As the Prodigy series continues, we break down two of the best young big men in the NBA: Karl-Anthony Towns and Joel Embiid. Both players are showing signs that they could become Hall of Famers despite going through entirely different journeys to their initial NBA success.
Towns experienced an almost seamless transition from the University of Kentucky after his freshmen year to being drafted as the No. 1 overall pick by the Minnesota Timberwolves in the 2015 NBA Draft. During a stellar rookie season in which Towns captured Rookie of the Year honors, Kevin Durant told the Associated Press, “He’s going to be a Hall of Famer in this league.” In his second season in the league, Towns came back even stronger by increasing his scoring, rebounding and minutes per game, all while shooting a better percentage from the field.
Unlike Towns, Embiid’s journey to his rookie season success has been burdened with injury complications. Drafted by the Philadelphia 76ers in 2014, Embiid has broken the navicular bone in his right foot twice, which caused him to miss what would have been his first two seasons in the league. After battling back through these complications, he is now having a huge impact on the league; so much so, that some of his contemporaries think he has the chance to be the best big man in the NBA. After the Sacramento Kings played the Sixers on December 27th, DeMarcus Cousins told SB Nation’s Kristian Winfield, “I don’t give a lot of people props, but I like that kid a lot. I think he’s got a great chance at being the best big in the league… after I retire.”
With all of this in mind, let’s take a look at the strengths and weaknesses of both Towns and Embiid:
Karl-Anthony Towns, Minnesota Timberwolves
21.4 PPG, 11.6 RPG, 1.4 BPG, 47% from the field, 31% 3 from three (37 Games)
Transition Play: Towns’ exceptional ball handling skills allow the T-Wolves big to be super dynamic in the open-court. His euro-steps, spins, and change of direction moves are on full display when Towns is in transition where he averages 1.27 point per possession, scoring 75 points on 59 possessions, according to Synergy.
Isolation: Currently, Towns ranks in the 49th percentile with .85 points per possession in isolation plays, according to Synergy. However, through the first 30 games, Towns was killing it in isolation, scoring 47 points on 48 possessions, ranking him in the 73rd percentile in the league, according to Synergy. He has struggled in the last few games, but his struggles as of late don’t change the fact that Towns’ dynamic skill-set makes him dangerous going one-on-one.
In the T-Wolves’ offense, Towns often finds himself isolated in the high post and wing areas where he loves to face up defenders. Towns was averaging 1.43 point per possession (through 30 games) when operating out of isolation from the left side of the floor, which ranked him the fourth most efficient player in the league, according to Synergy. Towns is adept at squaring up using either pivot foot and also does a great job using ball fakes to keep his defender off balance. Many times after squaring up, Towns will stare down defenders into his jumper, gauging whether or not a shot contest is forthcoming. This ability to create his own shot allows him to also set up his drives both right and left. Minnesota’s guards also like to set Towns up in wing pick-and-rolls by refusing ball screens that the big man sets in order to kick back for isolation opportunities. Towns has freakishly good ball handling ability for a big and will create space by driving and stepping off defenders in a variety of ways. Moving forward, expect Towns’ efficiency to rebound in this area throughout the season.
Pick and Roll Action As Screener: Towns’ ability to stretch the defense with his shooting, nimbleness and ability to finish around the rim allows him to be even more effective when rolling and slipping to the basket out of pick-and-rolls. Towns ranks in the 69th percentile, averaging .99 points per possession when popping out for jump shot opportunities. Towns combines soft touch with ferocious finishes around the rim, which has him ranked in the 78th percentile in the NBA (1.38 points per possessions, according to Synergy). On slips, he ranks in the 62nd percentile, according to Synergy.
Spot Up Shooting/Drives: Despite his great touch and solid stroke, Towns’ shot preparation, many times, leaves a lot to be desired. He has a tendency to stand straight up and does not always step into his shot. This appears to hinder his rhythm and timing for catch-and-shoot opportunities and drives to the basket off of spot up catches. On catch-and shoot-opportunities, Towns is averaging just .831 points per possession, which ranks him in the 16th percentile in the league, according to Synergy. When spotting up and driving it to the basket, he is posting .875 points per possession, ranking him in the 39th percentile, according to Synergy.
Post Play: Post play is one area where, if Towns improved, he could take his game to a dramatically higher level. Towns has scored 145 points on 179 possessions. His .87 points per possession ranks him in the 33rd percentile in the league. 56.5 percent of his low post production is generated from the left post, where he shoots 44 percent. Towns loves turning over his left shoulder to make plays from either side of the floor.
