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Karl-Anthony Towns

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Karl Anthony-Towns is becoming unstoppable

Karl Anthony-Towns strode past the lumbering Steven Adams, dribbled once, and gathered from outside the painted area. He vaulted into the air. When Jerami Grant finally rotated to helpside, Towns was already climbing the last imaginary step. Grant was too late; no one was stopping Towns. On his descent, KAT hammered-down the ball and yanked the rim in one motion. He landed and unleashed a howl. A hop empowered his gait as he raised the roof of the Target Center. The act emanated anger — at the ball, the rim, the air, something. On his face was a snarl, as if to say: Nothing is stopping me.

On the night of March 5th, against the Oklahoma City Thunder, Towns scored 41 points and grabbed 15 rebounds.

10 days prior, Towns was buckled into the backseat of his trainer’s car when a semi-truck speeding 35-40 MPH rammed into the car. Forget dunking, Towns doubted he would survive — in hindsight, he gave himself a 5% chance.

Only a car crash could put an end to Towns’ record-setting consecutive game streak of 303 games. And yet, it barely did. At the scene, Towns declined an ambulance ride to the hospital. Even before notifying a family member, he called Timberwolves’ management. He told them about a commercial flight that would fly him to New York the fastest so he could play the next night against the Knicks.

“I’m not a guy to stay back to watch them work,” said Towns, who was sidelined due to concussion-like symptoms for back-to-back games on February 22 and 23, against the Knicks and Bucks. “I want to be there in person. I want to high-five them coming off the court. I want to scream for them. I want to do everything I possibly can to be the best cheerleader I can possibly be.”

Just three days after the accident, Towns was cleared to play. In his first game back,  Towns was thirsting for flesh, recording his second 30-20 game of the season in under 30 minutes against the Sacramento Kings. It marked the start of a 12-game stretch, during which Towns has averaged a frightening 31.3 points on 66.5% true shooting, 14 rebounds, and 3.9 assists.

So when his fourth game back rolled around, no one could fault Karl Anthony-Towns for slamming the ball viciously. He simply missed the game of basketball. And no one could blame him for exchanging barbs with perhaps the NBA’s most-lively trash-talker, Russell Westbrook.

And, well, it should surprise no one that Westbrook fired back, “Get to the fucking playoffs before you speak to me,” according to Jon Krawczynski of The Athletic.

Of course, Westbrook was citing the “empty-stats” debate. Technically speaking, Westbrook was wrong; Towns made the playoffs last season. It was the thought that counted, though.

The thought was this: Towns hitchhiked to the playoffs in his only full season with Butler. As the third option in Minnesota’s offense, though, Towns was shoved to the backseat of Minnesota’s truck in which was fueled by Butler’s isolations. Through the first 11 games with Butler this season, his role in the offense screeched to a halt (career-low in usage rate with 24.7) — a product of Butler “freezing him out” as a motivational tactic, sources told Jon Krawczynski of The Athletic.

Once Butler was shipped away to Philadelphia, the leadership onus shifted to Towns. At the ripe age of 23, Towns claimed the alpha role of the pack of Wolves. He gifted winter coats ($$$) to his new teammates (Covington, Saric, and Bayless) and went to a WWE event with Covington and Teague (Jon Krawczynski of The Athletic).

As the lone bright spot on the Timberwolves — a team that experienced Jimmy Butler destroy any chemistry, fired Thibs, and were bitten by the injury bug (most recently: a season-ender to Robert Covington) — KAT nonetheless shouldered the blame.

“Obviously it’s fun to be playing well, but it’s got to come with wins,” Towns said after rocking Russell Westbrook and the Oklahoma City Thunder, the fourth game of the 12-game stretch during which Minnesota went 3-9. “If we’re not winning, it’s not fun. It’s cool. Looks great. Friends get to talk about it. But at the end of the day when I go home, I’m still looking in the mirror of a person who was on a three-game losing streak on the road to teams we should be beating.”

Embracing the leadership role has become tangible, too. Since Butler was traded, Towns’ usage rate has catapulted from 24.1 to 28.5, as has his true shooting percentage from 58.8% to 63.4%, despite a rise in field-goal attempts (from 14.9 to 17.6).

Towns is getting the ball more. His touches have increased from 71.9 to 74.0 since the Butler trade, with most of those touches coming in the post, where his possessions have nearly doubled (from 8.9 to 13.4). Defenses are aware that Towns is the Timberwolves only source of offense, so they swarm him with double-teams. A scoring center who never truly calibrated to the hyperdrive speed of the NBA, the added pressure has caused him to fling even more turnovers (6.0% to 7.2%).

In an offense that has morphed into a slow-paced post-up machine, KAT has thrived, posting and reposting when he doesn’t garner perfect position. Now, he’ll call for the ball, until he receives it — a step in the right direction for any leader. Before, Towns was allergic to contact, underscored by the infamous practice in which Jimmy Butler defended Towns, teamed with a bunch of third-stringers.

