The 28-year-old Wolves star is having a fantastic bounce-back season, propelled by exceptionally efficient play in the post.
After missing much of the 2022-23 season due to a hamstring injury, Karl-Anthony Towns has returned to looking like the Minnesota Timberwolves’ franchise player who has been selected to the All-NBA team twice. He is scoring 21.6 points per game on extremely efficient shooting splits of nearly 50-40-90, while also playing the best defense of his career.
One aspect of his game that has seen a revival is his play in the low post. While his touches in the post are down from his career highs from the 2016 to 2021 seasons, he is having his most efficient season down on the low block.
Of players with at least 1.5 post-ups per game, KAT is second in the league in FG% on shots that come after a post touch at 67.7%, only behind Kristaps Porziņģis. That is by far the highest mark of Towns’ career with 2016-17 being his second-best season at 54.6%. His 1.282 points per possession generated on post-ups is not only the highest mark of his career, per Synergy Sports, but also ranks in the 94th percentile league-wide. His previous best came back in 2016-17, his second season, when he put up 1.029 PPP.
Towns has always been a stellar post-player, but he’s taken a step forward in that area this year, while also having aspects that can be improved.
Shooting in the Post
When Towns has been single-covered on his post-ups, he has been incredibly efficient, not just this season, but his entire career.
Given that traditional centers are too slow to contain Towns’ drives to the rim and that he often shares the floor with Rudy Gobert, opposing teams are almost always guarding Towns with players that are much shorter than him, sometimes significantly so.
The defense’s plan is usually to double-team Towns when he gets the ball in the post, but when that double doesn’t come, or it is late, Towns has destroyed defenses. Here he is against Paul Reed, who is three inches shorter than he is.
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Towns uses his speed and height advantage to get around Reed and then pulls up and hits the shot over him before the help defense can come. Looking specifically at his post-ups on the left block, where KAT goes to work on Reed, he is averaging 1.391 PPP and shooting nearly 75% true shooting, per Synergy.
The other aspect of KAT’s post-ups that have been helped by being guarded by smaller defenders is he has to work less to get into a better post position. Towns has struggled to get deep post position most of his career, but that has started to change as he is being guarded by smaller and lighter players.
Above, KAT is being guarded by Aaron Nesmith, whom Towns has a six-inch and 30-pound advantage on. KAT makes it look easy, getting into great position, using one dribble to get to the center of the floor, and making a right-hand hook shot.
Even when the double does come, that hasn’t always been enough to stop Towns, as he has often used his speed to split the two defenders to get into a good position to score.
Here, Towns splits the double team of Jarace Walker and Bennedict Mathurin, both of whom Towns has height and weight advantage over, and scores while also drawing a foul.
Since the addition of Gobert, which necessitated Towns’ switch to the power forward position, KAT has needed to adapt many aspects of his game to fit Gobert. There have been some growing pains in that process, which were to be expected, but KAT’s post-scoring has now begun to flourish, in part due to often being guarded by smaller players.
The main area KAT has struggled with in the post this season is passing, specifically when the double team comes. He often tries to make a pass that is more difficult than necessary, leading to turnovers.
Here is an example of a pass that, while not a terrible idea to hit a cutting Kyle Anderson, this pass is more risky than necessary.
The simple pass to Mike Conley here seems to be the best one. It would leave only three Indiana Pacers’ defenders to guard four Wolves players, which should lead to points.
The above play breaking down isn’t all Towns’ fault though. Kyle Anderson’s inability to shoot from deep this season makes it difficult for him to space that floor. The spacing of Anthony Edwards and Naz Reid is also making it easy on the Indiana defense as only one player is needed to guard both players. Partly as a result of these issues, the Wolves are shooting just 28/71 (39.4%) and averaging under 0.75 PPP (around the 10th percentile) on possessions when Towns is hard doubled or the defense commits to him, per Synergy.
Here is a similar look, but one that is a successful pass out of a double team for Towns. Again, it is Anderson cutting to the rim, but this time he was the one making the entry pass, so when the double comes, it is much more difficult for the defense to cut the pass off.
The spacing of the other Wolves players on this play is also much better. Even if the help defense of Austin Reaves came on time, it would have been near impossible for the Los Angeles Lakers’ defense to guard all three of Nickeil Alexander-Walker, Naz Reid, and Troy Brown Jr. on the weak side.
These are the types of possessions the Wolves will need to be successful to win in the playoffs. When the game slows down, and defensive intensity increases, it will likely take many consecutive passes against a rotating defense to score consistently.
Keys to Continued Improvement
The main way the Timberwolves can continue to see improvement when Towns is doubled in the post is to have as much shooting on the floor as possible. Having shooting on the floor not only provides spacing for 3-point shots but also allows more space in the paint for cutters.
Gobert and Anderson are the two non-shooters who play the most minutes for the Wolves. Having as much spacing on the floor as possible will open up both lob paces for Gobert and cutting lanes for Anderson.
The next step for improvement, when there are shooters on the floor, is for Towns to just make the simple pass. Towns has shown the ability to make the spectacular pass, but sometimes the best pass is the easiest one. This season, Towns has committed a turnover on about 17% of the doubles defenses have shown him, an area in which he can certainly improve upon.
Here Towns tries to score through the double-team. While that is something he can certainly do, Conley is uncovered and making a pass it to him would lead to a wide-open 3-point shot.
Towns has often shown the ability to slow his game down and make the easy pass. In the play below, Joel Embiid is cross-matched onto Conley. Embiid tries to help out Tobias Harris in the post but loses track of Conley who makes the open 3-pointer.
Towns could have tried to attack Harris and either get to the rim or draw Embiid closer, but he made the simple pass to an open shooter.
The Wolves have also used more set plays with Towns and Edwards. The play below Towns first posts up, but the play transitions into Edwards curling off the Towns’ screen for the easy dunk.
Jimmy Butler has to stay attached to Towns, which opens up the lane for Edwards. Here is the same play against the Lakers.
Rui Hachimura does a pretty good job of both sticking with Towns and guarding the paint, but Ant is just too skilled going down-hill and hits the layup in Hachimura’s face.
Opposing teams are likely going to continue to double-team Towns with smaller defenders. Even the Miami Heat elected to guard Towns with Butler when their center, Bam Adebayo, is about the best mix of speed and height to guard Towns straight-up.
KAT and the Wolves will need to keep punishing these double teams if they want to take the next level on offense. With Towns playing the most composed basketball of his career, he seems poised to carry the Wolves offense no matter the opposing defense.