Growing up in New Jersey as the son of a coach, Karl-Anthony Towns' favorite player was Len Bias. If the choice sounds odd, its because Towns was born nearly ten years after the hooper's tragic death.
A real student of the game, Towns has been miscast in the NBA as a carefree, stat-concerned talent. The lack of postseason success in Minnesota on his watch (one berth, a first-round exit in 2018) eats away at the narrative surrounding him. The centerpiece of the NBA team about to formally make the top pick in the 2020 Draft, Towns' time to lead is coming, and the excuses for lack of star power around him dissipating.
When Towns was ten years old, he was already 6'1". The Detroit Pistons and San Antonio Spurs met in the NBA Finals where only one team scored 100 points in the seven-game series. Most telling, Brian Cook and Raef LaFrentz led the league in 3-point attempts for centers, with 2.8 a game. Only one other, Pedrag Drobnjak, was over one trey a night.
The game has changed a lot in the fifteen years since then. Spacing is sacrosanct. 3-point shooting is more of a first option than last resort. Most importantly for Towns, it has become an integral part of the offensive gameplan for big men.
A first-team All-NBA talent, Towns' stat line is certainly gaudy. He averaged 20 and 10 for the fourth consecutive season, connected on an absurd 41.2 percent of his treys, and took an even more impressive 7.9 a game. The change in shot selection has been dramatic since Ryan Saunders took over as coach. A year ago, Towns took a fair 27 percent of his field goal attempts from three.
That number ballooned up to 44.5 percent in 2020. Coincidentally, Towns' assist numbers also rose. He was the dimer on 22.8 percent of teammate baskets, tallied 4.4 dimes a night and had five nights with 8 or more assists.
There's no coincidence here. Towns' game is evolving not to keep up with the 3-point revolution for bigs, but to leap ahead of the curve. Saunders knows how unique a 40 percent 3-point shooter at the 5 can be and, just by designing an offense around that threat, the rest of the team can thrive. The student of the game, historian version of Towns knows just how revolutionary this role can be.
Saunders was no stranger to Towns when he took over. The Interim Head Coach after Tom Thibodeau was dismissed during the 2018-19 season, Saunders was an assistant in Minnesota dating back to Towns' 2015 rookie year. The two formed a bond and has a history which enabled Saunders to relate to his star player. So in Year One, when Saunders asked Towns to increase his 3-point rate and would change the offense around it, the buy-in was there.
Minnesota finished the season with a new cast around him, too. Gone was Andrew Wiggins, another guy whose perception entailed empty calories on offense, limited effort on defense and questionable shot selection. In came D'Angelo Russell, an All-Star from Brooklyn who came via Golden State, one of Towns' good friends. Acquiring Russell was the important organizational step of not only committing to devoting their entire franchise to Towns, but bringing in a scoring guard whose shooting prowess made the 3-point shot a way of life in Minneapolis.
Even before Russell arrived, the shooting barrage was underway. In the transition moments from defense to offense, Towns would run to the top of the key and wait there, ready to initiate offense. He got his fair share of trailer threes when his primary defender would instinctively drop into the paint. The idea was simple: if you rebound, get it to a guard and cruise into the play. The lane will remain open, and with an empty lane there are no rim protectors to swat KAT's teammates. Minnesota saw a rise in 2-point percentage from 50.4% to 52%, a noticeable bump.
When Towns was crowded in transition or the ball couldn't naturally find him, savvy lead guards like Russell or Jeff Teague would run interference, jamming into Towns' man and executing a dribble handoff. Sometimes that would lead to an open three. Other times it would be a driving lane, where Towns could use his dexterity and long first step to take advantage of how open the rim was:
No matter what happened, the message was sent pretty clearly: don't deny a reversal to Towns. Once he got in the play, the defense's best bet was to let him catch it, get a hand up to prevent that quick rise, and play out the possession in the half-court.
âThe credit for execution belongs with Towns and his trainers, who have transformed the long, lanky big man into a consistent stepback shooter. When Towns jab steps guys or takes one dribble, he doesn't lose his touch. Most big men are unable to find that fluid release.
Instead, Towns uses his length and deft touch on stepbacks to hit some ludicrous triples. He can stand just above the elbow, then step back to find the line in ways that are virtually unguardable:
âKAT's relative unguardability up top means he can score early in possessions whenever he wants. He'll exploit teams that sag and rise up. His pump fake is a good enough sales pitch to draw defenders in the air. Bigs who try to jam him get run off handoffs. The Wolves know how to leverage Towns here, and will lean on him when they're down late to generate quick shots.
When they settle into their normal offensive sets, Towns is keen on creating through handoffs. His sturdy frame serves as a nice divider between the handoff recipient and their defender. Shooters can adequately hide behind Towns. Slashers come off and use him as a battering ram to separate. All this while Towns gets squeezed by his own man.
