Last season, Karl-Anthony Towns changed the way we think about NBA centers. As a Minnesota Timberwolves rookie, he combined old-school post moves with new-school mobility and three-point shooting, running away with the Rookie of the Year award.
This season, however, the hype around Towns has faded a bit. Philadelphia's Joel Embiid has taken the league—and Twitter—by storm. The Timberwolves, who some writers penciled in for 50 wins, are on pace to miss the playoffs.
Does that make Towns any less promising? Not in the slightest. No forward or center prospect—not Embiid, not Kristaps Porzingis, not Nikola Jokic—has Towns' range of skills and offensive versatility, or his ability to overwhelm opponents with strength, speed, and finesse. In a NBA full of young big men with incredible upside, he's still front and center in the conversation for most promising of all.
Let's take a closer look at his skill set, and how the Timberwolves can maximize his talent.
In the Post
Post-ups are the staple of Towns' game. The Timberwolves look to him down low as the first action on a majority of their possessions, hoping to create either: a) a double team and kickout, or b) an opportunity for Towns to abuse somebody. In theory, this is a good strategy, because Towns has all the tools to be one of the best post scorers in the league. He effectively uses his speed against slower defenders, finesse against taller defenders, and power against smaller defenders. He has incredible footwork, too, and a bevy of go-to moves to create open shots if the defense tries to guard him one-on-one. In the clip below, watch how he mixes quick, explosive moves, powerful moves, and patient finesse moves depending on how he's being guarded:
Despite his incredible skill and feel, Towns is scoring just 0.88 points per possession (PPP) on post-ups—almost exactly league average, and well below elite post scorers like DeMarcus Cousins, Brook Lopez, and Al Jefferson. Towns' numbers are likely to rise with experience, but one of the main reasons for his mediocre efficiency is a Timberwolves offense that doesn't take advantage of all his many strengths. A majority of Towns' post-ups are isolations, in which he either runs to the block and fights for position, or uses a cross screen before receiving passes in the same area.
Playing this way limits turnovers, but also makes Minnesota easier to defend. Even if Towns scores, he's not creating many defensive breakdowns, and that means the Timberwolves aren't generating enough of the most important shots in basketball: wide open attempts at the rim.
A Better Way
Given Towns' dynamism, it would be better—and more efficient—to get him the ball in the post off dribble pitches or pick-and-rolls. On the wing, dribble pitches force Towns' defender to either contain the ball handler until the wing defender recovers, or switch the screen entirely. Both options are a win for the Timberwolves, especially considering how great the team's wings are at shooting in this situation.
Zach LaVine is shooting 46.6 percent on handoffs, with many of those shots coming from behind the arc; Andrew Wiggins is shooting 43.8 percent. Both have the speed and athleticism to turn the corner on the handoff and finish above the rim. They're also elite at finishing on cuts to the rim, the natural counter when teams try to overplay the handoff. Wiggins is scoring 1.39 PPP on cuts, while LaVine is scoring 1.5 PPP.
The problem? For both cuts and handoffs, LaVine and Wiggins are taking far fewer attempts per game than most starting NBA wings.
By initiating their offense via dribble pitches with Towns as the screener, the Timberwolves can open up many more options. Overplay handoffs, and the high-flying wings are cutting backdoor for slams. Fail to contain handoffs, and the two are flying around the corner for pull-up jumpers, or taking one dribble toward the rim for finishes. Switch on the screens, and Towns can walk undersized guards into the post for easy post-ups.
Even if the defense properly contains the handoff without switching, they've still been forced to make a difficult read and recover in the first action of the play. Towns is quicker than almost every other center in the league, so asking his defender to step out on a pick-and-roll and then close out to defend him on the perimeter is often going to be too much.
Denver runs this style of offense through Jokic, and it has led to a scorching 115.1 ORTG since December 15, when he was named the Nuggets' starting center. Like Towns, Jokic possesses a wide variety of skills, including low post scoring, an elite jump shot, and incredible passing, but he's nowhere near the athlete that Towns is, and he doesn't have a choice between power and finesse. With Jokic, it's all finesse.
