The 2021-22 NBA season has been ruled by giants.
Joel Embiid, Nikola Jokic and Giannis Antetokounmpo are the MVP frontrunners. Rudy Gobert (or Giannis) might take home another Defensive Player of the Year trophy.
The jumbo-sized frontcourt of Lauri Markkanen, Evan Mobley and Jarrett Allen have transformed the Cleveland Cavaliers from lottery fodder to playoff contender. Young centers like Bam Adebayo, Jaren Jackson Jr. and Deandre Ayton continue to delight.
Perhaps lost in the shuffle of this big man renaissance is Karl-Anthony Towns, whose Minnesota Timberwolves are 41-30, just 1.5 games back of the sixth-seeded Denver Nuggets and 3.0 behind the fourth-seeded Utah Jazz.
Since Jan. 3, they’re 25-10 with a plus-7.8 net rating. The only teams with a better record and net rating over that span are the Boston Celtics and Phoenix Suns. This club has a legitimate chance to win a playoff series for the first time in nearly two decades, thanks primarily to the campaign Towns is enjoying. He has a legitimate All-NBA case and is shepherding a revival in Minneapolis.
Through 64 games, the seventh-year center is averaging 24.9 points, 9.9 rebounds, 3.7 assists, 1.2 blocks and 1.0 steal on 64.2% true shooting (.529/.408/.825 split). He also ranks 17th in DRIP at plus-3.1. While he’s been exceptional all season, he’s been especially stellar over the past six weeks, guiding Minnesota to a 17-5 record since Jan. 30, including wins over Denver, Memphis, Cleveland, Golden State and Miami.
Across this stretch, he’s averaging 26-11-4-1-1 on 68.1% true shooting. It’s a brilliant run and one that’s been amplified by some tweaks to his approach and usage.
Dating back to head coach Chris Finch’s hiring in late Feb. 2021, Towns’ deployment has evolved from his tenure under past head coaches such as Ryan Saunders and Tom Thibodeau. In cutting down on low-post reps, Finch has afforded his star more face-up touches and generated more opportunities to attack from the perimeter, leveraging an elite shooting stroke to carve out driving lanes. That volume has only risen during these 22 games.
Prior to Jan. 30, Towns was averaging 6.9 drives per game, shooting 55% on them and touted a 3-point rate of .329. Since then, he’s averaging 9.5 drives per game, shooting 61% on them and touted a 3-point rate of .248. He’s scoring and passing more, while turning it over less. Among the 26 players with 200 or more drives over that span, nobody is scoring more efficiently than him.
Whether it be jab-steps, shot fakes or a combination, he’s increasingly wielding the threat of a jumper into prosperous downhill forays. When he does venture into the paint, he’s exhibiting greater change of pace and body control. Earlier in the year, he made a habit of picking up offensive fouls for trying to apply his size and strength too often. The arm-hook was a frequent problem. That isn’t occurring as often anymore.
His transition from shot fake to drive is swift. He’s elastic contorting around help to convert at the rim. Deciphering how to contain a 7-footer who shoots 41% beyond the arc and is emerging as a lethal driver seems miserable. He’s become a much more unpredictable scorer and that’s part of why he’s been dominant the past six weeks.
Even if Towns isn’t attacking a tilted defense, he’s still been superb working as a face-up guy and is operating and thriving around the elbows and free-throw line extended region more often. He’ll punish switches and is less bothered by contact on the move. His touch from every level is exquisite.
During this run since Jan. 30, Towns’ attempts in the restricted area has ballooned from 44.2 to 50.7%. He’s shooting 67.8% in that area since Jan. 30 (60.5% prior) and he’s cashing in 60.9% of his 2s with a free-throw rate of .397. Before that, those marks were 56.7% and .289.
All of these spikes feel like the result of newfound composure, improved shot quality and an offensive superstar figuring how to tie together loose ends. He’s just constantly dictating the tone of his matchups, which did not always seem to be the case for him in prior months and years, even though he was still a wonderful player. Rattling him is significantly tougher.
Towns is piloting the NBA’s premier offense since mid-December (sixth overall), but he’s not doing it alone. After a spotty start to the year, his playmaking has shined in recent weeks. His assist-to-turnover ratio has leaped from 1.1 to 1.4, largely the product of heightened discipline.
He’s learned to steer clear of the flashy reads – particularly skip passes over the shoulder or erratic, one-handed bullets – and scan through the available options to find the optimal one. Although those warts still bubble occasionally, they’re less prevalent. The short roll, low-post and elbows are his office, igniting cutters, shooters and other scoring openings.
Talent has never been an issue. Now, it seems like he’s merging that talent with discretion and matured decision-making, serving as the best offensive player on one of the league’s best units. He’s not predetermining moves and is relying on instinct.
For years, a stigma existed around Towns, who was unjustifiably scrutinized for Minnesota’s lack of team success. Outsiders absurdly questioned intangibles like his heart, drive and motor.
But the lack of team success was always much more connected to insufficient coaching and limited surrounding personnel than any scathing reflection of him.
In Year 7, those two components have become strengths and he’s fine-tuned his game to pilot a winning team. The Timberwolves are cruising, and Towns is flourishing. Soon, the reward might be a series victory or an All-NBA berth.
Or, even better, it might be both.
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Research support provided by Josiah Sukumaran. Design by Matt Sisneros