With the 2017-2018 NBA season finally upon us, a little sooner than normal, there’s no lack of intriguing storylines around the association. Can the Warriors claim the mantle of best team ever? Will LeBron James win one more title in Cleveland before leaving for Los Angeles? Will Carmelo Anthony be ok as a #3 option on the Thunder? Those questions concern the future of the league’s elite, but among the rising class of future stars, one tall Dominican-American is making us ask a different kind of question: just how good can Karl-Anthony Towns become?
Since being selected first overall by the Minnesota Timberwolves in the 2015 NBA Draft, Towns has had greatness prescribed to him, and the 7-footer has largely lived up to the hype. Winning Rookie of the Year his first season–the first Latino ever to win that honor–the Big Kat showed what had scouts salivating during his one season at the University of Kentucky: post moves, an agility that didn’t seem to fit his large body, and a shooting touch that extended past the 3-point line. All things considered, Towns was hyped as the perfect big man for today’s modern, pace-and-space game. His stat-line during his rookie year was eye-popping: 18.3 points per game, along with 10.5 rebounds and 1.7 blocks. His Player Efficiency Rating (PER) of 22.3 put him at #13 in the league, and this was just his first crack at the NBA. Towns’ second season was even better.
Despite a relatively slow start, Towns took the league by storm during the post-All Star break segment of the 2016-2017 season, to the tune of 28.4 points, 13.0 rebounds, 2.1 assists and 1.4 three-pointers per game. If he had been able to replicate the second half numbers for a full year, we’d be discussing him as a full-on MVP candidate, if not even a favorite. His individual success also carried over to the team; the Timberwolves were +11 over 100 possessions with Towns on the floor, a superstar-level stat for someone who was barely old enough to legally drink. Never mind that he also became the first player of Dominican descent–Towns represents the DR at the international level–to score 2,000 points in an NBA season. That achievement was also the first time that a player scored two stacks in his second season since LeBron James in 2004-2005, and he ended up being pretty good, yeah?
Of course, Towns isn’t perfect. While his offensive game truly has no ceiling, his work on defense regressed in his second campaign. His blocks went down by 24% in his second season, and his defensive rating (the amount of points Minnesota gave up, per 100 possessions, with him on the floor) went up from 106 to 110, despite the inclusion of defensive mastermind Tom Thibodeau as head coach; it’s easy to believe that the defensive drop would have been even worse without Thibs at the helm. Towns appears to be athletically up for the task of defending across many positions and situations, and his rebounding numbers are generally elite; it’s the little things on defense that the 21-year-old needs to work on.
The addition of Jimmy Butler on offense should help Towns see less double-teams, which in turn might even make his offense even better.
While Towns’ defensive effort is always there, he does not have the best instincts, which manifests as being out of position on basic sets, which in turn leads to more fouls and subsequently more bench time. On pick-and-rolls, he would often get caught flat-footed by faster ball handlers, which he should be corralling under Thibodeau’s defense. Generally, when Towns wasn’t doing crazy shit on offense, he would be getting feasted on by the quick point guards of the league, a type of player which the Western Conference surely isn’t lacking (Russell Westbrook, Stephen Curry, and Damian Lillard all come to mind).
The good news for both Timberwolves and Latino NBA fans is that Minnesota might have given Towns exactly the right type of help this offseason. By trading for Chicago Bulls superstar wing Jimmy Butler and, to a lesser extent, signing veteran point guard Jeff Teague, Towns now has two superb perimeter defenders ahead of him to help snuff out plays before they can get too far into the Minnesota defense, limiting the vulnerabilities that Towns has displayed over his short NBA career. Meanwhile, the addition of Butler on offense should help Towns see less double-teams, which in turn might even make his offense better, which is a terrifying thought for the rest of the league.
So, just how good can Karl-Anthony Towns be in the 2017-2018 season? At the very least, he should be in the running for All-NBA team slots. In fact, with the NBA still requiring a center in its end-of-the-year sides, it shouldn’t shock anyone if the soon-to-be 22-year-old makes a push for the elite squadron of the First Team; last year’s top side, for example, consisted of James Harden, Westbrook, LeBron James, Kawhi Leonard, and Anthony Davis. It’s Davis who Towns would have to compete with, except that the New Orleans super-freak will likely be playing power forward this season, with the addition of DeMarcus Cousins at the 5.
That means that it’s all wide open for a new center to take the leap, and given his explosive improvement on offense during the second half of last season, it’s possible, if not likely, that Towns will be the one to take advantage. The talent that made him one of the most hyped prospects of the last decade has only continued to grow, and the improving situation in Minnesota should put KAT on most people’s radars this year. So, while All-NBA First Team would be an incredible achievement in and of itself, don’t be surprised if Towns takes the traditional third-year leap and puts himself as a (very) dark horse candidate for Most Valuable Player; at the very least, he should be considered the frontrunner for the Most Improved Player award.
There just aren’t many players in the league that combine his all-over-the-floor offensive dominance with the potential to be a very good, if not great, defensive player. And, as the Dominican-American baller continues to thrive and grow his game on both ends of the court, it might only be a matter of time before Karl-Anthony Towns becomes the first Latino to ever win the NBA’s most coveted individual award. Whether that happens this year, or whether it happens in the next few, one thing is clear: Towns is here to stay, and the rest of the league should be scared of his limitless potential.