were 14–27. They needed more from Towns, who was averaging 21.8 points, 11.9 rebounds, three assists, and 1.5 blocks per game. The stat line was virtually the same numbers he posted during second-half explosion as a rookie, so it’s not like he was going through a slump; he just hadn’t found another gear. The risk in setting expectations is it can warp your perception; what was considered extraordinary just a few months prior suddenly wasn’t enough.
But as was the case last season, Towns is flourishing down the stretch. Since January 17, over a 20-game stretch, he is averaging 28.5 points, 13.0 rebounds, and 2.8 assists with a 62.8 effective field goal percentage. Few players have ever come close to those averages over a full season. The Wolves have a mediocre 11–9 record over that stretch, but are now only 3.5 games back from the 8-seed. Towns’s emergence, along with the rise of Andrew Wiggins, has thrust the Wolves’ offensive rating into the top 10.
Towns has taken the leap from “really amazing young player” to “really amazing player” behind a tactical tweak to his shot selection. Maybe Towns took advice from Kevin Garnett, who said on TNT that Towns “loves the 3-point shot a little more than I’d like him to.” Towns is shooting 1.4 fewer 3s per game and 1.3 more free throws because he’s attacking the basket rather than settling for his shot.
The Wolves love using Towns in the pick-and-roll since he can roll for explosive dunks, pop for a 3, make a play for a teammate, or attack the closeout. They’ve been having him roll or drive a lot more often lately:
With a decrease in 3-point attempts, Towns’s percentage has surged from 30.5 percent before January 17 to 47.7 percent from that point onward. The mere threat of his shot makes him a load to handle for defenses. Towns doesn’t always need to pop to the 3-point line to be a threat. He also uses a short roll to the middle of the floor, which usually leads to loud finishes:
As Towns figures out how to pick his spots and read the floor, he’ll only get better. The next phase is to sustain this level of play over the remainder of the season, make improvements during the summer, and stay on track the following year.
These numbers are unheard of for a player Towns’s age. He’s only 21! In league history, the only players other than Towns to have career averages of at least 20 points and 11 rebounds through age 21 are Tim Duncan, Shaquille O’Neal, Spencer Haywood, and Blake Griffin, per Basketball-Reference. Towns is posting numbers done before by only four current and potential future Hall of Famers (yes, Blake is a Hall of Famer if he stays healthy).
Except Towns is producing differently than any big man ever did before with his 3-point shooting prowess and ability to juke defenders off the dribble like he’s a guard stuck in a 7-footer’s body. The NBA game has changed, and Towns is one of culprits behind the evolution. Let’s enjoy it.