Taking advantage of mismatches was always a skill, but now, he now he will attack anyone — be it smaller guards or bigger forwards. Towns is finishing post-ups at a more torrid pace (from 52.6% to 55.6%), which, mathematically, is what happens when you shoot a whole 10 percentage points higher in the post (43.9% to 53.9%). Renowned for receiving less foul calls, Towns’ newfound eye for contact is endearing to referees (with an increase of 6% to 12% fouls drawn per post-up).

In past seasons, snapshots of his post-ups made for hilarious memes. Now, Towns powers through contact and unleashes a soft-touch in which few big men have. Armed with a 7’4” wingspan, his right-hook shot is unstoppable.

As previously mentioned, his turnovers have risen. Taking risks can also yield positive outcomes, though. His assist rate has more than doubled from 4.3% to 8.9%. He’s flinging nifty hook-passes all over the court.

Towns is elite anyway you twist it. This season, KAT is one of two players to average 24 points on 63% true shooting and 12 rebounds, alongside some dude named Giannis. As the best player on the first-place Milwaukee Bucks, the ‘Greek Freak’ is the odds-on favorite to capture his first MVP trophy.

Only two other players have reached that aforementioned threshold in NBA history; Charles Barkley (1988-89) and Wilt Chamberlain (1966-67). Wilt Chamberlain led the Philadelphia 76ers, who set a then-record by winning 68 games. Barkley was voted sixth in MVP voting, having carried a 45-win seventh-seeded Philadelphia 76ers; the same fate that will inevitably zap Towns.

Worse yet, Towns might not even make the All-NBA third-team. Put succinctly, it depends on whether voters prefer statistics or wins. On one side is Towns, and on the other, is Rudy Gobert, who is the main reason the Utah Jazz are currently 43-30 and tied for the seventh seed.

(Towns also has incentive: if he makes the All-NBA Third-Team, his contract over the next four seasons pays him $190 million. If not, it will pay him $143 million, unless he wins MVP or DPOY next season.)

Yes, the Jazz are good. Yes, Gobert might win the defensive player of the year. And yes, Gobert is quite effective as a pick-and-roller, but can he dribble past defenders? Can he take the ball coast-to-coast like a point guard?

Can Rudy Gobert face-up, contort his body around the rim while making it look easy?

 

What about launch three-pointers from the top of the arc? Towns makes it fun: from a set-position, like a student of James Naismith who dug up a time capsule encasing film of Stephen Curry. The defense never expects it.

Towns pairs devastating post-up ability with elite-shooting. It’s what makes him the most well-rounded scorer of any elite big men. He ranks fourth in post-up scoring per game (71.1 percentile) for players who post-up more than 5 times per game, with LaMarcus Aldridge, Nikola Jokic, and Joel Embiid, respectively, ahead of him.

Additionally, KAT is one of 15 sharpshooters who attempt at least 4.7 three-pointers per game with a percentage above 40%. On that list, only Danilo Gallinari plays in the frontcourt. The Timberwolves center has drastically increased his three-point output from last season (3.5 to 4.7), yet his percentage has flatlined (42.1% to 41.1%).

Aldridge is a legendary mid-range shooter, but rarely does he traverse to three-point territory — the figurehead of San Antonio’s throwback-offense. Despite Embiid’s public stance against three-pointers, he clanks deep shots at Westbrook-levels inefficiency. Jokic is firing fewer three-pointers, but, likewise, missing more than last season (39.6% to 32.6%).

With Robert Covington, Derrick Rose, and Jeff Teague out for the remainder of the season, and Luol Deng and Taj Gibson also sidelined with injuries, the Timberwolves will rely on Towns even more.

However, winning games may not be so easy. Tankathon renders Minnesota’s strength of schedule third-worst in the league, with games against the Blazers and Thunder, who are jostling for playoff position in the West. As well as games versus the league’s best; Nuggets, Warriors, Raptors, and 76ers. For a team whose gone 3-9 in their last 12-games and an interim coach who is vying for a full-time job, competing is nonetheless a given.

Looking ahead, the Timberwolves need to mesh a roster around Karl Anthony-Towns. Towns accepted a 5-year $190 million maximum contract in the offseason, though if the Jimmy Butler experience had any lesson, it’s that nothing is set in stone.

Minnesota isn’t in a great position to spend on free agents next offseason. The Timberwolves have 99.1% ($109 million) allocated to eight players (including Jeff Teague’s player option of $19 million), according to Dana Moore of Zone Coverage. Depending on whether or not Glen Taylor is willing to spend over the luxury tax bill, a $10 million MLE option is all that remains. Unfortunately for Towns, next year’s roster will likely look similar to last.

Towns will be saddled with carrying the team on his shoulders. With the West only getting stronger, reaching the playoffs is a pipe dream. More likely than not, the “empty-stats” argument against Towns will only grow stronger.

A traumatic car crash barely stopped Karl Anthony-Towns, so why should our expectations hinder him?

NBA Stats, Basketball-Reference, and Tankathon.