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What’s Keeping Karl-Anthony Towns From Reaching MVP Levels?

The former no. 1 pick is a force on offense, but his defense is holding both him, and the Timberwolves, from reaching their full potential

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Karl-Anthony Towns is one of the NBA’s premier offensive big men—a force of nature who can score in a variety of ways. But when Towns was drafted no. 1 in 2015, it was his defense, not his offense, that was supposed to make an immediate impact. “We’re gonna become better defensively,” the late Flip Saunders said at Towns’s introductory press conference. “KAT, of course, is one of the better defensive perimeter post players that has come out maybe since [Joakim] Noah came out of Florida.”

Comparing Towns to Noah is high praise. At the time, Noah had received at least one vote for Defensive Player of the Year in five consecutive seasons, winning the award in 2013-14. Now it’d be more accurate now to compare Towns’s defense to the contemporary Noah. The Wolves are 27th in defensive rating this season. They were tied for 26th in 2016-17 and were 27th in 2015-16. Tom Thibodeau’s Bulls teams, with Noah anchoring the paint, never ranked worse than 11th. The same formula hasn’t worked for Thibodeau in Minnesota, and Towns is a significant part of the problem.

It almost seems silly to nitpick at Towns when he’s only one week shy of 22 and the Wolves are a half game back from the top spot in the West. But dig a little deeper and you’ll find that Minnesota has just the 15th-best net rating. And in large part because of his struggles on defense, Towns finds himself far away from the MVP discussion that he was projected to be in the middle of sooner rather than later. As the hype builds around Kristaps Porzingis and Giannis Antetokounmpo, Towns has become the forgotten unicorn.

Towns isn’t a lost cause on defense, but he was also never a perfect defensive prospect at Kentucky. He blocked 2.3 shots per game, bodied bigger players inside, and switched onto smaller guards and kept them out of the paint. With a massive wingspan and quick feet, he projected as an elite overall defender. But Towns consistently got into foul trouble by falling for pump fakes. He was too eager for blocked shots, which led to second chances for the opponent and missed box outs. Towns often lost focus, and Kentucky head coach John Calipari would pull him because of missed rotations—if he wasn’t already on the bench because of foul trouble.

Doesn’t this sound like the Towns we know now? He hasn’t gotten worse defensively. He just simply hasn’t gotten noticeably better and NBA athletes are making him pay for those mistakes.

Towns often finds himself in no-man’s-land, as he does here at the end of the fourth quarter on Dion Waiters’s game-tying layup. Towns needed to make a choice between preventing Waiters from taking an open layup, or “defending” Kelly Olynyk to prevent a kickout pass for a 3. He did neither. Waiters drove and scored, but easily could’ve swung a pass to Olynyk for an open 3 before Towns could’ve closed out. Towns was invisible in a critical moment.

Towns does a good job of defending Indiana’s initial pick-and-roll. Then he forgets to finish the play and Domantas Sabonis ends up with an open shot. You can see (and hear) Towns yelling at Shabazz Muhammad after the play for not switching onto Sabonis. The problem is you can’t hear Towns calling out a switch during the play. Either he doesn’t project his voice, or he’s simply not vocal. Or maybe he’s both. All great defensive anchors need to communicate. Towns doesn’t do it enough.

Towns also forgets to box out too often. The Wolves have a 72.6 defensive rebounding percentage with Towns on the floor, which is the worst for any of their primary rotation players. It’s not all KAT’s fault, but the Wolves’ number rises to 85.1 when he’s off the floor, which would lead the NBA. Towns was a relentless offensive rebounder in college, but he’s never played with that same intensity on defense unless he’s hungry for a block.

Prior to the draft, I said Towns was the cookie monster of blocking shots because he’d stop at nothing to reject an opponent. It was both a compliment and a concern because of plays like this:

His eagerness is a significant reason Wolves opponents get so many second-chance opportunities when Towns is on the floor. By carelessly chasing blocks, he leaves the paint wide open for his man to fly in for putback slams.

