Karl-Anthony Towns showed it all off Wednesday. The Minnesota Timberwolves’ star set a franchise record with his 56-point performance, and it featured all of his scoring tricks: he rolled for easy layups, hit jump hooks out of the post, and even ran off screens to pop jumpers. To set the franchise record, Towns stared down poor Mike Muscala in the corner, faked right with a jab step, and then launched a three-pointer in his face. There was never a doubt.
The most admirable thing about Towns is his sparkling scoring ability, which comes with incredible efficiency at all times. He should become the first full-time center to crack the 50-40-85 society this season, a slightly-more-attainable version of the famous 50-40-90 club. Those numbers refer to field-goal percentage, three-point percentage, and free-throw percentage, respectively, and those who hit it are generally seen as the league’s greatest shooters.
We’ve seen players like Larry Bird and Kevin Durant join the 50-40-90 club, and another member, Dirk Nowitzki, actually played center from time to time. But Towns has played every minute of this season at the five, something Nowitzki never did, and he’ll be joining a group mostly reserved to guards barring a late season free-throw slump. (He’s shooting 85.3 percent from the line right now.)
All this is an argument that Towns should shoot more, sure — he’s averaging 14.2 shots per game this season, about as many as he did his rookie year and almost four less than his 2016-17 campaign. Jimmy Butler’s addition to the team was bound to take away shots from someone, but should it have been Towns, an increasingly cerebral offensive player? Probably not, Timberwolves fans have been saying all year.
For now, let’s just appreciate Towns’ offense, which is as versatile and effective as anyone in the league.
How good: 1.11 points per possession, 57th percentile
Better than: DeMarcus Cousins (1.09) and Hassan Whiteside (1.06)
Every big man sets screens during pick-and-roll plays, but few do it as frequently as Towns, who averages the 10th-most possessions as a roll man in the league. It’s no surprise the volume has sunk his efficiency somewhat, but only two players can boast a better point-per-possession stat than he can in that top 10 — Clint Capela (1.36) and Anthony Davis (1.15).
If Towns played with Capela’s offense, imagine how high his number could go. It’s much easier for Minnesota’s opponents to crash down into the paint when helping off Taj Gibson or leaving Tyus Jones in the corner. It’s not all wrong, but Towns’ rolls to the rim often aren’t as free as they could be.
How good: 1.24 points per possession, 91st percentile
Better than: Paul George (1.21) and Devin Booker (1.14)
It’s absurd that a center is taking 3.5 three-pointers and hitting about 44 percent of them, even in the new NBA. The spot-up used to be a shot reserved for specialists, especially for big men, but Towns has mastered the catch-and-shoot while still being a true star.
PICK-AND-ROLL BALL HANDLER
Towns doesn’t run pick-and-rolls as the ball handler frequently. Obviously, this is a play generally reserved for guards and star forwards, and the NBA’s official stats page only has three instances recorded. (That’s why we don’t have stats for this one.) But here’s one from his 56-point game on Wednesday, running an inverted pick-and-roll with Jeff Teague and scoring easily, even with a foul.
We’ve seen Davis, perhaps the most Towns-like player in the entire league, add that skill to his game this season. It’s not frequent, but he’ll initiate a pick-and-roll once or twice every few games. This seems like a natural fit for Towns, too.
How good: 1.04 points per possession, 87th percentile
Better than: Dirk Nowitzki (1.00) and LeBron James (0.99)
The post-up harkens back to an old era of the NBA, where bulky centers ran the league with their backs to the basket. Times change, and there are only 10 players who average four or more possessions out of the post. Towns rounds out the bunch, averaging exactly four per game. He’s also the only one to average more than a point per possession.
We’ve seen how nimble Towns is on plays like the one above, but he’s also strong as hell. A defender like John Collins stands no chance, as you can see here.
How good: 1.14 points per possession, 92nd percetile
Better than: Stephen Curry (1.05) and Giannis Antetokounmpo (0.87)
Only 4.1 percent of Towns’ possessions come through isolation, and so using Curry (7.0 percent) and Antetokounmpo (14.1 percent) isn’t the best comparison. Still, what this does show is that Towns picks his spots extremely well. Minnesota doesn’t throw him the ball and make him work one-on-one against a defender, like James Harden or Durant do, but they do trust him when he sniffs out a mismatch. Or, you know, when he’s ready to break a franchise record, like this shot below.
How good: 1.32 points, 88th percentile
Better than: DeMar DeRozan (1.27) and Rudy Gobert (1.27)
Towns isn’t a transition monster, naturally — true centers rarely are, since their rebounding requirements under the rim usually keep them out of fast breaks. Minnesota is a bottom-five transition team, too. But when Towns does it, even if it’s just a trailing three-pointer against an inattentive defense, it works.
How good: 0.97 points per possession, 48th percentile
Better than: Wesley Matthews (0.93) and Trevor Ariza (0.91)
Players like Matthews and Ariza run around picks looking for open jumpers much more frequently than Towns, but still — how often does any team ask their center to run a designed play like this? Most big men, even ones who shoot threes well, aren’t usually comfortable doing this.
How good: 1.38 points per possession, 90th percentile
Better than: Dwight Howard (1.24) and Steven Adams (1.00)
Putting shots back requires skill — you need timing, creativity, and the ability to sense out loose balls. Towns, yet again in the 90th percentile, has that. The man hits about 60 percent of the shots he attempts inside the arc, and sneaking in easy layups and dunks helps him there.
Towns, the scorer, is as versatile as anyone
There may be no player who has as many different scoring skills as Towns, and the Minnesota-based unicorn is still only 22. It’s not unreasonable to think that he might develop into a player that a team would purposefully run as a pick-and-roll ball handler occasionally, or hone his passing skills enough that his post-ups are even more difficult to slow down. When it comes to the next skill that Towns will develop, there’s really no bad options. There’s so much he’s already good at, after all.