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Karl-Anthony Towns’ Rookie Season Has Been Historically Good

Eric Saar breaks down the historical context of Karl-Anthony Towns’ incredible rookie season.

Eric Saar

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Back in 2013, a talented freshman at St. Joseph high school in New Jersey got the opportunity to interview one of his idols: Oklahoma City Thunder star Kevin Durant. Karl-Anthony Towns interviewed Durant about a variety of topics, including advice on how he could follow in Durant’s footsteps and hopefully make it into the NBA.

Three years later and after a stellar year at Kentucky, there was no “hopefully” as to whether Towns’ would make it to the NBA. Towns was the presumptive top overall pick in the draft and was in fact selected first by the Minnesota Timberwolves. Now, as we inch closer toward the end of the regular season, we can start to break down what has been a fantastic rookie campaign for Towns and determine where it ranks in NBA history.

In his first season in the NBA, Towns is averaging 18.3 points in 31.8 minutes per game, as well as 10.3 rebounds, 1.8 assists, 1.7 blocks and 0.7 steals. The seven-footer is doing this with great shooting percentages as well: 54.6 percent from the field, 36 percent from deep and 82.4 percent from the free throw line (which is very good for a big man).

He also has a 22.80 Player Efficiency Rating, which is just one-tenth of a point away from being the best PER among all 20-year-old players throughout NBA history, behind Shaquille O’Neal’s 22.90. It is the 12th-highest PER among rookies all-time regardless of age, just ahead of Tim Duncan’s first season. He leads all of this year’s rookies in PER and, at only 20 years old, has the 13th-highest PER among all NBA players this season, which is truly incredible.

Historical Context

Towns’ dominance at such a young age is historically phenomenal. In terms of all single-season performances for players at the age of 20, Towns is tied with Chris Webber for 10th in win shares, 15th in points per game and 13th in blocks per game. He is also fifth in rebounding (just behind Shaquille O’Neal, Andre Drummond, Dwight Howard and John Drew). He is 10th in true shooting percentage and seventh in effective field goal percentage. He is also third in overall field goal percentage, behind only Andrew Bynum and Darryl Dawkins.

Where Towns’ season ranks among rookies all-time, regardless of their age, is also fascinating. He is 34th in points per game (just ahead of Magic Johnson) and ninth in field goal percentage. He is also 11th in blocks, 27th in rebounds per game and sixth in effective field goal percentage.

It’s not just that Towns is historically great for a 20-year-old rookie – he’s already very, very good by overall NBA standards.

Towns has the ninth-highest offensive real plus-minus among centers this year. He is third in total overall rebounds, sixth in blocks and eighth in field goal percentage. He is also 15th in true shooting percentage and 13th in effective field goal percentage. And remember, these rankings put him among the NBA’s very best, with him finishing ahead of some All-Stars in multiple categories.

Towns is so consistent that he has 47 double-doubles on the season, putting him in a tie for fourth in the league with the Sacramento Kings center DeMarcus Cousins, and just behind Detroit Pistons center Andre Drummond (63), Oklahoma City Thunder guard Russell Westbrook (50) and Washington Wizards guard John Wall (48).

Awards

Towns could be the eighth player ever to win every Rookie of the Month award for his respective conference or overall since 1981-82 when they started keeping track of the award.

David Robinson swept it in 1989-90 and Tim Duncan did the same in 1997-98. LeBron James took the East while Carmelo Anthony took the West in 2003-04. Chris Paul took 2005-06, Blake Griffin took 2010-11 and Damian Lillard swept in 2012-13. Towns has swept so far from November through February and will probably go on to win March and April and all signs point to him being the unanimous Rookie of the Year. That’s some pretty good company for Towns.

Towns’ Dynamic All-Around Game

Towns can already do it all. He can shoot the jumper from midrange, the three-point line and on step-backs. He can also take the ball off the dribble and finish effectively in traffic against opponents.

