Karl-Anthony Towns joined Kentucky as the ninth-rated prospect coming out of high school, according to ESPN.com. He was one of the very few players entering college basketball with pro experience after spending the previous summers with the Dominican Republic national team (coached by John Calipari), where he had the opportunity to practice against an NBA All-Star in Al Horford.
Despite two veterans returning at his position — Willie Cauley-Stein and Dakari Johnson — Towns established himself as Kentucky’s top option at center from day one. By the season’s end, he logged 822 minutes in 39 games, many against elite competition such as Cliff Alexander, Myles Turner, Cameron Ridley, Kennedy Meeks, Montrezl Harrell and Frank Kaminsky.
Towns didn’t separate himself much over the first couple of months but soon developed into the team’s top option on offense. Part of that had to do with the unimaginative style of play installed by Calipari, but also because no defender in college basketball could keep him from getting to his spots and getting a quality shot off.
Towns surpassed Jahlil Okafor as the best prospect in this year’s draft in most people’s minds with his last two appearances in the NCAA tournament, when he scored 41 points on 24 shots against Notre Dame and Wisconsin. He did so by dominating in the post.
Towns uses his 250-pound frame to establish deep position. Catching the ball so close to the basket is part of the reason why he was such an effective post scorer at the collegiate level, averaging 0.92 point per possession on what amounted to 43 percent of his offense, according to Draft Express. He also averaged 6.5 free throws per 40 minutes.
Towns exhibited great touch on his finishes. He didn’t show smooth footwork or a wide variety of moves, but was highly efficient with his go-to move: a turnaround, short hook with either hand after one dribble and dropping his shoulder into the chest of the defender to create separation. It’s easy to dismiss him looking so dominant against Notre Dame because Zach Auguste was just so much smaller, but Towns scored fairly well against NBA-caliber prospects such as Kaminsky, Turner, Alexander and Harrell.
Towns did his damage offensively without much help from those around him. Kentucky rarely gave him flex screens to occupy his defender while he moved towards the block. There was also never any primary action to move the ball from side-to-side and bend the defense. The guards often dribbled into a position and waited for the time to feed the post. It was always on him to navigate the lane and be physical fighting for position.
Towns didn’t have much space to work with, either. He spent the majority of his minutes in lineups with two non-shooters (Cauley-Stein and Trey Lyles) and two capable but not particularly good shooters (Harrison twins).
Despite not having shooters around him, Towns was not a black hole. He proved to be a willing passer, utilizing his high vantage point to see over the top of double teams and soft hands to deliver on target. According to Basketball Reference, Towns assisted on 11.6 percent of Kentucky’s scores while he was on the floor — an above average mark among centers. The downside was turning it over on almost 18 percent of his possessions with his back to the basket.
Kentucky ran a really nice set in the first play of the game against Notre Dame, when Towns got the ball in the high post and hit Lyles with a perfect alley-oop at the rim, freed by a weak-side screen from Cauley-Stein. It’s the sort of play that suggests Towns could be an asset facilitating offense from the elbows, something that we’re likely to see more teams seeking after the Spurs and the Warriors won the last two titles having big men who were capable of doing just that.
It’s unclear if Towns will be the sort of shot creator from the post in the NBA that he was at Kentucky, though. His passing and court vision will likely translate depending on his ability to command double teams, which hinges on whether or not he develops counter moves. Towns should be able to establish deep position in the NBA, too, but every defender will be aware of his over-reliance on power moves to get his scoring. As far as those counters go, he’ll need a lot of work to develop the footwork Okafor already has, but many expect him to add a fade-away, turnaround jump-shot to his arsenal fairly soon.
Towns projected as a stretch big out of high school. According to the New York Times, he hit 127 three-point shots in three seasons at Saint Joseph High School. But he did not show his range at Kentucky, taking just eight shots from beyond the arc and 28 jump-shots total in his 39 appearances.
There are anecdotes of how he’s looked shooting the ball from deep in practices and workouts, but there is no substantial video of him in a competitive setting demonstrating what kind of shooter he is — someone capable of spotting up in the corner, shooting on the move and working out of the pick-and-pop?
Nonetheless, there is expectation he’ll be a threat from long range in the pros.
Towns converted 81.7 percent of his 131 free throws, which tends to be an indicator of potential outside shot development. In his limited jump-shot attempts, he’s looked like a capable open-shot shooter with solid mechanics, elevating up-and-down, keeping his guide hand pointed up, flicking his wrist naturally and following through. However, it also looks like he needs both time and space for his release.
Towns moves freely in space for someone his size. He can sprint up the court to fill the lane in transition and play above the rim as a target for lobs. Unfortunately, we did not see him dive down the lane with momentum and catch the ball on the move out of the pick-and-roll much because Kentucky seemed allergic to the set that has become the heart of every NBA offense.
But because of his leaping ability and soft hands, Towns projects to be a constant threat running at the rim if he gets to play in an offense that gives him those chances. He finished his 111 shots at the basket at a 75.7 percent clip last season.
