After a truly absurd sophomore campaign, Karl-Anthony Towns appeared ready to take over the NBA heading into his third season.
With a rare blend of prowess in the post, floor-spacing chops and tenacity on the glass, there wasn’t much the Minnesota Timberwolves big man couldn’t do.
The 2016-17 version of Towns became merely the second player in league history to average at least 25 points and 12 rebounds per night in their age-21 season, joining Shaquille O’Neal to form an impressive list.
For good measure, though, Towns also spread the floor from three-point range, nailing 101 triples in 2016-17, something the paint-bound O’Neal would have never even considered attempting.
Making Towns’ early-career dominance even more impressive was the fact it extended to both sides of the floor.
As a rookie, the seven-footer displayed quick feet defensively, which helped him stick with guards on the perimeter after pick-and-roll-induced switches – a skill that, if mastered, could have turned a big man with Towns’ offensive chops into one of the most impactful players in the league.
Unfortunately, Towns hasn’t been able to blend his rookie-season defense with his sophomore-year offense to create a two-way monster in 2017-18. Not yet, at least.
Because, currently, he’s on pace to have his worst statistical season as a professional according to multiple advanced metrics – namely, Box Plus/Minus (BPM) and Player Efficiency Rating (PER).
It’s not just a matter of the team acquiring another ball-dominant wing in Jimmy Butler, either, though that probably hasn’t helped; Towns has simply regressed in multiple facets.
We only need to turn to Synergy Sports Tech’s vast database for proof.
As a second-year player back in 2016-17, Towns scored 1.029 points per possession (PPP) on post-ups, which placed him in the 86th percentile of the league, according to Synergy.
This season? He’s all the way down to 1.009 PPP on the block – still in the well above-average range, but a far cry from the post-dominant beast he was last year.
Even more jarring is his fall-off as the roll man in pick-and-roll sets, where Towns’ scoring efficiency has plummeted from 1.229 PPP last year (the NBA’s best mark among players with at least 250 opportunities) to 1.212 PPP this season. The latter clip places him all the way down in the 67th percentile.
What’s more, after showing promise as an isolation scorer last season – when Towns produced 0.857 PPP, putting him in the “good” range, per Synergy – the big man now ranks in the bottom quarter of the league (24th percentile) in iso efficiency, scoring a paltry 0.762 PPP.
Along with his declining production in the three aforementioned, all-important metrics, Towns has also diminished in his scoring off of put-backs (1.325 PPP last season to 1.143 PPP this year) and in transition (1.31 PPP to 1.11 PPP), which are two of the simplest point-producing methods to improve one’s efficiency.
Although it’s true Towns’ usage rate is at a career-low 23.3 percent (and Butler’s addition has obviously had a hand in that), should that really have had this much of an impact on the play-types which do not require the ball to be in his hands, i.e. attacking the offensive glass and running the floor?
It’s difficult to surmise why, then, this steep drop off in efficiency has taken place, as Towns’ effort level shouldn’t be questioned. After all, the guy is playing 34.9 minutes nightly, while putting up 20.1 points and 11.6 rebounds per outing.
Perhaps a lack of spacing is to blame, as he does spend the majority of his time on the floor with another traditional big man, usually either Taj Gibson or Gorgui Dieng, which, obviously, has an adverse effect on the amount of room he has to operate down low.
It’s probably not a coincidence that in the 78 minutes Towns has shared the floor with Nemanja Bjelica – who is a career 36.4 percent three-point shooter from the 4-spot – his output has seen marked improvement.
According to NBAWowy, Towns posts an effective field-goal percentage of 62.1 (up from 57.6 percent in all other minutes) and a true shooting percentage of 68.2 (up from 62.2 percent in all other minutes) when he’s on the court with Bjelica, and without Gibson and Dieng.
With the added space inside, the third-year pro begins to resemble his sophomore self – you know, the version who put up a preposterous 28.2 points per night over a 42-game sample size during the latter half of 2016-17.
Though the fix seems simple enough – just pair Bjelica with Towns more often – it’s really not that easy.
For one, it would go against head coach Tom Thibodeau’s core principles, which tell him to deploy two traditional bigs on the floor whenever possible.
Additionally, in the 78 Towns/Bjelica minutes this year, the Timberwolves have given up 109.3 points per 100 possessions, a mark that, if extrapolated for the year, would be the league’s second-loosest rate.
That’s simply not gonna fly. Especially under Thibodeau.
(Not to mention, Bjelica is still recovering from a foot sprain suffered in mid-November, making the whole discussion sort of moot. For now, anyway.)
Nevertheless, at the end of the day, great players tend to figure things out.
Whether that be how to thrive in a different system or with new teammates, someone possessing Towns’ obscene amount of natural talent – and his level of want, more importantly – should be able to get through this relative rough patch.
Plus, wouldn’t we all be so lucky as to have “rough patches” that still include putting up 20 and 11 on a nightly basis?
You can follow Frank Urbina on Twitter @frankurbina_.