Towns has the second-most number of possessions as the roll man in the pick-and-roll (just 17 possessions behind Anthony Davis) and has a 47 percent field goal percentage as the roll man. He is so fluid rolling hard to the basket and has good touch near the hoop. He is strong enough to finish through contact and that strength is only going to improve moving forward. Opposing defenses are so afraid of him getting to the rim that they lay off him near the free throw line, which allows him to knock down jumper after jumper with impressive accuracy for a center (particularly such a young center).

Needless to say, the Timberwolves are a much better team when Towns is on the floor. The Timberwolves’ offensive rating goes up 5.3 points per 100 possessions, a significant boost, especially when you remember that he is a rookie. The Timberwolves also get more offensive rebounds, assists, steals and blocks with him on the floor. The team is quite young and therefore the overall analytics for Minnesota aren’t great, but Towns being on the floor helps and he will only improve, as will the rest of that young core. The fact that Towns can make such a tangible difference is significant when you consider that while rookies can put up nice numbers from time-to-time, they rarely help a team become more competitive. Usually it takes a few seasons for that to happen, even for the best prospects.

Towns also shoots 65.6 percent within five feet of the basket, which is pretty solid. He shoots 48.7 percent from five-to-nine feet, 47.5 between 15-19 feet and a rock-solid 48.3 percent between 20-24 feet. That’s consistent and really good for a rookie seven-footer who is being schemed for by opposing defenses every night. That is to say nothing of his athleticism and other skills – remember he won the Skills Competition in February during All-star Weekend in Toronto, the first year they let big men into the competition. Towns has the physical frame and build to keep adding muscle and core strength to bang down low more effectively with the strongest centers in the league, which will help him on defense as well.

All this isn’t bad (to say the least) for a 20-year-old who is just a few years removed from being a freshman in high school with lofty dreams and and the hope of someday following in the footsteps of Kevin Durant. Now, he’s in elite company with his stellar rookie season and is one of the most valuable overall assets in the NBA (if not the most valuable). He has an extremely promising career ahead of him and will soon likely be able to consider himself as an equal to even the best players in the league, including Durant.

Based in Arizona, Eric Saar is an analyst for Basketball Insiders. He has covered the league for several years. He loves to converse about the NBA on Twitter, so follow him at @Eric_Saar. Eric graduated with honors from the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication.

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Cavs Woes Reason For Concern, But Not Dismissal

Spencer Davies takes a look at the Cavs’ issues and why we shouldn’t count them out just yet.

Spencer Davies

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The Cleveland Cavaliers are the classic case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.

When they’re on, they look like the defending three-time Eastern Conference Champions. When they’re off, they look like an old team that’s worn down and, at times, disinterested—and it gets ugly.

Take this past three weeks for example. After going on a tear of 18 wins in 19 games, the Cavs have dropped eight of 11 and are falling fast. Two of those three victories in that stretch were decided by four points or less against bottom-of-the-barrel teams in the East.

So what happened? For one, the schedule got significantly tougher. Beyond just the level of competition, Cleveland has been on the road for a long while. Nine of the games in this recent down period have been away games. The only time they’ve been home was for a quick second in mid-December and a short stay for New Years.

You’ve got to think about how that affects a psyche, not only from an on-court standpoint but also in regard to spending time with loved ones and family. LeBron James brought attention to his own homesickness on Christmas Day while he was in the Bay Area instead of in Northeast Ohio to celebrate the holidays. If it gets to him, you know it’s got to get to the other players as well. These guys are human beings with lives, and the rigors of travel can wear differently on people. Luckily for them, seven of their next nine games will be at Quicken Loans Arena.

With that being said, everybody in the NBA goes through it, so it’s no excuse for how flat the Cavs have been. Anybody on the team will tell you that, too. However, when you’re figuring out rotations and re-implementing players who had injuries, it’s not easy. This is exactly why nobody should envy Tyronn Lue.

