The Step Back is rolling out its 25-under-25 list over this week. Follow along with our rankings of the top 25 NBA players under the age of 25.
You know that game where someone compiles an obscure combination of statistical thresholds, generating an equally obscure shortlist of players who have met them, usually highlighting the relative greatness of a specific name on the list? Like, did you know that DeMarcus Cousins is one of only three players to play over 2,000 minutes in a season while averaging at least four turnovers and four personal fouls per game? (The other two are Charles Barkley and George McGinnis.)
In terms of capturing what makes a player great, the game a woefully inadequate tool — manipulating decimal places to generate a suitably jaw-dropping short list of comparisons. But it sure as heck makes Karl-Anthony Towns stand out.
By virtue of his age (he’ll turn 23 a month into the 2018-19 season), stature (7-feet), 3-point shooting (42.1 percent on over 280 attempts last season), and robust box score numbers (20-10-2 per 36 minutes in each of his three seasons), Towns is pretty much a cheat code for this parlor room exercise. Play around long enough and you can put him alongside all sorts of Hall-of-Famers, or simply on a list all his own.
This is a long way of saying that Towns looks like one of the most talented young big men the league has ever seen and there’s every reason to think he’s on a galactic trajectory. He just wrapped up one of the most efficient high-volume scoring seasons ever for a big man. Of all the supposed “unicorn” bigs, redefining the ability to stretch the floor with shooting, no one’s jumper has been quite as reliable as his.
You simply can’t watch a Timberwolves game and miss Karl-Anthony Towns. However, seeing and feeling are not the same thing and I think it’s fair to say that, to this point, Towns has not made himself felt as much as his numbers imply is possible.
There is, of course, his defense. ESPN’s Real Plus-Minus, which has some very positive assumptions baked in about the inherent defensive value of a 7-footer, estimated Towns’ impact at that end last season to be about the same as Dirk Nowitzki’s. Too often at that end of the floor, he still looks like a 23-year-old, not sure where to be and when, how to devote his length and athleticism to the cause of unit cohesion.
On offense, despite all his skills and abilities, Towns was third on the team in field goal attempts per game and fifth in usage rate. Taj Gibson averaged more elbow and paint touches per game than Towns (despite playing three fewer minutes). You can blame those things on the scheme and lay it all at the feet of architect Tom Thibodeau but the fact remains that Towns does not yet command attention and opportunity commensurate with his skill level, even on his own team.
It may seem obtuse to be talking about feel, and I am more than leery of sounding like a veteran center from the 1980s — blathering into the void about his lack of desire, physicality and and old school post game. But Towns has everything he needs to control a basketball game, to bend it to his will, to proactively shape the possession-to-possession flow for his team and his opponents’. Instead, he is merely reactively dominant, putting up absurd stat totals as lesser players allow the game to come to him.
In a roundtable discussing this year’s 25-under-25 list, there was a question about which player could take over the top spot on this list next season, as Joel Embiid and Giannis Antetokounmpo age off. Towns’ name came up more than once, and that kind of impact, and the accompanying warping of perspective that comes with it, is well within his grasp. He just has to go out there and take it.