(First posted at RealGM)
POST-FIRST YEAR ASSESSMENT
- 2,627 minutes
- -2.4 pace-adjustment plus-minus
- 22.5 PER
Expectations over what sort of impact a first-year player can have on a team are often overstated. There a very few players who can truly come in, take ownership of a team and turn everything around. Towns is one of the few exceptions.
The 20-year-old just had one of the best offensive seasons a rookie has ever had, posting averages of 23 points on 59% true-shooting and 13.1 rebounds per 36 minutes. More impressive, perhaps, was the way he did it too.
Towns had shown potential at Kentucky for maybe one day developing into a complete player on offense. Then he stepped into the league and was pretty close to that right away.
Despite playing most of his first year as a teenager, Towns proved able to score from the post, charging to the rim or stopping on a dime and hitting step-back jumpers out of face-up drives, on pick-and-pops from mid-range, playing above the rim as a target for lobs on the pick-and-roll, nailing spot-ups from three-point range, crashing the offensive glass for tip-ins and putback dunks, assisting cutters or outside shooters with his back to the basket and playing high-low from the top of the key.
Now, mind you, the Timberwolves won just over a third of their games.
Part of the problem was the context.
Minnesota didn’t know its star was already ready to be a star right away. So it planned according to the expectation that Towns was going to take some time developing into the focal point of an offense. It built a team with four other prospects under the age of 24 and three veterans past the age of 34. Only Ricky Rubio, Gorgui Dieng and Nemanja Bjelica were in their primes.
The team also didn’t add many three-point shooters to leverage Towns’ presence into even more value. Furthermore, interim coach Sam Mitchell didn’t seem to understand the importance of the three-point shot in today’s game.
It speaks a lot to how good Towns was on offense (and Rubio as an organizer, as well) that the Timberwolves managed to finish the season 11th in scoring per possession while making the second fewest three-point shots in the entire league.
The other part of the problem was defense, and Towns played a role in it.
He showed flashes of dominant play on that end as well but was not any sort of a difference maker.
Towns has the agility and the length to keep pace with smaller players driving at him on the pick-and-roll and shut them down at the rim. But his impact as a rim protector was marginal, as he saved just 1.01 points per 36 minutes according to nyloncalculus.com’s Rim Protection metric.
Towns also allowed 0.90 points per possession on post-ups, one of the dozen or so worst marks in the league among players who guarded at least 100 such possessions.
Many criticized Mitchell when he started pairing Towns and Dieng more often midway through the year, then kept together most of the time after the All-Star break. But he had clearly identified Dieng was needed to stabilize the defense in a way Towns was not yet prepared to do so on his own.
According to nbawowy.com, the Timberwolves allowed 1.184 points per possession in 777 minutes with lineups that had Towns in but none of Dieng, Kevin Garnett, Adreian Payne and Nikola Pekovic out there with him. They went on to allow just 1.103 point per possession in 1,129 minutes with Towns and Dieng together – a mark that will never be confused with the early-2010s Pacers, but a less leaky defense nonetheless.
That’s probably what informed Tom Thibodeau’s decision to spend some money on Cole Aldrich and Jordan Hill, despite the fact they still have Dieng under contract and the right to retain him in restricted free agency in the summer of 2017. Even if Garnett and Pekovic never play another minute, it seems safe to assume Towns will not play many minutes without another prototypical big close to the rim any time soon.
That will be frustrating to watch in the era of smallball. The logical conclusion should be to have Towns playing as a center and stressing opponents from every spot on the floor, regardless of what’s his role in a given play, and opening up the lane for dribble penetrators and cutters.
But Thibodeau prioritizes the defense and the surest way to build the best defense still is by having a fortress barricading the front of the basket. Towns has not yet shown he can be that fortress all on his own.
Editor’s Note: Rafael Uehara is the managing editor of ‘Basketball Scouting’. More of his work can be found here or at RealGM, where he is a regular contributor. He can be followed on twitter as @rafael_uehara