After a monstrous rookie season, Karl-Anthony Towns could be poised to take over the NBA throne.
Anthony Davis has been the proclaimed future of the NBA for the past few years, and for good reason. Davis is an absolute freak of nature, seemingly created in a lab to be a perfect basketball player. His story is almost mythical on its own: a skilled guard who grew into an long, athletic giant and somehow was able to maintain his coordination and those guard skills.
Last season, at the ripe age of 22, Davis exploded more than we ever could have expected. He posted a PER of 30.8, good for best in the league, and 12th highest of all-time. He also ranked second in the league in win shares per-48 minutes, and sixth in both box plus/minus and value over replacement player.
All of this spoiled us, and when Davis didn’t quite equal his monstrous 2014-15 season this year, we were quick to criticize. A 23-year-old who averaged 24.3 points, 10.3 rebounds, two blocks, and 1.3 steals per game while posting the 10th-best PER in the league was suddenly a disappointment. Davis even managed to expand his range, increasing his three-point shooting percentage from 8.3 to 32.4 percent. Yet all of this was overshadowed by his accolades the previous season, the expectation for Davis to take another huge leap forward, and his team’s lack of success. But come on, how bad could it really have been when he did this:
I bring all of this to your attention because I want to make sure you know that what I’m about to argue is not an overreaction to Davis’ “disappointing” season. Still four years from his prime, we ain’t seen nothing yet from Davis.
That being said, I want to explore whether Karl-Anthony Towns, not Davis, is the future of the NBA. Again, this is not an indictment of Davis, but rather an acknowledgement of the absolutely ridiculous rookie season Towns just completed.
In high school, Towns decided to reclassify from the class of 2015 to 2014 in order to head to Kentucky a year early. In doing so, Towns dropped up from the number one overall recruit in his class to ninth, sacrificing much of the hype that comes with a top-three ranking.
This move also placed him on one of the most loaded college basketball teams in history. Kentucky’s front court alone consisted of four players drafted in 2015, with Marcus Lee and Alex Poythress having a chance to be selected in this upcoming draft. With John Calipari electing to rotate three five-man “platoons” to utilize Kentucky’s depth, Towns played only 21.1 minutes a night, and posted modest averages of 10.3 points, 6.3 rebounds, and 2.3 blocks per game (per-36 minutes, those numbers translate to 17.6 ppg, 10.7 rpg, and 3.8 bpg, by the way).
These numbers came in an unfamiliar role for Towns, as Calipari didn’t allow him to utilize what had been his most marketable skill in high school: his three-point shooting. Towns only shot eight all season, with Calipari deciding it would be better for the team and for Towns’ personal development if he spent most of his time on the interior.
By the time the NCAA tournament and pre-draft workouts were done, it was clear Towns was the top pick, and the debate over Towns or Jahlil Okafor put to rest. Yet the hype that usually surrounds a consensus number one pick was still not there for Towns. He was seen by many as the safest pick, not necessarily a surefire superstar. But, we were lulled to sleep by Kentucky’s platoon system, and failed to recognize the supernatural talent before us.
Well, Towns sure woke us up quick.
On his way to the best rookie season since Tim Duncan — coincidentally the player he’s most often been compared to for his size, mastery of fundamentals and footwork, and calm, unassuming demeanor — Towns averaged 18.3 points, 10.4 rebounds, and 1.7 blocks per game. Comparatively, Duncan averaged 21.1 ppg, 11.9 rpg, and 2.5 bpg. Towns’ PER of 22.5 is just behind Duncan’s rookie PER of 22.6, and is the same PER Lew Alcindor (later known as Kareem Abdul-Jabbar) posted as a rookie.
Now, NBA players, coaches, and executives avert your eyes, because here is where it gets really scary.
First, at only 32 mpg, Towns averaged that stat line in 7.1 fewer minutes per game than Duncan. If you adjust them both to per-36 minutes, Towns would average 20.6 ppg, 11.7 rpg, and 1.9 bpg, while Duncan would average 19.4 ppg, 11 rpg, and 2.3 bpg.
Second, Towns is more athletic and mobile than Duncan ever was. He recorded a 36-inch vertical at the Draft Combine — Gregg Popovich has done a fantastic job of eliminating any permanent record of Duncan’s vertical, but there are whispers it was just under 32 inches. Duncan is and was a defensive savant, able to soak up concepts and see rotations a step ahead of others. While Towns isn’t quite at Duncan’s level defensively yet, he is already more than capable on that end of the floor. More importantly, in today’s small-ball obsessed NBA, bigs who can protect the rim and guard out to the perimeter — as Towns has shown the ability to do — are at more of a premium than ever before.
Finally, Towns can really, really shoot the ball. He put up shooting splits of .543/.341/.811 this season. There have only been 10 qualified seasons ever in which a player has shot at least 54 percent from the field, 34 percent from three, and 81 percent from the free throw line. The only qualified big men to reach those percentages are Towns and Kevin McHale. And Towns is the only rookie in the history of the NBA to match those numbers.
Take a look at a comparison of the per-36 minute rookie stats of Towns, Duncan, Davis, and Blake Griffin, another player who had a huge rookie season (though it should be noted that he suffered a season ending injury prior to what would have been his rookie season, and thus qualified as a rookie his second year out of college).
Per-36 Minutes Rookie Statistics
Towns’ volume and efficiency stand out, even among these great rookie seasons. Rookies simply aren’t that productive with that level of efficiency very often.
So, Towns was an animal as a rookie; what does that mean for his future and for his chances to overtake Davis as the heir to the NBA throne?
FiveThirtyEight’s CARMELO Player Projection system doesn’t think Towns is going to reach such celestial levels of production. For those unfamiliar with the system, it uses a player’s past performance to identify players similar to that player, and then projects the player’s year-by-year Wins Above Replacement totals for the next six seasons using an average of the WAR totals for all similar players.
CARMELO thinks Davis will total 83.1 WAR over the next six years, peaking at 13.5 in 2016-17, and ranked him the NBA’s best franchise player last fall. Towns is projected to total 30.6 WAR, peaking at 5.6 in 2019-20, making him the NBA’s 26th-best franchise player. For those keeping score at home, that’s 12 and 13 spots, respectively, behind Elfrid Payton and Marcus Smart. As if that’s not enough, Towns’ top two comparisons are Anthony Bennett and Greg Oden. If you’re thinking something has to be off, you’re not wrong. CARMELO isn’t updated with this year’s stats, meaning it had to use Towns’ college stats to project his career arc.
Once CARMELO is updated, Towns has a very good chance of taking over that number one spot from Davis. Describing Towns is like describing an NBA general manager’s wet dream. A 7‘0”, 244 pound center who’s skilled both inside and outside, smart on both ends of the floor, mobile enough to guard on the perimeter, athletic and long enough to protect the rim, can shoot from three, and has an all-business mentality. It just seems to good to be true.
Towns not only far outperformed Davis’ rookie season, but also is already a better shooter than Davis is after four seasons of developing his jump shot. Three-point shooting is the most valuable commodity in today’s NBA and would automatically make Towns an asset without considering any of his other attributes.
In short, there isn’t really a limit to how good Towns can be. It’s hard to definitively say he is the future of the NBA after one season, but when people start comparing him to Tim Duncan with a jump shot, it’s impossible not to start that discussion.
After his first game against a rookie Tim Duncan, Charles Barkley famously proclaimed, “I have seen the future, and he wears number 21.” Now it looks like the future wears number 32.
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