Just two years ago, Karl-Anthony Towns was the guy in NBA circles. The then 21-year-old enjoyed a breakout campaign in his second season, averaging 25.1 points and 12.3 rebounds per game on strong efficiency and, in advance of the 2017-2018 season, Towns received an impressive level of league-wide recognition. Part of that was a placement as the top vote-getter in NBA.com’s annual GM survey, edging out the likes of Giannis Antetokounmpo, Kevin Durant, LeBron James and Kawhi Leonard as the player that general managers would want to start a franchise. If anything, Towns has actually improved in the two seasons since that declaration but, in strange fashion, the 23-year-old has faded in the collective consciousness, to the point where he is now the forgotten star of the Western Conference.
The Jimmy Butler experiment, short-lived as it was, took some of the spotlight from Towns, even as the Minnesota Timberwolves enjoyed a playoff-level season in 2017-18. Butler was credited with much of the uptick but, even as that narrative unfolded, Towns was an All-NBA selection and, if nothing else, he maintained his status as an upper-echelon center. Then, the bizarre exit of Butler removed any luster from Minnesota’s 2018-19 campaign and, even with Towns enjoying a fantastic individual season, injuries and strange roster dynamics led to a flop of a season. That team downturn, coupled with Minnesota’s perch as anything but a massive media market, seemingly pointed to an evaporation of Towns’ buzz, and the fact that he was already signed to a five-year contract extension also removed the rumor-mill dynamic from the picture.
With that as the backdrop, Towns’ productivity and efficiency at a still-young age cannot be overstated. Over the last three seasons (removing only his rookie campaign), Towns has averaged 23.6 points and 12.3 rebounds per contest. Those numbers are eye-popping in any light, but the former No. 1 overall pick also shot 39.7 percent from three (as a player with true center size), while posting a 25.7 PER and 62.7 percent true shooting.
Over that time, Towns is the only player in the NBA to surpass 23 points and 12 rebounds per game with 39 percent from three and, beyond that, only Stephen Curry can match Towns as a player averaging at least 23 points per game with 39 percent from three and at least 62 percent true shooting. Last season, Antetokounmpo, Anthony Davis and Joel Embiid joined Towns in averaging at least 24 points and 12 rebounds per game, but none display the type of long-range marksmanship of Towns and, simply put, he is on course to be the best perimeter shooter in the history of the NBA’s center position.
The two-time All-Star does have other strong traits, including a ludicrous 83.6 percent clip from the free throw line in his career, but Towns is often criticized for his defensive shortcomings. It is unquestionably true that Minnesota has struggled on the defensive end during his tenure, regularly landing in the league’s bottom 10 in terms of overall efficiency, and at least some of those issues can be traced to Towns. Once billed as a potential game-changer on that end of the floor, Towns fluctuates from porous to average, even with the caveat that he hasn’t been given much help on the perimeter.
Is Towns going to be an elite defender? The smart bet would be no. However, there are plenty of flashes, particularly in the recent past, and Towns still combines great size with fluidity and potential. After all, the two-time NBA All-Star doesn’t turn 24 years old until November and, on the precipice of the 2019-20 season, he’ll be paired with Robert Covington, the best defensive forward to flank him at any point in the last half-decade. Smart analysis of the dynamics of the NBA would tell you that center is often, if not almost exclusively, a defensive position and Towns’ sometimes uneven play on that end can be harmful to his team’s overall construction. What he occasionally gives back on defense is more than papered over by his offense, however, and Towns sneakily improved to the point where even his absolute defensive floor is higher than many believe.
The Wolves aren’t projected as a likely playoff contender for the 2019-20 season, with even the most optimistic evaluations pegging Minnesota for a win total in the low 40’s. As a result, it is entirely possible that Towns will, once again, be overlooked for his overall brilliance and, if Covington misses time or the perennially disappointing Andrew Wiggins flounders again, things could get ugly for Ryan Saunders and company. It would be wise, though, to recognize the general obscenity of Towns’ offensive and rebounding ability, looking beyond the team’s projected record and considering the overall situation in which Towns is operating.
Without the team success that many point to as utterly necessary when evaluating the quality of individual players, Towns likely won’t garner the type of awards-based recognition of many of his peers. As such, it is easy to root for the Wolves to build a cohesive squad, if only because Towns’ individual performance might be lost. It is jarring to consider, though, that Towns is already performing as the type of generational talent he was billed to be as a draft prospect, and many are simply missing it.