Kentucky starts its conference schedule on Tuesday undefeated, while picking up impressive wins over Kansas, Texas, UCLA, North Carolina and Louisville through the first couple months. More impressively, perhaps, the Wildcats have outscored opponents by a pace-adjusted point differential of 42, according to Basketball Reference. That’s been possible thanks to a menacing defensive effort by the best collection of athletes in college basketball.
As I profiled on Monday, Willie Cauley-Stein is the difference maker on the defensive end as he’s able to impact the game both as a rim protector and away from the basket. But Karl-Anthony Towns’ presence has also played a role on Cauley-Stein maximizing his defensive skill-set. It has permitted John Calipari to have the freshman defending the opponent’s most physical big man while having Cauley-Stein spend more time defending perimeter players and wreaking havoc at the top of the full-court press, which happened against Texas and Louisville, respectively.
Towns enrolled at Lexington highly touted due to his potential as a multi-dimensional scorer but it’s been his toughness on defense that has been the most impressive aspect of his game. Prince Ibeh, Myles Turner, Montrezl Harrell and Mangok Mathiang, all of whom are regarded as some of the best big men in the nation, had a rough time against him in the post. Towns held his ground against Harrell and Mathiang, got very physical pushing Ibeh and Turner off their spot, and used his strength to successfully deny Texas’ guards from entering the ball to the post.
Towns is diligent with his boxout responsibilities. He will tangle arms with the opponent from time to time rather than back him out of his rebounding area but consistently looks to establish inside position. Towns has great jumping ability for someone his size and sound instincts tracking the ball off the rim, collecting 23 percent of opponent’s misses when he’s been on the floor.
He’s shown great quickness rotating off the weak-side to protect the rim, exploding off the ground to block 31 shots in 13 appearances. That said, there is more room for him to grow smarter as a shot blocker. He’s sometimes in a hurry to leave his feet, which makes him prone to getting beat by up-and-under moves, and he’ll often get called for goaltending as well.
Towns has looked comfortable defending in space, showing-and-recovering in control against Texas and flashing good closing speed to effectively contest shots on the perimeter against Louisville.
On offense, Towns is getting the majority of his production on the glass. According to Hoop Math, Towns has scored 16 of his 28 field goals at the rim off putbacks. He has great “second jump-ability”, a term Jay Bilas coined for players who are able to get off the ground a consecutive time quicker than the opposition. Towns can also rebound outside of his area due to his seven-foot-three wingspan and has a lot of strength in his 250-pound frame to fight for 50-50 balls, collecting 14 percent of Kentucky’s misses when he’s been on the floor.
The Wildcats don’t run many pick-and-rolls but when Town has been asked to screen for the ball, he has looked to draw contact and on-ball defenders must work to navigate around his picks. It’s quite unfortunate he doesn’t play with Tyler Ulis more often. His ability to catch the ball on the move and his touch finishing at the rim has mostly only been showcased in transition, where Towns sprints fluidly up the court and with good speed for someone his size.
Because Kentucky runs such a non-structured offense, Towns has often gotten the ball in the post where’s shown able to set deep position, proving himself a capable passer and flashing nice quickness on a turnaround, right-handed baby hook. The consistent touch on his finishes isn’t there just yet, though, and Towns has converted only a third of his 33 two-point jump-shots, including a few off the catch when he rotates to a spot around the foul line area. He doesn’t rise much off the ground and flexes his knees rather than elevating up and down but keeps his off-arm pointed up and flicks his wrist naturally. His 74.3 percent free throw shooting indicates Towns could develop consistent outside range some point in the future and he has even flirted with the three-point shot, knocking down one in five attempts on the season.