He’s being asked to make room in his rotations and adjust on the fly as Cleveland gets guys back. When they went on that month-long run, the reason they had success was that the second unit really clicked. Dwyane Wade found his niche as the maestro of the bench bunch along with any mixture of Kyle Korver, Jeff Green, Cedi Osman, Channing Frye, and Jae Crowder. Lue had found the perfect group to spell LeBron James and company.

But then, Tristan Thompson came back and, with all due respect, it messed with their flow. The spacing is no longer there for Wade or Green to penetrate because the paint is clogged. It makes it easier on opposing defenses to just stick to Korver because there aren’t any other threatening shooters on the floor (besides Osman, maybe). Worst of all, the change basically kicked Frye—who has a plus-14 net rating, according to Cleaning The Glass—out of the rotation completely.

Deciding who plays and when is a tough job. Derrick Rose is set to come back soon. Iman Shumpert is coming along as well. Lue likes a 10-man rotation, but there are at least 12 players who deserve to be on that court. We already know Rose is expected to commandeer the second unit in Wade’s absence on back-to-backs. As for if Shumpert remains in Cleveland, who knows? It’ll be interesting to keep an eye on how this situation is managed moving forward.

Isaiah Thomas, on the other hand, is somebody the Cavs have been waiting on to return since the season started. Despite LeBron being LeBron and Kevin Love having as great of an offensive year as he’s ever had on the team, the starting unit lacks an extra punch. Thomas can be that shot in the arm, and he proved that in his debut at home against Portland and on the road in Orlando. There are two snags that both he and the team are going to hit before the 29-year-old returns to his All-Star form: 1) He’s got to get his legs under him to regain the consistency in his game and 2) His teammates are going to have to adjust to playing with him.

These are not easy things to do. Remember, aside from Jae Crowder, there is nobody on Cleveland’s roster that has played with Thomas before. Add in that he’s trying to re-discover his own game and that makes for a pretty bumpy road, at least out of the gate.

Start here—put Thompson in the starting lineup. As poor of a fit he’s been on the bench, he has shown promising signs of a developing chemistry with Thomas. It’s only been four games, but he loves having a partner in the pick-and-roll game. That’s clearly where you’ll get the most production out of him and how he can thrive. He’ll provide hustle, second chance opportunities, and a semi-decent big that can at least bother some of the competition’s drives to the basket. Sliding Love over to the four might change his game a little bit, but you can still get him going in the post before giving him chances as a shooter to work him outside-in.

The resulting effect helps the second unit as well. They’ll get one of either J.R. Smith or Crowder, depending on who would be relegated there. Both of those guys can use a spark to get them going. Because of Crowder’s familiarity with Thomas, let’s say Smith gets kicked out. Maybe that gets him out of the funk he’s in? It also allows for Frye, who hasn’t seen more than 20 minutes in a game since December 4, to get re-acclimated to a group he truly helped on both ends of the floor earlier in the year.

Outside of the need to make a move at the deadline, the Cavs can figure this out. It’s understood that they’re the fourth-worst defensive team in the NBA, but they’ve gone through these kinds of ruts at this time of year, specifically since LeBron came back. There might not be statistical evidence backing up the claim of any improvement, but the track record speaks for itself.

The panic button is being hit, but pump the brakes a bit. This isn’t anything new. The pieces are a little different and things look as bad as they ever have, but in the end, the result will likely be the same.

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NBA Daily: Zach LaVine Has Solid Debut With Bulls

Zach LaVine put together a solid performance for the Bulls in his first game back from injury.

James Blancarte

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The Chicago Bulls are turning a corner this season. Zach LaVine is healthy after completing a year of rehabilitation from an ACL injury. LaVine’s return comes at a critical moment. The team is 13-7 over the last twenty games. Many of the wins in this stretch are over current competitors for a potential spot in the playoffs. This includes wins against the Charlotte Hornets (in overtime), the Philadelphia 76ers and three wins (one in overtime) against the New York Knicks. The stretch of winning ties into the return of forwards Bobby Portis and Nikola Mirotic. Having these key players back and winning this many games recently has changed the dynamics of what had been shaping up to be a losing season.

