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Karl-Anthony Towns’ shooting was always elite. He just needed a coach to trust him

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The Wolves star has turned into one of the best shooters alive after John Calipari once forbid him from taking threes in college.

Karl-Anthony Towns smiles on the court.
Karl-Anthony Towns is taking his game to superstar levels for the Timberwolves by shooting more threes.

When Karl-Anthony Towns was first called a perimeter-oriented big man, it was used a pejorative against him. Towns grew up modeling his game after Kevin Durant and was drawing comparisons to Dirk Nowitzki by the time he was 16 years old. But as he arrived at Kentucky, John Calipari essentially forbid Towns from taking three-pointers during his lone college season.

Life still worked out just fine for KAT: he’d become the No. 1 overall pick in the 2015 NBA Draft, win Rookie of the Year, get named to two all-star teams in his first four pro seasons, and sign a $190 million super max contract. Now five years into his NBA career, Towns is finally becoming the type of shooter he always knew he could be.

Towns is growing into one of the most dangerous three-point marksmen in the league. The Utah Jazz learned this lesson the hard way on Nov. 18. Towns drilled seven three-pointers as the Timberwolves stole a surprising road win, highlighted by three late daggers. It was the second time this season Towns has hit seven three-pointers in a game.

Towns is making the jump from star to superstar this season in large part because the Wolves have finally allowed him to turn up the volume on his long-distance shooting. Minnesota is reaping the benefits. Widely presumed to be an afterthought coming into the season, the Wolves are keeping afloat above .500 and would be the No. 7 seed in the Western Conference if the playoffs started today.

Towns has been ready to rip if he has even a few feet of space beyond the three-point line. No one is using “perimeter-oriented” as a shot against him anymore.

Towns is one of the best shooters in the NBA, no qualifiers

Towns is attempting nine three-pointers per game this season and knocking them down at a 43.5 percent clip. There are only a handful of players alive who can match that type of volume and accuracy from deep, and none of them carry the weight of superstar expectations like Towns.

How are you supposed to stop a 7’, 250-pound big man who can shuffle back to the three-point line at a moment’s notice like this?

Towns’ shooting numbers this year are elite by any definition of the word. Just look at how he stacks up to the rest of the league’s best shooters in context:

  • Towns is attempting more threes per game than Trae Young while hitting them at a better clip. Young is taking 8.6 threes per game and making 36.9 percent of them. Towns is shooting six and a half percentage points better than that.
  • Towns is attempting the same number of threes per game as Luka Doncic, but Doncic is only making 31.4 percent of them. Towns is shooting 12 percentage points better than that.
  • Among players who have taken at least 75 three-pointers this season, Towns is the fifth most accurate shooter. The rest of the group is made up of non-stars: J.J. Redick, Marcus Morris, Bojan Bogdanovic, and Bogan Bogdanovic.
  • On raw totals, Towns has attempted the seventh most three-pointers in the league so far and has made the fifth most.

Even the ones that don’t count are scary. Look at this range!

Towns always knew he could shoot. The Wolves are finally letting him do it.

Towns was already a great NBA shooter before this season. He has hit at least 40 percent of his three-pointers in each of the last two years. The difference now is he’s finally getting the volume he deserves. Towns is taking 50.2 percent of his field-goal attempts from three-point range this year; last season, that number was a career-high at 27 percent.

Towns has been fighting for the trust of his coaches in his three-point shot since he first entered the basketball consciousness as a teenager out of New Jersey. He was considered sublimely talented even back then, but he had a reputation for floating on the perimeter. He entered college as the No. 5 overall recruit in the class of 2014, but behind peers Jahlil Okafor and Cliff Alexander, a pair of more traditional bigs who did their damage on the inside.

Calipari once agreed to coach the Dominican Republic national team as a way to get close to Towns during his prep years. Towns loved to shoot threes, but Calipari made it his mission to toughen him up on the block once he got him on campus. That meant Kentucky fed Towns a ton of post-ups and only let him attempt eight three-pointers on the entire season. He made two of them.

Towns’ Kentucky team is one of the very best of all-time, but their 38-0 start resulted in a Final Four loss to Wisconsin. It was not Calipari’s finest coaching job for a number of different reasons (like playing the Harrison twins over Devin Booker and Tyler Ulis), and refusing to let Towns shoot threes was chief among them. Calipari would go on to write a book in 2016 patting himself on the back for refusing to let Towns shoot. Here’s a sample:

A game at South Carolina sticks out in my mind as a turning point for Karl. It was mid-January, so not all that early in the season, but he was still catching on to how we wanted him to play. That’s normal; it always takes time. I’d see flashes of what I wanted, then he would revert. He made two of his three shot attempts that night, missed both his foul shots, and grabbed a grand total of one rebound.

I never leave a player on the bench as punishment, but it’s only fair to keep the kids out there who are doing more. Our platoon system only guaranteed minutes to players who were battling. He played just 12 minutes that night.

...

His mother said she thought he was fighting better in the post. “No, no, no,” I said. “He’s not battling enough. You want him to shoot threes? Nope, sorry, I’m not letting him go out there.” I then hugged her and kissed her cheek.

Putting a lack of shooting on the floor has been a theme for Calipari throughout his coaching career. He seems awfully proud of taking the most talented college team of the modern era and losing to Frank Kaminsky and Sam Dekker. It’s easy to wonder if the result might have been different if he let Towns shoot. Towns didn’t attempt a three the last 16 games of his college career.

No one is going to accuse Towns of “floating” on the perimeter anymore. The NBA is in a three-point craze and Towns is one of the best shooters alive. By extension, it’s putting him on the short list of MVP candidates this season. It’s a shame it took so long for coaches to believe in Towns’ range. This has always been the type of player he knew he could be.