Karl-Anthony Towns’ Rookie Season Has Been Historically Good


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).


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.


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About Eric Saar

Eric Saar

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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