Karl-Anthony Towns' Versatility is Rare

Although the “stretch-four” has seen an increased usage in the NBA over the past few years, Karl-Anthony Towns is coining the “stretch five”. Guys like Chris Bosh, Draymond Green, and Kevin Love are power forwards who can also step outside and hit threes, which opens up the team’s offense by “stretching” the defense. Towns has something that not everyone has: skill, size, and athleticism. He is 7′, 250 lbs., with 8.1% body fat, a 36.5 inch max vertical leap [numbers from DraftExpress], and the skill set of a ten year veteran. Not only is he having a great rookie season, but Karl-Anthony Towns’ versatility is revolutionizing the NBA.

Offensively, Towns has the skill set of a veteran. Through the All-Star break this season, he is averaging 17.1 points per game on 54.4% shooting. Those numbers are good for a first place tie with Jahlil Okafor in scoring, and third in field-goal percentage among rookies. However, where Towns stands out is his ability to score in many different ways. At the rim, Towns shoots 70.4%, but his scoring doesn’t drop off once he steps outside the paint. From three to ten feet, he shoots 45.7%, from ten to sixteen feet, he shoots 44.6%, and from sixteen feet to just inside the three-point arc, he shoots at an incredible 48.7%. Towns’ shooting ability opens up the offense for his team, which creates a pick-your-poison situation for the opposition. Opposing defenders need to respect his jump shot, which enables teammates such as Ricky Rubio, Andrew Wiggins, and Zach LaVine to drive one-on-one because Towns’ defender cannot collapse off of him. In pick-and-roll or pick-and-pop plays, Towns commands all of the defense’s attention. If the defender chooses to defend the ball-handler, Towns will either have an open jump shot, or an open layup, where he converts 64.4% of his opportunities. More big men will likely work on their shooting once they realize how effective it can be for an offense. The Wolves have an offensive rating of 106.8 when Towns is on the court, compared to 103.5 when he’s off the court.

This ability is extremely rare for a man with Towns’ size. Compare Towns’ shooting with Dwight Howard’s when he was All-NBA First Team in 2010-11. Howard shot 38% from ten to sixteen feet that year, which is lackluster compared to Towns’ percentage. Now compare Towns’ shooting percent from sixteen feet to the three-point line to Tim Duncan’s percentage when the Spurs won the championship in 2007. Duncan shot 37% from this range that year, over 10% less than Towns. All three men were drafted first overall, and Towns doesn’t stack up too poorly compared to former centers drafted first.

Basketball experts are starting to take notice of Towns’ versatility, including St. Joseph High School’s (where Towns and former all star center Andrew Bynum attended high school) athletic director, Jerry Smith. “Karl is way better than Bynum. There’s no comparison whatsoever. This kid works. This kid is really the total package. He’s one in a million,” Smith said [from LakersNation, http://www.lakersnation.com/lakers-news-karl-anthony-towns-is-way-better-than-andrew-bynum/2015/05/22/].

Towns’ versatility doesn’t stop at his ability to stretch the floor. As he displayed in the skills competition, he can handle and pass the ball too.

If Towns could develop these two aspects of his game even further, he would be the first player since LeBron James with the skill set of, and ability to defend, all five positions. Towns would be the first player who is 7 feet tall with an all-around game like LeBron’s.

Towns is also a great rebounder, something a lot of stretch fours don’t have due to their lack of size. Towns averages 10.1 rebounds game, which is first by a mile among rookies (Kristaps Porzingis is second with 7.7 rebounds per game) and eighth among all NBA centers. Although it is minimal, the Wolves total rebound percentage is one point higher when Towns is on the court compared to off the court. In tight games, one rebound makes all the difference. Just ask Chris Bosh and Ray Allen.

Anthony Davis, another big man whose all-around game is one in a million, recognized that Towns is something special. “He’s very skilled, very talented,” Davis said. “He can shoot the ball, handle it, rebound, and post up. He’s got an all around game” [TwinCities, http://www.twincities.com/2016/02/08/timberwolves-karl-anthony-towns/]. That means a lot coming from a player who’s been drafted first overall, named to an Olympic team, picked for three All-Star games, and awarded with a spot on the All-NBA first team all in just three and a half years.

Although Towns’ defense is not at the level of an All-NBA defender yet, it is definitely improving. Towns lacked discipline in college, as he bit for a lot of pump fakes. Kevin O’Connor of SB Nation details more about Towns’ defense in college here. However, he is currently averaging 1.8 blocks per game, which is eighth among centers and second among rookies. Towns is no slouch defensively, and any weaknesses will likely be perfected under the tutelage of Kevin Garnett, which will eventually make Towns into, at the very least, a solid defender.

Overall, Karl-Anthony Towns’ versatility is a rarity. He is the first player the NBA has seen since arguably Hakeem Olajuwon who can shoot, post up, pass, dribble, rebound, and defend while standing at 7′ and weighing 250 lbs. He already has such an advanced skill set and is only 20 years old, so he will only get better. With the increased usage of stretch fours in the league recently, perhaps more high school centers will develop their games like Towns, which could lead to the evolution of the “stretch fives”.