The NBA’s Next Great Big Man

This article appeared on on March 4, 2016.

For much of its history, the NBA has seen many of its best teams built around great centers. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar is the league’s all-time leading scorer, while names like Wilt Chamberlain and Bill Russell are as well-known as any in basketball history. From 1989 through 2005, six centers combined for three MVPs and 473 1st place votes. In the 10 seasons since, however, big men have received a total of seven 1st place votes (all for Dwight Howard). As the game has shifted toward more athletic players and three point shooters, the center position has, for the most part, been relegated to a supporting role. One player, however, may be the exception in the new NBA.

By the All-Star break this year, Karl-Anthony Towns already had more win shares than LeBron James, Kevin Durant, Derrick Rose or Dwyane Wade had during their rookie campaigns. The Minnesota center is on pace to finish the 2015-16 NBA season with an impressive 8.1 win shares, which would trail only Blake Griffin and Chris Paul among rookies in the past dozen years. In reality, however, his play has improved quite a bit since the start of the season, so 8.1 is likely a conservative estimate.

Per Game Stats for Towns Before and After New Year’s Day

Stat Pre Jan 1 Since Jan 1
Games 33 28
Points/Game 16.4 18.4
Rebounds/Game 9.4 11.4
Assists/Game 1.1 2.3

If Towns is able to sustain his recently improved play and reach 9 win shares this year, he’d be the first NBA rookie center to do so since Orlando’s Shaquille O’Neal back in 1993.

For all of his impressive historical comparisons with other NBA rookies, Towns is already one of the best big men in the league today. He is currently third among all centers with at least 500 minutes played in Player Efficiency Rating (a measure of per-minute production), trailing only the Heat’s Hassan Whiteside and the Kings’ DeMarcus Cousins.

Towns’s ability to score efficiently has significantly contributed to his value on the court. The former Kentucky Wildcat has the highest field goal percentage among the 80 NBA players with at least 600 FG attempts. And that’s not simply attributable to his being 7 feet tall and collecting a lot of easy dunks and put-backs. Towns is one of only five starting centers (Pau Gasol, Al Horford, Kelly Olynyk and Myles Turner) this year to have taken over a third of his shots from 16 feet and beyond.

Another notable strength of Towns’s game is his talent for corralling defensive rebounds. Per, he has grabbed 28.0% of available defensive rebounds while he has been on the floor this season. To put that figure in perspective, Dennis Rodman is the all-time career leader (minimum 15,000 minutes played) at 29.6%. Only one first-year player in NBA history has previously reached 28% – Portland’s Arvydas Sabonis, who came to the league after playing six professional seasons in Europe and was 31 years old when he joined the Trail Blazers.

Though it’s difficult to find many flaws in his game, Towns could stand to get to the charity stripe a bit more often and take advantage of his strong free throw shooting. He leads all centers this year in free throw percentage (minimum 50 attempts) at 82.5%, but has taken only .246 free throws per field goal attempt. That places him 27th of the top 30 centers in minutes played, using that metric.

Overall, Towns has proven he could be a force in the NBA for many years to come. If he wins the Rookie of the Year Award, he will become the first center to do so since Memphis’s Pau Gasol back in 2001-02. However, despite all of the success Towns has achieved this year individually, the Timberwolves are going to finish below .500 for an incredible 11th straight season. That represents the longest active streak in the four major American sports. By drafting one of the best young centers the league has seen in perhaps a generation, though, it seems unlikely that Minnesota’s postseason drought will last much longer.

(photo by J-Ham2000)

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