Towns has the potential to mix in some playmaking when his rolls to the basket are cut short — he’s flashed some quick thinking on the go. Midway through the second half at Louisiana State, for example, he caught the ball out of the pick-and-roll and lobbed a pass to Cauley-Stein at the rim when three opponents converged on him.
However, the best evidence we have of Towns’ athleticism is from his work on the offensive glass. Towns collected 14.2 percent of Kentucky’s misses when he was on the floor, which ranked him second in the SEC. According to Hoop Math, he converted 41 of his 92 offensive rebounds into putbacks. Towns can rebound outside of his area due to his 7-3 wingspan and has a lot of strength in his 250-pound frame to fight for 50-50 balls.
On the defensive glass, Towns is diligent with his boxout responsibilities. He’s aggressive looking to make plays at the rim as a shot blocker, which sometimes comes at the expense of boxing out his opponent. But he’s consistent getting physical when the shot comes from the perimeter. Towns will tangle arms with the opponent from time-to-time rather than back him out of his rebounding area, but he consistently looks to establish inside position. He has great leaping ability for someone his size and sound instincts tracking the ball off the rim, collecting 22.8 percent of opponents’ misses when he was on the floor, which also ranked second in the SEC.
Towns proved himself an excellent shot blocker rotating off the weak-side. He uses his 9-1 standing reach to protect the basket with guards running at him, averaging 4.3 blocks per 40 minutes. 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 vulnerable to fouling. What’s most concerning of all is Towns averaged 6.3 personal fouls per 40 minutes at Kentucky.
Due his size, mobility and rim protection skills, Towns is expected to develop into a high end pick-and-roll defender with some good coaching. There were flashes of that potential at Kentucky but he was mostly so-so when pushed by impact players.
He looked comfortable defending in space, showing-and-recovering in control against Texas and flashing necessary closing speed to effectively contest shots on the perimeter against Louisville. But Notre Dame and Wisconsin put him under a good deal off stress.
Towns back-pedalled well to challenge Jerian Grant and Demetrius Jackson when they turned the corner and attacked the rim, but missed Auguste getting behind him a few times, resulting in easy scores at the rim.
Against Wisconsin, Towns was tasked with defending Kaminsky and failed to closeout in time on a couple of 3-point attempts. On one occasion, he stayed with the guard driving all the way to the elbow on the pick-and-pop and wasn’t explosive enough to run back and contest Kaminsky taking a 25-footer.
Towns does have decent lateral mobility for someone his size and a long wingspan that gives him some margin of error to not necessarily stay attached yet still contest a mid-range jump-shot effectively. But he’s probably not suited to defend smaller players on switches since the sudden change of direction just isn’t there.
Towns is the best prospect on the board. He’s done enough to suggest that everything could be on the table with him. He enters the league as an elite passer for someone his size and age, who rebounds in volume on both ends and protects the rim. That alone would be enough for him to be the top prospect, but the idea that he might also become a legit scorer from the post and 3-point range makes him a walking video game.
If Towns does indeed become a guy who can space the floor while also keeping the opponent from going small against him, he’ll burn them by scoring or assisting cutters and shooters from the post. Towns will, essentially, be an offense all to himself, all the while protecting the rim on the other end.
Seems ridiculous to even think about it.
As a 7-footer who can protect the rim and rebound in volume, Towns is almost assured to be of value even if his scoring doesn’t translate and he’s not put in a position to make full use of his passing. That probably wouldn’t be the expected return on the No. 1 pick in the draft, though. Towns is only 19-years-old, but I think it’s fair to say that he has shown enough ball skills and awareness of the game by this point that it would be mildly disappointing if he doesn’t develop into either a shot creator or a shot maker in time.
Also, if he doesn’t grow out of being in constant foul trouble, that could certainly minimize his impact.
According to several reports, Towns has only worked out for the Timberwolves and expects to be drafted first. Based on how the team played last season, he would probably be used the same way he was at Kentucky, with most of his usage coming out of the low post. Maybe Flip Saunders watched the NBA Finals and suddenly realized how important spacing and 3-point shooting are, but it’s far more likely he’ll continue invested in that outdated style of play.
In Minnesota, Towns would spend most of his time in lineups with other true centers like Nikola Pekovic or Gorgui Dieng. Many believe Towns to be a fit playing with another big, since he’s expected to become a threat from the outside. Even so, I feel like the floor spacing he provides would be best maximized if he played center, especially considering how invested in posting up Andrew Wiggins and Shabbaz Muhammad Saunders was last season.
With Ricky Rubio at the point, Wiggins on the wing and Towns at center, it wouldn’t take Minnesota long to develop a top five defense.
However, based on how the Timberwolves played last season, I think there’s still a chance Saunders surprises everyone and drafts Okafor. If that’s the case, Towns won’t fall any further than the Lakers. The bad news: Byron Scott isn’t much more likely to develop Towns’ entire skill-set.
Floor spacing seems like such a foreign concept to Scott that he played Ryan Kelly as a wing last season. Like Saunders, he would probably use Towns as a post player. Working in the Lakers’ favor, though, is the pairing with Julius Randle, who is a more natural fit alongside Towns than Okafor.