(Originally posted at Upside & Motor)
Karl-Anthony Towns joined Kentucky as the ninth-rated prospect coming out of high school, according to ESPN.com. He was one of the very few players entering college basketball with some pro experience, since he spent the previous summers with the Dominican national team (also coached by John Calipari), where he had the opportunity to practice against Al Horford.
Despite two veterans returning at his position – Willie Cauley-Stein and Dakari Johnson, Towns established himself as Kentucky’s top option at center from day one, eventually logging 822 minutes in 39 games – many against really good competition such as Cliff Alexander, Myles Turner, Cameron Ridley, Kennedy Meeks, Joel James, Tony Parker, Montrezl Harrell, Jarrell Martin, Jordan Mickey and Frank Kaminsky.
He didn’t separate himself much over the first couple of months but by the end of the season, Towns developed into the team’s top option on offense, in part because of the unimaginative style of play installed by Calipari but also because no defender in college basketball could keep him from getting to his spots and getting a quality shot off.
Towns surpassed Jahlil Okafor as the best prospect in this year’s draft in most people’s minds with his last two appearances in the NCAA tournament, when he scored 41 points on 24 shots against Notre Dame and Wisconsin. He did so by dominating in the post.
Towns uses his 250-pound frame to establish deep position within six feet. Catching the ball so close to the basket is part of the reason why he was such an effective post scorer at the collegiate level, averaging 0.92 point per possession on what amounted to 43 percent of his offense (according to research by Draft Express) and 6.5 free throws per 40 minutes.
But Towns also exhibited really good touch on his finishes. He did not show smooth footwork or a wide variety of moves but was extremely efficient with his go-to move; a turnaround, short hook with either hand after one dribble and dropping his shoulder into the chest of the defender to create separation. It’s easy to dismiss him looking so dominant against Notre Dame because Zach Auguste was just so much smaller, but Towns also scored fairly well against NBA-caliber prospects such as Kaminsky, Turner, Alexander, Martin and Mickey.
And Towns did so without much help from those around him. Kentucky rarely gave him flex screens to occupy his defender while he moved towards the block. There was never any primary action to move the ball from side to side and bend the defense either. The guards often just dribbled into a position and waited for the time to feed the post. It was always on him to navigate the lane and be physical fighting for position.
Towns also didn’t have much space to work with. He spent the majority of his minutes in lineups with two non-shooters (Cauley-Stein and Trey Lyles) and two capable but not particularly good shooters (the Harrison twins).
But despite not having shooters around him, Towns was not a black hole. He proved a very willing passer, utilizing his high vantage point to see over the top of double teams and soft hands to deliver on target. According to basketball-reference, Towns assisted on 11.6 percent of Kentucky’s scores while he was on the floor – an above average mark among centers. The downside was turning it over on almost 18 percent of his possessions with his back to the basket, according to the report by Jonathan Givony of Draft Express.
Kentucky ran a really nice set in the first play of the game against Notre Dame, when Towns got the ball in the high post and lobbied to Lyles at the rim, freed by a weak-side screen from Cauley-Stein. It’s the sort of play that suggests Towns could be an asset facilitating offense from the elbows, something that we’re likely to see more teams seeking after the Spurs and the Warriors won the last two titles having big men who were capable of doing just that.
It’s unclear if Towns will be the sort of shot creator from the post in the NBA that he was at Kentucky, though. His passing and court vision are likely to translate; to which extent depending on his ability to command double teams. But it’s questionable he’ll command those double teams unless he develops counter moves. Towns is really big and should be able to establish deep position in the NBA as well but every defender will be aware of his overreliance on power moves to get his scoring and they will be more prepared to try taking that away from him. As far as those counters go, he’ll need a lot of work to develop the footwork Jahlil Okafor already has but many expect him to add a fade-away, turnaround jump-shot to his arsenal fairly soon. That’s because…
Towns projected as a stretch big out of high school. According to the New York Times, he hit 127 three-point shots in three seasons at Saint Joseph High School. But he did not show his range at Kentucky, taking just eight shots from beyond the arc and 28 jump-shots total in his 39 appearances last season.
There are anecdotes of how he’s looked shooting the ball from deep in practices and workouts, but there is no substantial video of him in a competitive setting demonstrating what kind of shooter he is; someone capable of spotting up in the corner or a guy who could be able to shoot on the move and work out of the pick-and-pop. Nonetheless, there is expectation he’ll be a threat from long range in the pros.
Towns converted 81.7 percent of his 131 free throws, which tend to be an indicator of potential outside shot development. In his limited jump-shot attempts, he’s looked like a capable open-shot shooter with solid mechanics, elevating up-and-down, keeping his guide hand pointed up, flicking his wrist naturally and following through but also like one who needs time and space for his release.
Towns moves very freely in space for someone his size. He can sprint up the court to fill the lane in transition and play above the rim as a target for lobs. Unfortunately we did not get to see him dive down the lane with momentum and catch the ball on the move out of the pick-and-roll much because Kentucky seemed allergic to the set that has become the heart of every NBA offense.
But because of his leaping ability and soft hands, Towns projects to be a constant threat running at the rim if he gets to play in an offense that affords him those chances. He finished his 111 shots at the basket at a 75.7 percent clip last season.
Towns also has the potential to mix in some playmaking cutting his rolls short. He’s flashed some quick thinking on the go. Midway through the second half at Louisiana State, he caught the ball out of the pick-and-roll and lobbied on the move, on target to Cauley-Stein at the rim when three opponents converged on him.