After flipping a handoff, Towns is trying to pop. He preserves that 5-out spacing and puts his defender in a tough decision: sag off and protect the rim from a driver, or stay tight on Towns to take away the 3 and trust the handoff will be defended well.
The last three plays from the video above are telling. In one, Towns navigates his way back off a down screen for middle isolations against stiffer bigs like Nikola Jokic. The false movement, handoffs and other plays can all be broken off by Towns whenever he feels a mismatch he must exploit. Few teams have the personnel to deny him the ball away from the hoop. When he wants the ball, it's easy to get it to him.
The final two clips are of a set play the Wolves run to get Towns an isolation. The rip action, a diagonal screen coming from a teammate originating in the corner, is usually designed to get post-ups for bigs. The Nuggets run the action for Jokic, the Spurs have for LaMarcus Aldridge, the Tom Thibodeau Chicago Bulls ran it frequently... it's an NBA staple.
On some occasions, Towns utilizes it for the post-ups and size advantages he has, especially if an unsuspecting defense has to switch the rip screen. Most times, though, KAT stretches the screen all the way out to the 3-point line, moonwalking his way from a catch to find the clearout. His penchant for triples makes him such a tough threat in isolations where that shot is a threat. Bigs have a tough time staying with him on drives, where he's more of a face-up threat than back-down one. They can settle against the drive in situations where he's in the pinch post. Saunders relies on the match as well as the functional openings for KAT's best attacks are worth the seven feet ceded by instructing him to catch that far away.
You see the same concepts come from any of the Timberwolves pick-and-pop actions in early offense. When there's an empty-side ball screen, Towns is prone to pop quickly, finding that 45-degree spot along the 3-point line where the flat-corner starts to bend into an arc. Minnesota gets to this area in a multitude of ways, including Pistol-esque actions, Wedge PNRs and simple dribble-thrus or back cuts to clear out the corner.
Here's where the quickness of KAT's stroke comes into play. Most big men require time and space to load up for their shot. Brook Lopez, Marc Gasol... these guys have slower shots successful because they are afforded so much time. Towns doesn't get that luxury. He also doesn't need it. Quick fires from the catch are standard for him. His feet are set early, and with limited lower-body load-up required, he's got very little wasted time from catch to release.
Towns doesn't just need to shoot from the top of the key, a farther distance where stretch bigs are accustomed to operating. Against Drop pick-and-roll coverage, the predominant defensive tactic of today, the middle pick-and-pop is the typical counter. Because Towns can quickly snipe and doesn't need the same amount of time as others, Saunders can comfortable pop him to the wings. When there's no immediate shot, KAT is simply in the same spot he'd be on the Rip ISO, ready to play one-on-one.
Pivoting back to the tactical design of the playbook, the Timberwolves run a common NBA action through the trailing 5 that I refer to as Pinch. It's a dribble handoff to the corner man, darting off a quick down screen into the pitch. The action can work for slashers or shooters. Slashers lose their man in traffic, while shooters adept at hiding behind the bunching of bodies find time to rise and fire.
Lost in the general schematics of the play design is the concept that carries over from everything they do: when Towns is at the 3-point line, there's no rim protection. While the Pinch action provides a de facto double screen for shooters to hide behind, slashers who get to the basket don't worry about reading help defenders or getting swatted. Towns takes care of that by his perimeter presence; that's an impact difficult to quantify.
Saunders starts to get fancy with things when Towns will flip the ball back to the point guard in a planned, quick give-and-go. As the two switch sides of the floor, Towns naturally flows into a single down screen. The playbook is designed around Towns leveraging the fear of over-helping off him to help get teammates open. Think of the effect Dirk Nowitzki or JJ Redick have when they set screens: there's a paranoia about helping off them. Towns is garnering the same reputation and attention.
Minnesota doesn't have a great wing scorer, but if they do draft Ball or Edwards, the two-guard lineups could put one of them or Russell in the corner spot. Imagine Towns setting single down screens for an elite scorer here: if they go under, Russell pops back and gets an open shot. If they jam him, he can curl for a layup or, by curling, open up the opportunity for KAT to leap backwards to the 3-point line:
That's a concept Saunders loves to utilize and teach his team. If there's any resistance on the screen via top-locking, jump-switching or the like, don't fight it. Cutters will simply reject or curl the screen, head to the basket and let Towns pop back for three.
Minnesota runs some early stagger actions in transition, and while they get a fair amount of shots for their guys off it, the curls are an unbelievable way to generate looks for KAT. Imagine how this would look with an elite shooting threat: a Kyle Korver, Doug McDermott or Wayne Ellington who sprints off these screens and draws so much attention that Towns gets pops whenever he wants them.