LaVine played in his first game of the season on Saturday and hit three of four three-point baskets while scoring 14 points in 19 minutes played. LaVine described how he felt physically and about the team’s recent run.

“I thought I did pretty good. I was tired as hell at first. But, we got the win,” LaVine said. “We’re going to keep this thing going.”

The team went into this season having parted ways with their franchise player, Jimmy Butler, in a trade that was derided by many for being lopsided. The trade netted the Bulls LaVine, point guard Kris Dunn and the sixth pick in the 2017 draft in exchange for Butler and the number 16 pick. The trade also allowed Butler to be reunited with coach Tom Thibodeau in Minnesota. For the Bulls, Dunn has greatly improved from the poor play of his rookie season in Minnesota. In addition, the Bulls selected Lauri Markkanen, whom has already displayed some serious talent and potential. Now with LaVine in the lineup, the Bulls can see the total value of the trade on the court.

So, where do the Bulls now stand? According to FiveThirtyEight, as of January 14, the Bulls are projected as having a three percent chance of making the playoffs with a projected record of 32-50. This is a jump from less than one percent (essentially zero percent) back on December 11, 2017. Still, three percent is not the most reassuring projection.

In addition, the recent shift to winning basketball also puts Chicago’s 2018 draft pick in a more precarious position. On December 6, 2017, the Bulls were 3-20 and were on pace to have one of the worst records in the league, if not the worst. Now every win moves the pick further away from a likely top three or even a potential number one pick and moves it closer to a top-10 selection or even middle of the first-round pick.

At the moment, the team is 16-27, good enough for 12th place in the Eastern Conference behind the Hornets, Knicks, 76ers and Milwaukee Bucks for the eighth and final spot in the playoffs. Being 6.5 games back and having seven more losses than the Bucks means the Bulls will need to continue winning at a high rate to make up the difference in the time left in the season.

LaVine didn’t hold back when it came to expressing his optimism regarding the team’s potential.

“I think we can make a push for this thing,” LaVine said. “That’s our job to do. That’s our job to do that,”

LaVine isn’t paying much attention to skeptics who still don’t believe the Bulls have much change to win anything meaningful this season.

“You know, we can’t control outside thoughts or anything,” LaVine said. “We’re ball players, we go out there and try to win every competition. You know, I think we’re good. I think we’re going to be good.”

In LaVine’s absence, Mirotic and Portis (despite their offseason scuffle) have emerged as two of the team’s best players. In addition, center Robin Lopez has done an admirable job keeping up his effort all season long while fulfilling his role as a veteran leader for the team. Lopez described the atmosphere on the team as positive recently in an interview with Joel Brigham of Basketball Insiders.

Despite the reason for optimism, it must be noted that the franchise might make another big trade that would diminish the team’s ability to be competitive this season. Despite his recent on-court success, reports are that Mirotic would like to be traded and that the Bulls asking price is a first-round pick.

Until such a move occurs, the Bulls appear poised to maintain their recent rate of success. Every win could cost the Bulls what could be a top overall pick in 2018. Regardless, the Bulls are surely feeling better about the results of the Butler trade, especially after LaVine’s impressive Chicago debut.

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NBA Daily: Lopez’s Enjoys “Old Guy” Role on Young Team

Robin Lopez is the old man on a very young Chicago Bulls team, but he says the camaraderie is a big reason why he’s happy there, and why the team is overachieving so much this year.

Joel Brigham

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When the Chicago Bulls started the season 3-20, nobody was surprised that they stunk. Everything was fine. They were supposed to stink. That was the entire reason they traded away Jimmy Butler for younger players in the first place. They wanted got their rebuild underway in earnest. (more…)

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