Karl-Anthony Towns: The Big Man the Sixers Probably Want — and Likely Can’t Get

How would the Kentucky big man fit with the Sixers? And what would it take for the team to land him?

Mar 19, 2015; Louisville, KY, USA; Kentucky Wildcats forward Karl-Anthony Towns (12) shoots the ball against Hampton Pirates forward Jervon Pressley (30) during the second half in the second round of the 2015 NCAA Tournament at KFC Yum! Center. Kentucky wins 79-56.

Mar 19, 2015; Louisville, KY, USA; Kentucky Wildcats forward Karl-Anthony Towns (12) shoots the ball against Hampton Pirates forward Jervon Pressley (30) during the second half in the second round of the 2015 NCAA Tournament at KFC Yum! Center. Kentucky wins 79-56.

As we lead up to June 25th’s NBA draft, we’ll begin to take a look at some of the prospects that could be available to the Sixers with the third overall pick, providing an overview of relevant information, and taking a look at why they do, and do not, make sense for the Sixers.

First up is Kentucky’s big man Karl-Anthony Towns.

Key information:

Age: 19 years old

Measurements: 250 pounds, 6-foot-11.25-inch (in shoes), 7-foot-3.25-inch wingspan, 9-foot-1-inch standing reach, 36.5-inch max vertical jump (measured at UK’s Pro Day in Fall 2014).

Stats: 10.3 points, 6.7 rebounds, 2.3 blocks, and 1.1 assists in 21.1 minutes per game. Shot 56.6% from the field and 81.3% from the free throw line.

Advanced stats: 17.3 Boxscore plus/minus, (6.5 offensive, 10.8 defensive), 6.4 win shares (3.5 offensive, 2.9 defensive), 0.311 win shares/40 minutes, 52.3% free throw rate, 62.7% true shooting percentage.

(Quick glossary: Boxscore plus/minus is an estimate of the points a player adds to his team per 100 possessions above the league average. Win shares is an estimate on the number of wins a player added to his team. Win shares/40 minutes is win shares for every 40 minutes of play, with the average being ~0.100/40 minutes. Free throw rate is the number of free throw attempts per field goal attempt, and true shooting percentage is an attempt to “fix” field goal percentage, factoring in the additional value of the three-point shot and a player’s ability to get to the free throw line to paint a more accurate picture of a player’s efficiency).

Chance of being available at No. 3: Low. Towns is likely to be taken with one of the first two picks in the draft.

Why you should be interested:

Big men who have the potential to dominate on both ends of the court are an extremely rare commodity in the NBA, and when you have the chance to get one, you always have to give it strong consideration, even if you already have depth at the position.

Through much of the season the Towns vs. Jahlil Okafor debate came down to Okafor’s historically great post scoring against Towns’ ability to dominate on the defensive side of the court.

Player (season)Def Reb%*Block %**
Karl-Anthony Towns (2014-15)22.3%11.5%
Nerlens Noel (2012-13)22.3%13.2%
Joel Embiid (2013-14)27.3%11.7%
Anthony Davis (2011-12)23.8%13.7%
Alex Len (2012-13)19.3%8.0%
Tristan Thompson (2010-11)13.7%7.2%
Derrick Favors (2009-10)19.9%7.9%
* Defensive Rebounding %: An estimate of the percentage of available rebounds the player grabs while he's on the court
** Block %: An estimate of the percentage of 2 point field goal attempts the player blocks while he's on the floor.

While not quite the shot blocker that Anthony Davis or Nerlens Noel were during their one season at Kentucky, Towns’ defensive metrics place him in pretty rare company among recent NBA draft picks.

Watching Towns play, it’s easy to see him growing into an elite-level defender, and one with a ton of versatility. Towns not only has the ability to dominate in some facets (i.e. shot blocking), but he also doesn’t have any real debilitating weaknesses. He has good defensive instincts, great length, is quick off his feet to block shots, covers ground quickly in the paint, and can hold his position down low on the defensive glass and when defending the post.

That “no major weaknesses” description is pretty apt for Towns’ overall standing as a prospect, something which became more and more evident as the season progressed. Towns averaged only 8.1 points per game in January, in part a result of Kentucky’s incredible frontcourt depth, which limited Towns to only 18.5 minutes per night as head coach John Calipari rotated guys in with his “platoon” system to keep his players fresh.

As Kentucky got deeper into their season, and the stakes were raised, Towns assumed a larger role in Kentucky’s offense. Towns’ minutes jumped to 23.3 per game in February, and he responded by averaging 12.1 points and 8.4 rebounds per game while shooting 66.7% from the field. He increased that production even more in March (12.9 points per game), then exploded in the NCAA tournament, averaging 14.2 points on 62.8% shooting from the field in Kentucky’s run to the Final Four, a run which included 25 points (10-13 shooting) against Notre Dame and 16 points (7-11 shooting) in their loss to Wisconsin.

As the season wore on, Towns really began to show off more of his post-up game. Towns shot 75.7% at the rim, a good number for a big, but not exactly something that’s uncommon. Kentucky teammates Willie Cauley-Stein (72.7%), Trey Lyles (74.4%) and Marcus Lee (81.5%) were similarly effective close to the basket, for example.