Towns played more under control over the past two seasons, but he’s gone back to his old ways as of late. After two recent games, he’s spoken about trusting himself. “When I’m able to [be aggressive] on the defensive end and just play with my instincts, yeah, I’m gonna make some mistakes sometimes, but it’s gonna be aggressive and it can cover up a mistake,” Towns said on November 4. “If I see somebody coming into the paint, and try to score, or get to the president, I’m gonna try to make sure the president stays safe at all times.”

Nice analogy. But it’s almost as if he thinks he’s struggling on defense because he’s become more tame. Maybe there’s some logic to that; being aggressive is better than being lazy. But it can’t come at the cost of being alert. Great defenders don’t need to block every shot. They need to be in the proper position to alter shots. They need to make smart decisions. They need to rebound, which is the punctuation to a possession. Sometimes the best way to protect the president is to bait the opponent or steer them into a trap, rather than using outright force.

It’s not as if we haven’t seen flashes from Towns. Everyone thought he could become a great defender. “Defensively is where Towns separates himself as a prospect,” Jonathan Givony wrote on DraftExpress. Andrew Sharp said on Grantland that Towns could “anchor a defense.” In my 2015 NBA Draft Guide, I said Towns will be an “excellent shot blocker” and a “terrific pick-and-roll defender.”

The clip shows Towns switching screens and sliding his feet to contain speedy point guard Demetrius Jackson. KAT’s technique isn’t perfect, as he sometimes falls out of a stance. But he can be effective because he’s so nimble.

Towns’s defense isn’t technically perfect here, either. He almost falls for a Stephen Curry pump fake, and he opens his hips, leading Curry to drive. But he’s so long and so quick that he can still bother the shot of one of the NBA’s most dynamic scorers. Rewinding back to college, watch how quickly he defends the pick-and-roll, then recovers to the rolling big man:

These are the moments that made NBA scouts sit on the edge of their seats. They haven’t totally vanished. Towns has a bad habit of not staying in his stance, but lately, he’s done a much better job of staying engaged against the league’s best point guards.

Maybe we’re asking too much of Towns too soon. To be fair, if KAT was still in college, he’d only be a senior. Only six big men in league history age 22 or younger have averaged over 20 points per game by age 22 and have a Defensive Box-Score Plus Minus greater than two (Tim Duncan, Kevin Garnett, Anthony Davis, Shaquille O’Neal, Dwight Howard, Anthony Davis, and Chris Webber), per Basketball-Reference. Towns likely won’t make the cut (his DBPM is currently minus-0.6), but neither did a long list of other big men. It’s not out of the realm of possibility that he simply hasn’t matured defensively.

That Towns is subpar defensively despite his natural gifts, size, wingspan, basketball intelligence, and will to be great speaks to the importance of positioning, decision-making, and effort. For Towns to take the leap, he needs a deeper understanding of the intricate traits that make a great defender. Staying up all night watching film to learn about the opponent’s tendencies should make it easier to read plays on the fly. Committing to communication is integral for a big; it can’t all be on Jimmy Butler to talk on the floor. The best defenses operate as one organic unit. These are the traits that made Noah, a natural athlete in his own right, so special.

Towns is already great offensively, so if his defense improves, he could someday become a player who demands opponents to shift their lineups to account for him. Teams today are building with skill and shooting to beat the Warriors. But in the future, size could be a necessity to get through behemoths like Towns and Joel Embiid. In the playoffs, there could soon be value in having a big ogre on the roster who can handle a big. Teams may need to shape the way their roster if they must defeat a big-man goliath.

At present, Towns isn’t that player. But if he improves on the defensive end, he could be someday. With Minnesota’s first playoff bid since 2003-04 in the balance, now would be as good a time as any.

“I made a promise to Flip Saunders that I would win and I would end the playoff drought. And I intend to do that and keep my promise,” Towns said at Wolves media day. “This year it feels like the opportunity is really in the palm of our hand. We’ve just got to take it.”