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Don’t let Minnesota’s fluttering playoff odds distract you from the fact that Karl-Anthony Towns is phenomenal. But the path for him to become the undisputed best player at his position is still on defense, where he’s still viewed as an undisciplined anchor that unmoors itself at random. There are games where foul trouble glues him to the bench, and those issues tend to force Towns into thinking his way through defensive possessions that the Timberwolves need him to instinctually glide through. He toggles between stretches where he’s either too aggressive and fouls a bunch or too sheepish and afraid of foul trouble.
His on/off numbers still aren’t great on that end, and even though last year’s were positive for the first time in his career, Minnesota sucked on defense when he played without Jimmy Butler.
But all is not hopeless and not everything is Towns’s fault. Before he was let go, Tom Thibodeau would sometimes have his best player hedge pick-and-rolls, a strategy that belongs in a different decade. And with Robert Covington injured, Ryan Saunders has resorted to lineups that have Anthony Tolliver defending wings (he matched up against Bryn Forbes for a stretch earlier this week!) in weird jumbo lineups that switch a bunch but remain discombobulated.
There are situations where Towns, like any other rim protector, is at the mercy of defensive miscues made by young teammates. When everyone else does their job, he tends to do his. When they don’t, he looks bad. A good example came in a recent win over the New Orleans Pelicans, where Holiday and AD spent crunch time running Spanish pick-and-roll after Spanish pick-and-roll.
Towns’s head is on a swivel and he does a fine enough job anticipating the back screen, but Tyus Jones comes up on the wrong side, which lets Holiday smash through for an easy two-handed dunk. Here’s what happened a few plays later, when Jones corrects his mistake and switches on Holiday.
Here’s another example from Tuesday night’s win over the Phoenix Suns, where Towns meets Devin Booker at the point of attack to force a pass back to Dragan Bender. So far, so good. But things quickly fall apart when Andrew Wiggins makes two questionable decisions in a row. First, he stunts too far off Mikal Bridges in the corner. Then, Bender—who’s 3-for-25 from deep this season—lifts him in the air with a pump fake. When Towns initially sees how far Wiggins has rotated off Bridges, he takes off for the opposite corner, but when Bender puts the ball on the floor to drive past Wiggins, he’s forced to cut him off. Wiggins is then two steps late contesting Bridges in the corner.
Saunders has Towns doing a bit more stuff than Thibodeau did. He’ll trap and recover against threatening ball-handlers and freely switch onto wings (something they’ve done more and more since Covington went down), while also dropping into a more conservative coverage that forces him to defend his man and the ball-handler. It’s a guessing game even the most astute defenders struggle with, and sometimes Towns will take himself out of the play by contesting a pull-up jumper that then allows his man to grab the offensive rebound. But he looks more and more comfortable making those decisions without major hesitation.
Towns is only 23 years old. He still has a lot to learn, and all signs of defensive growth deserve a tsunami siren. In their last 15 games, the Timberwolves’s defensive rating ranks top-3 with Towns on the court. That includes an absolute shellacking against Butler’s Philadelphia 76ers while opposing three-point shooters are generally nailing a crap ton of their wide-open looks.
Opponents are shooting the same percentage at the rim vs. Towns as they have against Rudy Gobert this season, and even though his feet don’t quite glide on the perimeter as most projected they would after his rookie season, Towns’s incremental baby steps are in the right direction. He works his ass off and knows where he’s supposed to be more often than not.
Not all his deficiencies can be explained by his surroundings, but it’d be interesting to see how he’d look in a less-rickety system, complemented by more obedient defenders. For now, he’s making the most of a situation that can’t look easy. And his trajectory on that side of the ball looks as optimistic as it has in a very long time.
This article originally appeared on VICE Sports US.