Meanwhile, LaVine and Wiggins are very comparable to Denver's Gary Harris and Danilo Gallinari. LaVine is an even more athletic version of Harris, with elite three-point shooting. Wiggins, like Gallo, is a tall wing who can beat almost anyone off of the dribble and can shoot over smaller defenders.
Even Emmanuel Mudiay is a nice Nuggets stand-in for Ricky Rubio or Kris Dunn, given that all three struggle to finish at the rim and shoot from the outside. Gorgi Dieng doesn't quite have the athleticism of Kenneth Faried, but he has more than enough to be effective on the offensive glass—and an elite mid-range jump shot helps him keep the paint open for drives and cuts to the rim.
And yet, despite having fairly similar rosters, Denver's offense is averaging almost 10 points per 100 possessions more than the Timberwolves since December 15. It's easy to see why. The Timberwolves use dribble pitches and dribble handoffs on occasion, and they almost always produce points—in a win earlier this month against the Oklahoma City Thunder, Minnesota went on a 16-3 run at the end of the third quarter almost entirely behind this type of action—but the team won't commit to it.
The Timberwolves love Towns' post game, but they are doing themselves a disservice by overemphasizing it. Towns can do everything on the offensive end of the floor, and the Wolves' offense should reflect that. He could lead the team in assists if they played through him more at the elbow and high post. One of the advantages of having a versatile big is that you can open up the paint for scores at the rim, yet the Timberwolves are currently outside of the top ten in attempts, makes, and field-goal percentage at the rim.
Something has to change.
The Timberwolves lead the NBA in rookie mistakes. Granted, that's not an official statistic—but watching them play, it's very clear that they leave a lot of points on the table, and give up many buckets that easily could have been prevented. Wiggins is the biggest culprit. An incredible individual talent, he doesn't yet have a great feel for the game when the ball isn't in his hands.
The biggest example of this is his (lack of) anticipation on the defensive end and in transition. In the clip below, watch how casually he gets back on defense, not realizing whom he's matched up with until far too late. Even after Wiggins realizes that his man is trailing the play, his elite athleticism is completely neutralized as he gets blown by, and he provides little effort to contain or recover on the dribble drive:
There's no reason Wiggins should've given up such an uncontested floater on that possession, but that's a routine play for him. Wiggins also balances the floor poorly after shot attempts. Despite his height and athleticism, he's well known for being a poor rebounder who averages just 4.3 rebounds per game—nearly as few as Rubio, a point guard who plays six fewer minutes per game. And his absence on the glass is compounded by the fact that he frequently fails to get back on defense.
In the below clip, watch how long Wiggins stays in the corner after the shot goes up. He isn't a threat to score or to rebound, yet he's also horribly out of position to prevent the fast break. The play finishes exactly how you'd expect, with OKC scoring in transition. This has to drive Minnesota's coaches crazy; with a 40-plus-inch vertical, Wiggins should never be out-rebounded on these types of plays.
As a team, the Wolves frequently appear to be thinking the game on defense instead of reacting. This isn't surprising: they're a young team learning the intricacies of the NBA game, and they also have a new coach and scheme. In the clip below, watch how mechanically Dieng rotates to flood the strong side:
Another issue: Minnesota's players routinely help one pass away on three-point shooters, or take far too long to read when to switch on weakside help. In the first clip below, the breakdown creates an easy kickout three-pointer; in the second, LaVine's failure to fight through the screen and Shabazz Muhammad's slow reaction to help him out leads to another wide open kickout.
It's concerning that a team this speedy and athletic is routinely late on its rotations. In the long run, however, Minnesota has a lot of talent. On defense, they can correct their errors can be corrected with practice, experience, and discipline. On offense, they need to open up their arsenal and exploit all of Towns' skills—he has a chance to be the best big man in the league, and Wiggins and LaVine can make a leap by mastering how to work off Towns as cutters and handoff receivers.
Building a contender through the draft is always a slower process than fans would like. The key is figuring out what your team can and should be doing, and then chipping away at refining those skills, year after year. The Wolves have a long way to go, but they remain one of the—if not the—most promising young units in basketball, with a championship ceiling.
For now, they'll have to keep working at their process.
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