Saunders isn't afraid to get creative and utilize Towns' great shooting and dexterity coming off screens. We may see more actions and wrinkles as the Wolves gain continuity with their core; last season was a revolving door through trades, injuries and G-League call-ups.
Perhaps my favorite is to use Towns coming to the corner off a baseline exit screen. Not many seven-footers can come off these screens and be a threat. Since its such a rarity, his defender is puzzled and unprepared to stick with him:
For as much of an X's and O's nut as I am, set plays and patterns only get you so far. Concepts, and common principles that can occur no matter what the play call is, are more impactful to team. Saunders preaches these concepts, which is why the playbook is fairly simplistic and based on floor-spacing. If Towns screens, he knows where and how to pop. Since those are measured and taught, his teammates know how to find him and anticipate those openings.
The evolution of KAT has included his ability to heighten his basketball IQ in these situations. Saunders will run some post-ups for Towns where they run him off a back screen from the point guard. Commonly, opposing bigs will shed the screen and opt to meet Towns on the other side, refusing to get on his hip and giving him a catch-and-finish.
When that happens, Towns has learned to read pop-backs, anticipating when his man goes underneath the screen. Pay attention to DeAndre Jordan and Steven Adams on the two clips below. As soon as they cheat the back screen, Towns makes the appropriate read to get a trey.
Along with his improved IQ off screens, Towns is becoming a much smarter facilitator. Saunders has simplified the game for him. When he has the ball up top, the floor typically remains balanced, with two teammates to his left and two to his right. The symmetry and spacing allows him to quickly identify cutters when they're open. If a teammate is overplayed, there aren't help defenders standing in the way of a backdoor cut.
Towns regularly develops strong passes and anticipatory deliveries to his teammates, again all set up by the attention he creates from 3.
Over the last few years, the narrative has focused far too much on what Towns isn't. He's not an elite defender or rim protector. He's not a fiery leader who shares the personality traits of Tom Thibodeau or Jimmy Butler. He's not overly outspoken, and the corollary of all those realizations is that he doesn't care enough to be a winner.
It's an unfair label. Towns isn't the 1990s throwback who bangs on the interior, thumps his chest after rim-rattling dunks or talks trash after every swat. He's the anti-Kevin Garnett in many ways. What Saunders, Gersson Rosas and the entire organization are out to prove is that you can win with a guy like him. His quiet nature prevents him from attention that is followed by praise.
His dexterity and shooting are what really matter most. As the Timberwolves go about their immediate rebuild, Towns in this offensive scheme is at the fulcrum. D'Angelo Russell should be a great pick-and-roll partner, utilizing his own 3-point shooting prowess to deepen the playbook and create layups for everyone.
Minnesota's a blank slate otherwise. Jarrett Culver underwhelmed in year one and is the subject of trade rumors ahead of the draft. Malik Beasley's recent arrest could cost him a long-term contract, frustrating after he was an important mid-season acquisition. Josh Okogie is a slasher and defender, though he may be best long-term in a reserve role.
This draft will add the Wolves someone they need to treat as their third star. Should it be LaMelo Ball, they add another dynamic handler and passer who will deliver KAT the ball when open, allow DAR to play off-ball in screens more and create easy looks for the other role players. If Anthony Edwards is the choice, his power on the wings would fill the Wiggins role as a cutter while giving Towns a great late-clock option so he doesn't do all the heavy-lifting.
There's the possibility Minnesota doesn't keep that pick, or that they trade up from 17. They reportedly love Tyrese Haliburton, an intriguing shooter and secondary playmaker whose high-IQ would partner well with KAT. They did a private workout for Auburn athlete Isaac Okoro, a stout defender and elite finisher who would benefit greatly from playing with a stretch-5. Even a long-term 4 like Patrick Williams, another slasher, would be blanketed by Towns' shooting.
The Wolves are in a decent spot. The $16 million expiring contract of James Johnson can be utilized on the trade market. Of the other players on the team, only Jake Layman is older than 24. They're young, but they're in the position to add talent, stay below the cap and move in the right direction.
Optimism comes from the belief that Saunders is weaponizing Towns the best way possible. 26.5 points, 10.8 rebounds, 4.4 assists on 50.8% shooting and 41.2% from 3-point range are some elite, elite stats. Both know that in order to maximize the core around him, the volume from deep needs to be trail blazing and shatter records from contemporary bigs.
This isn't the NBA either Saunders or Towns grew up watching. It's the NBA they're happy to create, and if innovation is the key to success, embracing this heavy volume is the Timberwolves best chance at a playoff ascension.
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Head Boys Basketball Coach, Boys' Latin School (MD).