The Aesthetic: Karl-Anthony Towns is built of simpler stuff


Karl-Anthony Towns is having an incredible year but it’s time to let go of the unicorn talk. His excellence is built of simpler stuff.

For as many points as he scores, Karl-Anthony Towns’ offensive game is remarkably utilitarian. Flat-footed jumper. A reasonable array of flips and hooks. A dunk if space allows. It’s all angles and touch, not soft but only overwhelming in its effectiveness.

Towns is entering a monumental season, his fifth in the NBA. At just 24-year-old, he is still a handful of years away from his hypothetical prime but other than a push to get more shots behind the 3-point line, his immense offensive talent seems to be near its ceiling. When preternatural skill is the driving force from the very start, sometimes there’s nowhere else to go.

If you watch Towns working without the ball, it’s hard to miss his hands. Once he crosses his halfcourt, they’re above his waist and they stay there. For as much as he leverages his size, strength and quick feet, the hands are his Horcrux, the vessel for his basketball soul. Those hands swallow passes, cradle the ball on that jumphook and launch that smooth, slingshot jumper. Towns is big — 6-foot-11 and 248 pounds according to the Timberwolves media guide — but the size mostly serves as a means for manipulating space, separating from defenders and getting those hands into position.

Towns has the dexterity for acrobatic finishes but he mostly works himself into position to keep things simple. His effective post-game isn’t about feints and counters. It’s slowly chewing up space, a few inches at a time, until his length can put the ball out of reach and his touch can put the ball in the hoop. Working off the dribble, leveraging a slower player, he’s mostly setting himself up to win by physical extension. He doesn’t blow by, he gets a half-step and never surrenders it, trusting reach and touch to finish the job.

Over the past few years, as the NBA has remade itself aesthetically, recombining space and speed and the arc of the jumpshot into something different, there has been perhaps more room than ever for players to experiment with form. Advances in the science of nutrition, fitness, training and recovery has meant humans bodies can do previously unimaginable things on the basketball court. The proliferation of the 3-pointer and a pace that is ramping back up towards the highs of the 1980s has meant there is more space to conduct those physical experiments. The rapid rate of change has meant that we see players playing in ways that were previously unimaginable.

Towns is not one of those players. Other than being tall and hanging behind the 3-point line there is nothing really about his game that feels inescapably “of this era.” His jumper is Sam Perkins. His post-game is Elvin Hayes. His face-up game is Patrick Ewing. Towns happens to be playing basketball in a revolutionary era and he often inhabits revolutionary spaces. But he is function over form. He is not of a revolution, he is simply revolution-adjacent.

This stands in stark contrast to some of his contemporaries — particularly the other mythological creatures that entered the NBA’s center rotation at the same time as him. Nikola Jokic is a giant blessed with supernatural vision, not just to see, in exquisite detail, the universe as it presents itself to the rest of us, but to see through the fabric of is to the is possible that undergirds all of reality. Kristaps Porzingis is far more than just a new-breed of perimeter big. At 7-foot-3, he is quite literally one of the biggest humans to ever play in the NBA and he’s already made more career 3-pointers than all other NBA players his height or taller, combined. Joel Embiid is blessed with a combination of brute force and explosive quickness that we haven’t seen since pre-fat Shaquille O’Neal. That unique physical package is wrapped in the blind confidence to believe he can make any basketball play and then to actually try it (and then crow about it on Instagram afterward).

Compared to this group, Towns’ production more than holds up and it’s not outside the realm of possibility that he could be the most effective when it’s all said and done. But watching him play side-by-side with the rest of this group makes him look positively human.

For an opponent, or a fan of an opposing team, watching Jokic, Embiid or a healthy Porzingis do their thing inspires a certain amount of helplessness. The no-look passes that seem to pare space from time, the 3-point shots you couldn’t block with a broom, the baseline drop-step and dunk with enough power to knock the wind out of people in the third row. You know there’s nothing to be done about any of that.

Towns’ brilliance is demoralizing, or inspiring for Timberwolves players and fans, in an entirely different way. It doesn’t transcend. It is built from the same terrestrial fiber as everything else on the court. It has the appearance of being stoppable, vulnerable to the right strategy, the right mix of impediments and discouragements. But, like a Tim Duncan bank shot, the vulnerability is an illusion. Soft fingers and well-developed hand-eye coordination make for accurate shooting. Put up enough languid catch-and-shoot jumpers and drowsy hooks and you’ve got yourself 25 points, a spot for your team in the playoffs and maybe, eventually, something more.

The Aesthetic is an irregular column series, treating basketball as a purely artistic medium. Check out the entire project at A Unified Theory of Basketball.