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NBA PM: The Best Third Year Player In The NBA

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The Best Third Year Player In The NBA

In what is a weekly Thursday feature, we asked three of our Basketball Insiders to weigh in on a common question. This week we asked “Who’s The Best Third Year Player In The NBA?”

Karl-Anthony Towns

By selecting him with the No. 1 overall pick in the 2015 NBA Draft, the Minnesota Timberwolves entrusted big-man Karl-Anthony Towns with the future of the franchise. For those who haven’t been paying attention, he hasn’t disappointed.

The seven-foot, 244-pound behemoth has made the transfer from the NCAA to NBA look seamless, which almost never happens with one-and-done players. After averaging 10.3 points, 6.7 rebounds and 2.3 blocks per game during his lone season at the University of Kentucky, Towns stormed onto the NBA scene in 2015, finishing his rookie season with a stat-line of 18.3 points, 7.7 rebounds and 1.7 blocks per game with a true shooting percentage of 59 percent. Towns was just the fourth rookie since the 1946-47 season to hold those averages, joining the ranks of David Robinson, Shaquille O’Neal and Alonzo Mourning.

His second season was even better. While his defensive numbers remained relatively the same, Towns’ offensive game showed major improvement on what were already solid numbers; he averaged 25.1 points and 12.3 rebounds per game with a true shooting percentage of 61.8 percent and totaled 9.9 offensive win shares. He shot at a 36.7 clip on 3.4 three-point attempts per game as well, a respectable rate for a man of Towns’ size. Towns’ Value Over Replacement Player (VORP) also ranked in at 5.3, good for 11th in the Association and ahead of guys like Chris Paul and Kevin Durant.

Towns will hope to take another leap next season, his third in the league and second under head coach Tom Thibodeau. His natural physical development alongside fellow youngster Andrew Wiggins and their continuity within Thibodeau’s system will certainly prove beneficial to both Towns’ overall game and the Timberwolves’ win-loss record next season, as will an improved roster that saw Jimmy Butler and Jeff Teague come into the fold during the offseason. Butler and Teague should open things up for Towns on the offensive end — although he was fully capable of getting his own offense last season — while Butler’s defensive presence, along with another year under the tutelage of Thibodeau, should help Towns hone his defensive craft. Towns has flashed potential defensive dominance, totaling 241 blocks and 114 steals across 164 career games and, if he is able to consistently make an impact, he could become one of the best all-around players in the NBA.

After adding Butler and Teague, along with other solid veterans like Jamal Crawford and Taj Gibson, the pressure will be on Minnesota to win next season. In the tough Western Conference, the Timberwolves will be hard pressed to be a top seed, but a winning record and their first playoff appearance in 14 seasons certainly aren’t out of the question. If Minnesota puts together a successful season, expect Towns to play a major role in it.

– Shane Rhodes

Myles Turner

For me, this is a close call between New York Knicks big man Kristaps Porzingis and Indiana Pacers center/forward Myles Turner.

Both teams will continue relying on their young big men. This is even more certain for the Pacers with the departure of star Paul George. Likewise, the Knicks will likely lean even more heavily on Porzingis, depending on the team’s ability to find an acceptable trade scenario that would allow the team to comfortably jettison Carmelo Anthony. Until a potential trade occurs, there is a ceiling on how much the team can build around Porzingis and maximize his abilities.

Accounting for that variable and current production leads me to select Turner as one of, if not the top 3rd Year Player. George’s departure leaves a gaping hole for the Pacers. His minutes per game (35.9) and usage percentage (28.9) needs to be reallocated. As a low post player, Turner doesn’t slot in as a one-to-one replacement for George but is in the best position based on talent, youth and overall abilities to step up and fill the void left by George.

