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NBA Would You Rather: Karl-Anthony Towns vs. Nikola Jokic

Which fourth-year unicorn would you prefer moving forward? We outline the case for each player.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

It’s a simple conceit: Would you rather one thing or another? But instead of situations that question the morality of your friends, we’re focusing on which NBA players we’d rather have going forward.

Karl-Anthony Towns vs. Nikola Jokic

2017-18 averages:

Towns: 21.3 points, 54.5 percent from the field (14.3 FGA), 42 percent from 3 (3.5 3PA), 2.4 assists, 12.3 rebounds, 1.4 blocks, 1.9 turnovers, 0.8 steals

Jokic: 18.5 points, 49.9 percent from the field (13.5 FGA), 39.6 percent from 3 (3.7 3PA), 6.1 assists, 10.7 rebounds, 0.8 blocks, 2.8 turnovers, 1.2 steals

Towns and Jokic will be compared to each other for the rest of their careers, the Uber and Lyft of unicorn centers. Both are entering their fourth season. Both are giants with guard tendencies. Neither has any defensive clout. They’re relatively the same age, too: Jokic, 23, is just nine months older, than Towns, 22.

For all KAT and the Joker have in common (Jokic has the advantage in nicknames), they excel for different reasons. Both are the offense of their respective teams. Even as Towns divvied up the workload with Jimmy Butler last season, the Wolves offense was still run primarily with KAT in mind. (When KAT got the ball, Butler and Andrew Wiggins took a break from iso ball.) Over half of Minnesota’s touches were in the frontcourt, and Towns received more than anyone else, for good reason. Towns also averaged the most touches on the team except for Jeff Teague, its primary ball handler. But while Minnesota relies on Towns to finish a possession, Denver leans on Jokic to start it.

The Nuggets offense runs through Jokic, whose elite ability to read the game keeps him a couple of steps ahead. (Which is important, because his lead feet put him a step behind.) Point Jokic is a contradiction more than a perfect melding of optimal attributes, a 250-pound, bulky mass fluttering through defenses to find the open man. He’s a fortune-telling bear able to move with grace and throw no-look passes. It’s charming when he has the ball, frustrating when he’s tasked with stopping it. Despite having the advantage over Towns in steals per game, Jokic’s vertical makes him an unreliable rim protector, and having bricks where feet should be limits him in space. That’s exacerbated by a tendency to not try at all. His offense looks effortless. His defense does, too.

What separates Towns from Jokic is his athleticism, and while the Wolves big man’s defensive ability is still wrapped in a cocoon, the potential is there. KAT is often lost, slowed down by poor reads or bad timing; and yet, despite that, he still averaged 1.4 blocks and 12.3 rebounds last season. For a stretch, Towns snapped to attention and played like he was tired of the heavy criticism of his defense. But it wasn’t consistent, and he exposed himself to the criticism Wiggins gets about every part of his game: If the ability is there, why doesn’t he bring it every night?

Like Jokic, Towns’s scoring gives him the ability to hang in different eras. They’re post threats who can’t be ignored outside the paint—both were the most accurate 3-point shot on their teams last season. KAT was the better shooter, hitting 42.1 percent of his 3.5 deep attempts per game. (To compare, Steph Curry shot 42.3 percent this season, albeit on 9.8 attempts a game.) Towns was arguably surrounded by more talent—Butler, Wiggins, Teague—than Jokic, especially considering Paul Millsap was absent most of the season. (Though as 23-year-old Gary Harris and 21-year-old Jamal Murray progress, that could became less true.) It served as an advantage for KAT when it came to open looks, but a disadvantage considering those three were focused on getting their own. He took nearly four shots fewer per game last season than the season before as a result. (Towns made sure to remind anyone that he’s the same player when the ball did come to him in the post.) The dip in shot attempts could also somewhat explain his low passing numbers. Towns is a capable passer, but in an offense that isn’t keen on ball movement, he typically opts to showcase his ability to create for himself. And unlike Jokic, he can play above the rim: Towns took 178 more shots within three feet last season, and shot them 5 percentage points better. Towns is the best finisher Minnesota has, converting 69.8 percent of his attempts from the paint (third-best in the league of anyone who averaged at least 3.5 attempts), and over half his shots from the post. And only Nemanja Bjelica was hitting comparable numbers outside the arc. That’s the main difference between Towns and Jokic: While Jokic can do things with the sort of skill most centers dream of, he’s limited in truly excelling as a traditional big compared to Towns. Jokic’s ceiling is high, but Towns, given his athleticism, has a ceiling that isn’t as easily definable.

So, Who Would You Rather Have Going Forward?

Towns. With two players similar in almost every category except passing until Towns steps up the defensive effort, natural ability almost always wins. Jokic has already defied the limitations of a 6-foot-10 lumberjack body, but will never be capable of finishing around the rim on Towns’s level, who also holds a slight advantage in overall scoring and rebounding.