In arguably their biggest win of the season, the Minnesota Timberwolves defeated the surging Washington Wizards, extending hopes of a late-season push into the Western Conference’s final playoff position.
Buoyed by 39 points and 13 rebounds from pending superstar Karl-Anthony Towns, the Timberwolves are finally beginning to find their identity under new coach Tom Thibodeau. While the victory was critical, arguably the most important aspect of the win was Towns’ timely reminder to us all that he still remains the best young prospect in the league, something we had started to forget.
Distracted by new, emerging talents that stole our fleeting attention, for the majority of the season, Towns and the Wolves have been cast aside for more unpredictable and fun narratives.
Giannis Antetokounmpo’s rise from project to superstar was the story of the first half of the season; Joel Embiid’s dominance in limited minutes redefined the path of Philadelphia’s process; Nikola Jokic making passes unlike any other big man and routinely racking up triple-doubles has cemented the Serbian center as the Denver Nuggets’ franchise player; As the season draws to a close, the closest MVP race in decades will undoubtedly garner the majority of focus.
These storylines have materialised without expectation. The surprise has captured our attention, so much so that we’ve overlooked or disregarded players and teams who are meeting preseason assumptions.
Towns and the Minnesota Timberwolves, however, are likely viewed as a disappointment by most, pushing them further down the list of priorities. Vegas expected a .500 season. Many analysts and commentators were bullish, holding out hope that a 29-win team under the tutelage of maligned ex-coach Sam Mitchell could easily leap into a potential playoff threat with new head coach (and president of basketball operations) Tom Thibodeau.
Adapting to Thibodeau’s style and schemes has been a slow burn, and we’re only now beginning to see the results of months of work. While Minnesota sit only a few games out of the eight seed and technically still have a chance at a playoff berth, for most of the season, the young Wolves have underwhelmed.
Disappointed and distracted, we’ve forgotten about Towns. Or maybe, we’ve been bored with his typical fundamental excellence. Now though, with the Timberwolves having the second-best defense in the league since the All-Star break and wins becoming a more frequent occurrence, we’re starting to remember why the NBA world was ablaze with hype for Towns last season.
In nine games since All-Star weekend, Town has averaged 29.2 points and 15.1 rebounds, shooting 63.7 percent from the field and 46.2 percent from three. For any player in their prime years, any stretch of games with those numbers would be utterly absurd. But for a second-year player who is half a decade away from his best years, putting up such a stat-line should force us all into shame for ever overlooking the 21-year-old phenom.
Sure, it’s only been nine games. It could be a hot shooting streak that will eventually regress to the mean once a larger data sample is collected. But it could also be a obvious signal to those that have begun to doubt Towns that only time stands between his growth years and an eventual reign.
Extending our viewpoint to the beginning of 2017, Towns’ numbers have barely dropped off: 27.1 points, 13.1 rebounds on 57.9 percent shooting. In 33 games since the turn of the year, Towns has been dominant, and it’s translated to wins. The Timberwolves are sitting slightly above .500 since January, winning 17 games and having the eighth best record in the Western Conference through this stretch of games. It may have been delayed several months, but the Wolves are finally where many expected them to be.
Correlation does not always imply causation, but in the case of the streaking Wolves, as Towns goes, so does the team. Every month, his game has improved. His offensive efficiency has increased as his shooting mechanics have refined and the defensive coverage has become more dependable.
And here we are , watching Towns do things that only so few have done this season. No player in the league under the age of 22 is scoring more points. Only Devin Booker has a higher usage rate, but no where near the efficiency to match Towns. No other player 21-years of age or under has a higher defensive rebounding percentage while playing 20 or more minutes.
At this point, measuring Towns against other prodigies seems unjust. In most statistical categories, Towns out-ranks some of the games’ most elite talents and is good enough to be compared to these players, not other rookie-scaled contemporaries.
Only eight players have a usage percentage greater than 27 while posting a true-shooting percentage above 60 percent. Towns is one of them, the only big man doing so. Only James Harden has more double-doubles this season. He has been this good for the majority of the season, but only now are we starting to take note of his body of work, and it’s because the Wolves are winning.
3.5 games back on the eighth placed Denver Nuggets, Minnesota sits 10th in the Western Conference and within reach of their first playoff berth since 2004. FiveThirtyEight.com suggests the Wolves will remain as the 10th seed once the season concludes, giving Thibodeau’s young team only an 8 percent chance of a playoff appearance. While it’s unlikely the Timberwolves sneak into the postseason, winning a projected 36 games — a seven game improvement from last season — would be an achievement.
Increasing their output from last season is the first step in the Wolves’ eventual growth. Momentum is building and the predicted development of Minnesota’s young core is starting to take shape. Fortunately for them, they have the best young big man in the league. Hopefully next season, it won’t take us a five months to take note.