Karl-Anthony Towns vs Joel Embiid: The Future of the NBA

Joel Embiid and Karl-Anthony Towns square off for the first time in their careers as the Sixers go for their first winning streak since the 2014-15 season.

The Sixers will take on Karl-Anthony Towns, Andrew Wiggins, and the 3-7 Minnesota Timberwolves tonight on TNT | Brad Rempel-USA TODAY Sports

The Sixers will take on Karl-Anthony Towns, Andrew Wiggins, and the 3-7 Minnesota Timberwolves tonight on TNT | Brad Rempel-USA TODAY Sports

After last night’s 109-102 defeat of the struggling Washington Wizards, the Sixers head to Minneapolis tonight in search of their first winning streak since the 2014-15 NBA season.

The Sixers last won consecutive games in March of 2015, defeating the Pistons on March 18th and the Knicks on March 20th. The Sixers have played 106 games since.

Brett Brown‘s team will have a chance to do so tonight as they face a 3-7 Minnesota Timberwolves team that is high on talent, but low on experience. The Wolves are headlined by Karl-Anthony Towns (22 points, 8.8 rebounds, 2.8 assists), Andrew Wiggins (26.6 points, 3.9 rebounds, 2.3 assists), and Zach LaVine (19.7 points, 3.6 rebounds, 2.4 assists), while trying to integrate that young talent into first-year head coach Tom Thibodeau‘s defensive system.

The results haven’t been pretty for the Wolves so far, at least on the defensive end, where the 110.5 points per 100 possessions they allow is the second-worst defensive rating in the league. On the opposite end of the spectrum the Wolves have been a surprisingly dominant offensive team thus far, running with the league’s third-best offense to date.

The 76ers will have centerpiece Joel Embiid in the lineup tonight, having rested him in last night’s win over Washington and setting up a highly-touted matchup of young, franchise-altering big men between Embiid and Karl-Anthony Towns. It’s a matchup deserving of being on TNT.

The Details:
What: Sixers (2-9) vs Wolves (3-7)
Where: Target Center, Minneapolis
When: Thursday, November 17th at 8 PM Eastern
Watch: TNT (No, seriously, it’s on TNT)

Projected Starting Lineups:
Sixers: Sergio Rodriguez, Gerald Henderson, Robert Covington, Ersan Ilyasova, Joel Embiid
Wolves: Ricky Rubio, Zach LaVine, Andrew Wiggins, Karl-Anthony Towns, Gorgui Dieng

(Note: Official starting lineups are released approximately one hour before the game).

Injury Report:
Ben Simmons (out, fractured right foot), Nerlens Noel (out, knee), Jerryd Bayless (out, left wrist)

About The Opponent:
The Timberwolves have a fascinating young core, which includes a potential era-defining big man in Karl-Anthony Towns, an athletic wing scorer in Andrew Wiggins, another high-flying wing in Zach LaVine, and Kris Dunn, a rookie point guard drafted 5th overall in this past June’s draft.

The progress all of Towns, Wiggins, and LaVine have made over the years has been rather remarkable. Wiggins, the first to come on the scene as the #1 pick in the 2014 draft, has exploded into an offensive force capable of averaging 26.6 points per game so far this year on strong efficiency. His three-point shot has improvemd immensely and his ball handling, considered his make-or-break skill upon entering the league by some, has quickly become a strength, to the point where Wiggins is confident enough in traffic to truly start untapping his athletic potential by getting to the free-throw line 9 times per game. There are holes in his game — creating for others, namely — but Wiggins is well on his way to becoming on of the league’s top scorers.

LaVine’s ascension has been even more surprising. LaVine, the 13th overall pick in that same 2014 draft, came into the league a ball of athleticism with questionable decision making. He averaged 10.1 points per game as a rookie, but committed 2.5 turnovers per game and shot just 34.1 percent from three. He’s now averaging 19.7 points per game, commiting just 1 turnover per contest as he’s moved to an off-the-ball role, and connecting on 46.7 percent of his three-point attempts.

Still, the focus tonight will be on Karl-Anthony Towns and his matchup with Joel Embiid. Towns, the #1 overall pick in the 2015 draft, has emerged into an absolute monster, the perfect definition of a big man in today’s NBA.

Towns had a rookie season that was historic by almost every measure, especially in today’s 1-on-done era, averaging 18.3 points, 10.5 rebounds, 2.0 assists, and 1.7 blocked shots per game while shooting 54.2% from the field and flashing three-point range. Towns, who just turned 21-years-old this past week, was just scratching the surface of his immense potential, though, and has taken his game to another level in his sophomore season with averages of 22 points, 8.8 rebounds, and 2.8 assists per game, and has already connected on 37.2 percent of his 43 three-point attempts on the season.

Still, despite the offensive development of the aforementioned players, and the offensive production of the team as a whole, the Wolves have underperformed relative to the expectations bestowed upon them by many before the season began. The primary reason for that has been because of their struggles on the defensive side of the court, where the young Wolves give up 110.5 points per 100 possessions, the second most in the league. They allow teams to shoot an astounding 48.1 percent from the field, the highest in the league, and are the worst defensive rebounding team in the league as well. That’s a recipe for disaster.

The Wolves starting lineup of Rubio, LaVine, Wiggins, Towns, and Dieng has been especially problematic, being outscored by nearly 9 points per 100 possessions. Opponents are shooting 43.6 percent from three-point range against that group, per nbawowy, something the Sixers should be able to exploit.

What To Look For:
We can talk all we want about the Sixers’ perimeter shooters, and how they’ll have to exploit the Wolves’ perimeter defenders tendency to over-help, in order to get a win. We can talk about stopping Ricky Rubio in the pick and roll, or about how the Sixers’ perimeter defenders will struggle to matchup with the athleticism of LaVine and Wiggins on the perimeter. It’s a shame that the Sixers are without Ben Simmons, which would add yet another elite young talent to the equation and help balance the scales a little bit.

But let’s be real, the reason you’re watching this game is to see the matchup of Joel Embiid vs Karl-Anthony Towns down low.

It’s also the reason TNT is tuning in, the second national television game the Sixers have participated in this season. There’s a reason the matchup is garnering so much fanfare, too: Towns and Embiid have the chance to be the best big men in the league in a few years time. In a league that increasingly requires two-way dominance from centers, Embiid and Towns are two of the very few who have the kind of rare, diversified talent to dominate on both ends, while also having no major weaknesses in their games the opposition can exploit. It should be fascinating to watch.

Embiid will be tested by Towns’ perimeter shooting, quickness, and guard-like skills. Towns will be tested by Embiid’s sheer size and strength down low, and the Wolves will have to work as a whole to keep Embiid off of the offensive glass.

The game features two athletic marvels with such an abundance of skill wrapped in their oversized bodies that it almost seems unfair to the rest of the league if either, or both, of them end up reaching their vast potential. Enjoy it. The overall game may not be played at a surgical level, but the matchup between these two should be fascinating.

Derek Bodner covers the 76ers for Philadelphia magazine. Follow @DerekBodnerNBA on Twitter.