Each week during the 2021-22 NBA season, we will take a deeper dive into some of the league’s biggest storylines in an attempt to determine whether the trends are based more in fact or fiction moving forward.
Karl-Anthony Towns is the best player nobody talks about
There was almost a 50% chance in the 2015 NBA draft lottery that Karl-Anthony Towns would land on the New York Knicks, Los Angeles Lakers or Philadelphia 76ers, but the Minnesota Timberwolves held onto the No. 1 spot, and we have had a lot fewer discussions about Towns as a result. It is high time we have one.
Anyone who has watched the Timberwolves this season has noticed a different Towns — one more fiery and more committed to defense than ever before, which is all we ever really wanted to see from him — and it is translating to winning basketball, at least so much as it can on a young roster with a limited ceiling.
Yet, no one outside Minnesota is really talking about Towns, because we have long since written off the former top overall pick as the NBA’s next megastar. The Miami Heat’s Jimmy Butler has gone so far as to call him “soft,” even though Towns was 22 years old the lone season they played together. The label stuck, since one is more vociferous than the other, but the past two years have proven Towns is anything but soft.
Towns has emerged from devastating tragedy — the loss of his mother, Jacqueline Cruz-Towns, and six more family members to the COVID-19 pandemic — a more impactful leader, both on and off the court, and he has entered this season with a clearer recognition of the stigmas attached to his Timberwolves career.
“I think what’s really on the line is people’s perception of Minnesota. Of me,” Towns told Sports Illustrated’s Michael Pina at the end of September, when he entered his seventh training camp with the Wolves. “I’m for sure not gonna fail. So I got to do what I got to do, but the pressure is high for me to win and rightfully so.”
Towns is averaging 24.2 points (on 51/42/83 shooting splits), 9.4 rebounds and 3.5 assists in 34.5 minutes through 31 games. He is one of only 10 players and the only center shooting better than 42% on five or more 3-point attempts per game. Only three others are averaging a 24-9-3 this season — Nikola Jokic, Giannis Antetokounmpo and Joel Embiid — and Towns is scoring more efficiently than all but Jokic, the reigning MVP. It adds up to a top-15 ranking in most every all-encompassing advanced statistical category.
None of it is all that far from Towns’ career marks. The defense is what has set him apart this season. He is more aggressive defending on the perimeter and recovering to protect the rim. He is still not exceptional at either, but the effort is there, and a chaotic system designed by first-time head coach Chris Finch has better defined his responsibilities in an outfit featuring a handful of quicker defenders to fill the space around him.
The result is a personal defensive rating of 107.7, an imperfect metric, but the best of his career by far. The Timberwolves are operating like a top-10 defensive unit when Towns is on the floor, despite sharing many of his minutes with offense-first point guard D’Angelo Russell and second-year wing Anthony Edwards.
Offensively, Towns is unlike any player we have seen. He is well on his way to becoming the second-best 3-point shooting big man in history behind Dirk Nowitzki. Among the 40 frontcourt players who have made at least 700 3-pointers in his career, Towns owns the highest 2-point field-goal percentage and fifth-highest 3-point percentage, making him by far the most efficient inside-out threat among all forwards and centers.
Meanwhile, Minnesota has fielded four coaches and six general managers during Towns’ seven seasons. They turned Zach LaVine, Andrew Wiggins and three top-seven draft picks into Malik Beasley and Russell, allowing Butler to delay the development of two of their No. 1 overall picks in between. The franchise has done nothing but bungle the roster around Towns — an all-time offensive talent — for six seasons.
Somehow, Towns is still only 26 years old, on the precipice of his prime.
Can you imagine how much time would be dedicated to discussing the front-office failures of the Lakers, Knicks or 76ers, had Towns landed on any of those teams? Instead, he is a forgotten star, painted by Butler as “a loser,” toiling on a team within one loss of the Lakers for the West’s No. 6 seed. He is a giant lying in wait, with two years left on his contract. Either Minnesota does right by him, or someone else will score big.
Welcome back, Kyrie Irving
Towns has been a vocal advocate of COVID-19 vaccines, given his family’s firsthand experience with the deadliness of the virus, but one fellow All-Star has been willing to actively hinder his team’s title odds in opposition of them. The Brooklyn Nets welcomed an unvaccinated Kyrie Irving into the fold this week, even citing the virus’ impact on the roster as reason to disavow a previous decision not to allow him to play.
New York City’s vaccine mandate still does not permit Irving to attend home games for the Nets.
Irving faced a couple questions about his vaccination status after Wednesday’s season debut in Indiana, provided a prolonged nonsensical response and finished with, “Oh come on, man. Don’t hang on to me.”
And that was it.
“It’s not an ideal situation, and I’m always praying that things get figured out and we’re able to come to some collective agreement, whether it be with the league or it’s just things that’s going on that could help kind of ease what we’re all dealing with COVID-19 and the vaccine,” Irving told reporters on Wednesday.
“I think everybody’s feeling it, so I don’t want to make it simply about me and someone lessening the rules for me,” the 29-year-old added. “I know what the consequences were, I still know what they are, but right now, I’m just going to take it one day at a time like I said and just enjoy this time I get to play with my guys.”
What? Five hundred of his NBA peers have taken vaccines without incident. More than 9 billion doses have been administered worldwide. Duke required at least eight vaccines for Irving to attend the university. Yet, he is sacrificing $17 million in salary and his team’s championship favorite status in opposition. We will soon find out if protesting an FDA-approved vaccine is more important to Irving than a home playoff game.
Good for him, I guess? I just don’t see how any of this is worth applauding his 22 points in a win over the Pacers, when he will head right back home to watch the Nets host the Milwaukee Bucks on Friday. He is treating his cause as a personal crusade, like so many are, ignoring the societal implications of his stance.
At least Towns can defend his position.
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Ben Rohrbach is a staff writer for Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter! Follow @brohrbach