While playing alongside George, Turner put up 14.5 points, 7.3 rebounds, 2.1 blocks per game and sported a 51.1 shooting percentage in 31.4 minutes last season. Turner accomplished the above while maintaining a usage rating (19.5) that decreased from the year before (20.9). Despite the lower usage rate, his PER (18.5), which indicates offensive efficiency, went up from the year prior (15.4) and his win shares (8.0) also went up significantly from year prior (3.1). For comparison, Turner had a much higher win share, higher PER last year with a much lower usage rate than Porzingis.

The pressure will be on Turner. He won’t have the luxury of a star player two-way player next to him. Turner will need to step up his game as the quality of his team lowers and opponents shift their focus to him. While his production and usage will most likely increase it is not reasonable to expect him to continue his upward gains in efficiency as well.

A few additional skills help make Turner a special player. In both his one year in college and rookie season, Turner shot three-pointers at a below a 30 percent clip — poor shooting even for a big man. However, Turner shot a respectable percentage (34.8) per game last season. Although his three-point shooting attempts (1.4) per game only accounted for a fraction of his overall attempts (10.7), this skill will allow him to keep spacing on offense and will give more room to for his team to operate. With the above pressure on offense, Turner will need to show that he can maintain and improve upon his already solid defense, which includes his 2.1 blocks per game. With time, he should earn the respect of opponents attempting to score at the rim.

Room for improvement? Passing. Turner’s assists per game (1.3) last season leave something to be desired. If the offense is going to run though him, the ball needs to keep moving when appropriate.

This will be big year for the young big man and it’s fair to expect him to excel.

– James Blancarte

Nikola Jokic

While it’s hard to argue with Karl-Anthony Towns as the best third-year player for the upcoming NBA season, there’s one player who is unique enough to make a case: Nikola Jokic. The hardest and most difficult thing to find in the NBA is a superstar, and the Denver Nuggets — if Jokic continues to trend up — may have pulled off the ultra-rare feat of finding one in the second round.

By now you’ve probably read that Denver’s offense became the most efficient in the NBA after Jokic was permanently moved into the starting lineup. Tom West of Denver Stiffs has provided some excellent deep dive analysis of how the combination of shooting, creativity and efficiency near the basket and from midrange make Jokic such a dynamic player.

And as Daniel C. Lewis, also of Denver Stiffs, pointed out, Jokic became only the third player in the three-point era to average at least 16.7 points, 9.8 rebounds, 4.9 assists on 60.5 percent effective field goal shooting, joining Hall of Famers Kareem Abdul-Jabaar and Charles Barkley. If you’ll forgive the wordplay, the Joker is no joke as an NBA talent. But it was a third Denver Stiffs contributor, Adam Mares, who put Jokic’s talent into its proper perspective by joining forces with Pete Zayas of the Laker Film Room podcast to compare his talents to Lonzo Ball.

There are certain players — from Magic Johnson and Larry Bird to Jason Kidd and LeBron James — who see the game on a different mental level even than other star players. Call it “basketball IQ” or “feel for the game” or whatever you like. These are players who approach the game like a chess grandmaster, always thinking many moves ahead and analyzing the game in real time in a way their peers can’t match. Jokic and Ball are the two most recent players to enter the league with the potential to join that elite company.

But sometimes a player has those advanced mental attributes but lacks the physical qualities to parlay them into a Hall of Fame career. Kenny Anderson might be an example of this, as he was never fast or strong enough to match his cerebral attributes. And this is where Jokic falls short of Towns. He simply lacks the explosiveness to match Towns as either a rim attacker or protector. That doesn’t mean he can’t join that elite company, as he remains supremely-efficient around the basket thanks to his overwhelming skill. But Denver was the second-worst defensive team in the league with Jokic as a centerpiece. That will have to change if the Nuggets are ever to become contenders while building around this extraordinary talent.

– Buddy Grizzard

Every Thursday we’ll ask three of our guys to chime in on a common subject. If there is something you would like to see us address, drop it to us on Twitter at @BBallInsiders using the hashtag #ConversationThursday.

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