But the best evidence we have of his athleticism is from the offensive glass. Towns collected 14.2 percent of Kentucky’s misses when he was on the floor, which ranked him second in the SEC. According to hoop-math, he converted 41 of his 92 offensive rebounds into putbacks. Towns can rebound outside of his area due to his seven-foot-three wingspan and has a lot of strength in his 250-pound frame to fight for 50-50 balls.
On the defensive glass, Towns is diligent with his boxout responsibilities. He’s very aggressive looking to make plays at the rim as a shot blocker and sometimes that comes at the expense of boxing out the opponent but he’s consistent getting physical when the shot comes from the perimeter. Towns will tangle arms with the opponent from time to time rather than back him out of his rebounding area but consistently looks to establish inside position. He has pretty great leaping ability for someone his size and sound instincts tracking the ball off the rim, collecting 22.8 percent of opponents’ misses when he was on the floor, which also ranked second in the SEC.
Towns proved himself an excellent shot blocker rotating off the weak-side and also using his nine-foot-one standing reach to protect the basket with guards running at him, averaging 4.3 blocks per 40 minutes. That said, there is more room for him to grow smarter as a shot blocker. He’s sometimes in a hurry to leave his feet, which makes him prone to getting beat by up-and-under moves and leaves him vulnerable to fouling. Towns averaged 6.3 personal fouls per 40 minutes at Kentucky, which is very concerning.
Due his size, mobility and rim protection skills, Towns is expected to develop into a really high end pick-and-roll defender with some good coaching. There were flashes of that potential at Kentucky but he was mostly so-so when pushed by impact players.
He looked comfortable defending in space, showing-and-recovering in control against Texas and flashing good closing speed to effectively contest shots on the perimeter against Louisville. But Notre Dame and Wisconsin really put him under a good deal off stress.
Towns backpedaled well to challenge Jerian Grant and Demetrius Jackson when they turned the corner and attacked the rim but missed Auguste getting behind him a few times in that game and those resulted in scores at the rim.
Against Wisconsin, Towns was tasked with defending Kaminsky and failed to closeout in time on a couple of three-point attempts, one of them out of the pick-and-pop when he stayed with the guard driving all the way to the elbow and wasn’t explosive enough to run back and contest Kaminsky taking a 25-footer.
Towns does have decent lateral mobility for someone his size and a long wingspan that gives him some margin of error to not necessarily stay attached, yet still contest a mid-range jump-shot effectively. But he’s probably not suited to defend smaller players on switches since the sudden change of direction just isn’t there.
Towns is the best prospect on the board because he’s the one that can do the most if he fully develops. He’s done enough to suggest that everything could be on the table with him. He enters the league as a nice passer for someone his size and his age, who rebounds in volume on both glasses and can protect the rim. That alone would be enough for him to be the top prospect but the idea that he might also become a legit scorer from the post and from three-point range makes him seem as if he’s been created in a video game.
If Towns really becomes a guy who can space the floor while also keeping the opponent from going small against him because if they do, he’ll burn them by scoring or assisting cutters and shooters from the post, Towns will essentially be an offense all to himself. All of that while offering rim protection on the other end. Seems ridiculous to even think about it.
As a seven-footer who can protect the rim and rebound in volume, Towns is almost assured to be of value even if his scoring doesn’t translate and he’s not put in a position to make full use of his passing. That probably wouldn’t be the expected return on the number one pick in the draft, though. Towns is only 19 but I think it’s fair to say that he has shown enough ball skills and awareness of the game by this point that it would be mildly disappointing if he doesn’t develop into either a shot creator or a shot maker in time.
And if he doesn’t grow out of being in constant foul trouble, that could really minimize his impact.
According to several reports, Towns has only worked out for the Timberwolves and expects to be drafted first. Based on how the team played last season, he would probably be used the same way he was at Kentucky, with most of his usage coming out of the low post. Maybe Flip Saunders watched the NBA Finals and suddenly realized how important spacing and three-point shooting are these days, but it’s far more likely he’ll continue invested in that outdated style of play.
Towns is even likely to spend most of his time on the court in lineups with other true centers like Nikola Pekovic or Gorgui Dieng alongside him. Many believe Towns to be a fit playing with another big, since he’s expected to become a threat from the outside, but I feel like the floor spacing he provides would be best maximized if he played center, especially considering how invested in posting up Andrew Wiggins and Shabbaz Muhammad Saunders was last season.
With Ricky Rubio at the point, Wiggins on the wing and Towns at center, Minnesota ought to develop a top five defense really soon.
But based on how the Timberwolves played last season, I think there’s still a chance Saunders surprises everyone and drafts Okafor. If that’s the case, he won’t fall any further than the Lakers. Unfortunately Byron Scott isn’t much more likely to develop Towns’ entire skill-set, though. Floor spacing seems like such a foreign concept to Scott that he played Ryan Kelly as a wing last season. He would also probably use Towns mostly as a post player. LA would at least be assured the fit with Julius Randle would be more natural than if last year’s pick end paired up with Okafor, a player of a similar skill-set.
Editor’s Note: Rafael Uehara is the managing editor of ‘Basketball Scouting’. More of his work can be found here or at Upside & Motor, where he is a regular contributor. He can be followed on twitter as @rafael_uehara.