On the left block area is where Towns really struggles. On 84 possessions this season, Towns has scored just 62 points. This ranks him in the 16th percentile in the league. The only move Towns consistently employs effectively from the left post is his right hand hook, where he is averaging 1.15 points per possession (79th percentile). That being said, the big man rarely attempts drop-steps, up-and-unders, drives, or turnaround jumpers from this side of the floor.
On the right block, Towns is much better and ranks in the 53rd percentile in the league in regards to his scoring efficiency. He wants to turn over his left shoulder and likes to get to his drop step when doing so, scoring 28 points on 23 possessions, good enough for the 86th percentile in the league, according to Synergy. Despite his effectiveness off the drop-step, and the left block, Towns rarely attempts jump shots, face-ups, hooks, or drives to the basket. Diversifying his repertoire of moves down low could help generate substantial improvement moving forward.
Joel Embiid, Philadelphia 76ers
19.4 PPG, 7.3 RPG, 2.4 BPG, 46% FG, 37% 3PT (25 Games)
Isolation: Embiid is a superb isolation player. This season he has scored 45 points on 43 possessions, ranking him in the 83rd percentile in the league, according to Synergy. He likes to work from both the right side and from the top of the key. On the right side, he is boasting a 1.2 points per possession average, putting him in the 86th percentile in the league and from the top of the key he has scored 17 points on 14 possessions (1.4 points per possession), placing him in the 99th percentile, according to Synergy. Around the perimeter, Embiid will face up and use a jab step to set up his drives to the basket. He possesses great poise off the dribble for a big and uses his extremely long, fluid steps and superior size to get by opposing bigs. He also does a great job rocking his defender to sleep off the dribble in order to create space for his jumper. He likes to do this from the top of the key.
Pick & Roll Play: Pick-and-roll man opportunities make up 16 percent of Embiid’s overall offensive play types. As the screener out of pick-and-rolls, Embiid has recorded 94 points on 83 possessions, placing him in the 72nd percentile in the league, according to Synergy. He is especially adept at screening and popping out, converting 65 points on 59 possessions. However, he has been deadly when he catches and shoots without a dribble, hitting 42 points on 29 possessions, good for 1.45 points per possession. This puts him in the 98th percentile of the league on these play types.
Jump Shot Opportunities: Embiid is a very good jump shooter. In the half court this season, Embiid has scored 106 points on 96 possessions (87th percentile), according to Synergy. Most of these jumpers are generated in the flow of the Sixers’ offense, others in pick-and-roll play and a smaller portion coming from isolation play. In any case, this is one area where Embiid really excels.
Injury History: Embiid missed a large portion of his freshmen season at Kansas because of back issues. A screw was inserted into his right foot after twice breaking the navicular bone. From complications regarding his foot, Embiid ended up missing his first two seasons in the NBA. However, due in part to an extensive rehabilitation process employed by the Sixers’ medical and sports science teams, and a strict minute per game restriction this season, Embiid has looked great. Assuming he stays healthy, the sky is the limit for Embiid.
Post Ups: Post ups make up 34 percent of Embiid’s overall offensive play types, according to Synergy. However, for such a talented player, Embiid, like Towns, by the statistics, is only an average post up player at this point in the season. He has recorded 150 points on 173 possessions, placing him in the 45th percentile for all players in the league, according to Synergy. Additionally, 21 percent of his possessions in the post result in turnovers, with 45 percent resulting in scores. Obviously, reducing turnovers and increasing scoring efficiency will help Embiid become even more dominant than he already is.
Transition: Another area where Embiid could improve is his transition play. At times, Embiid will get out of control or try to do too much off of the dribble. He ranks in the 8th percentile in the NBA for transition efficiency, scoring just 34 points on 47 possessions, according to Synergy. Luckily for the Sixers, these plays make up only 9 percent of Embiid’s total offensive play types.
Rebounding / Attacking The Offensive Glass: Considering how athletic and long Embiid is, you might expect him to gobble up offensive rebounds. However, this season the Sixers’ big man is only averaging two offensive rebounds per game and has recorded just 33 points on 32 put back opportunities, ranking him in the league’s 39th percentile. This may be due in part to the Sixers’ limiting Embiid’s minutes to protect him from further injury.
In the next part of the Prodigies series, we will evaluate the Phoenix Suns’ Devin Booker and the Timberwolves’ Andrew Wiggins.
All statistics are courtesy of Synergy and Basketball-Reference.com and are current as of January 12, 2017
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