The real difference between the aforementioned players is how much of Towns’ offense he created for himself. Whereas Cauley-Stein (72.7% of his made field goals at the rim were scored off of assists by his teammates), Lyles (69.2% assisted), and Lee (65.9%) all relied on others to generate good scoring opportunities for them at the rim, Towns was asked to go 1-on-1 much more, as only 46.4% of the field goals he made at the rim were assisted.

Towns’ post-up game isn’t nearly as advanced as Okafor’s, which isn’t a slight to Towns as few, if any, freshman post players over the past 15 years have had Okafor’s diversity in the post. What Towns did do he did well, however, with excellent touch on hook shots over either his right or left shoulder, a good drop step to seal off his defender, and the strength in his core to establish deep post position and back his man down.

Again, though, it’s not just Towns’ ability to score in the paint that makes him such a unique prospect, but his versatility. In high school Towns was known as a perimeter-oriented big man, having the shooting touch, ball handling, and athleticism to play as a face-up big. While Towns’ attempts from the perimeter were limited during his freshman season (roughly 40 attempts beyond 10 feet on the season), in large part because Kentucky wanted to maximize Towns’ advantage in the post, Towns’ 81.3% free throw percentage, on a solid sample of 134 attempts, showcases a shooting touch that could become a bigger part of his arsenal down the line.

This shooting touch is especially important for the Sixers, as it would be important if Towns and Embiid were to play together, as Towns being able to force his man to guard him 17 feet from the basket would help Embiid attack any mismatches he has down low.

Rounding out Towns’ offensive versatility is his creativity as a passer. While not quite as adept at finding cutters to the basket as Okafor is (which, again, isn’t a slight on Towns but a recognition of Okafor’s unique ability), Towns is a great passer in his own right. What’s interesting about Towns is his playmaking diversity: He’s a good passer out of the post, making quick decisions to combat defensive rotations, he’s a good interior passer and he shows a real knack for passing from the perimeter when facing the basket. That last part is another key in his fit with Embiid, as his ability to play a high-low game with Embiid could be potentially devastating combination.

Why shouldn’t you be interested?

There’s not much reason to not be interested, honestly, but there are a few flaws you could find if you nitpick hard enough.

The first thing Towns has to improve upon is his propensity to foul, as Towns picked up 5.6 fouls for every 40 minutes he played. This isn’t entirely uncommon for young shot blockers, as guys like Nerlens Noel, who can dominate a game defensively at a young age without making the mistakes which lead to foul trouble, are the exception to the norm. This is a problem that I expect to be mostly resolved with little more than time, experience and good coaching.

Player (season)Blocks per 40 minutesFouls per 40 minutes
Karl-Anthony Towns (2014-15)4.35.6
Joel Embiid (2013-14)4.55.8
Nerlens Noel (2012-13)5.53.3
Anthony Davis5.82.4

The other “flaw” in Towns is that he’s not an incredible perimeter defender, as he has only average lateral mobility, which could limit him when defending perimeter power forwards and the pick-and-roll game which is much more prominent in the NBA. Again, it’s not that he’s awful at this, but his defensive versatility isn’t what, say, Noel’s is. You would maximize Towns’ defensive potential by keeping him in the paint, which won’t happen as much as it otherwise would if he’s playing next to Embiid.

Fit with the Sixers

Finally, how does Towns fit with the Sixers existing personnel?

As I mentioned yesterday, fit with existing personnel isn’t likely the Sixers primary focus, and having too much frontcourt depth is even less likely to be a deterrent. The Sixers are looking for high-level talent, and nobody in this draft has more potential to dominate a game than Karl-Anthony Towns does.

What’s nice about Towns is not only does he have as much potential as anybody in the draft, but he also fits with both Embiid and Noel. Towns and Embiid both have the perimeter skills, and passing ability, to space the floor and allow the other to attack down low, which would give Sixers head coach Brett Brown the ability to punish whichever mismatch is most advantageous. That, combined with the incredible amount of defensive potential between the three big men, would be an incredible luxury to have, while also providing some insurance against the potential of any continued injury struggles Embiid may encounter.

The problem is, there’s almost no chance that Towns falls to the Sixers at No. 3. Would the Sixers and Sam Hinkie look to move up to No. 1 to take him? It wouldn’t surprise me at all if they at least explored the possibility. At some point, the Sixers’ prolonged period of asset acquisition will turn into asset consolidation as Hinkie looks to use his acquired assets to obtain a superstar, similar to what Houston did with James Harden. A 19-year-old big man, who can dominate on both ends of the court, is a relatively safe bet, is locked into a very advantageous 4-year rookie contract, and who carries no extra injury risk could be the perfect situation to pursue.

Unfortunately, however, it takes two to tango, and the Minnesota Timberwolves may render any desire the Sixers may have moot.

Derek Bodner is covering the NBA Draft at Philadelphia magazine’s Sixers Draftland. Read his previous coverage here. Follow him on Twitter at @DerekBodnerNBA.

Previously in Sixers Draftland:
• Does Joel Embiid’s Setback Change Sixers’ Draft Plans?
• Welcome to Sixers Draftland