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Karl-Anthony Towns And The Timberwolves Are The Future

In the weeks immediately after the death of Sam Hinkie’s Process in Philadelphia, the 76ers finally landed a No. 1 overall draft pick. (Hinkie, the team’s former general manager, was known for his strategy of engineering high draft picks by piling up calamitous records.) By the cold animating arithmetic of that strategy, Tuesday’s event was the turning point. Next year’s squad will feature Nerlens Noel (No. 6 overall in 2013), Joel Embiid (No. 3 in 2014), Jahlil Okafor (No. 3 in 2015), and whomever the Sixers draft with the No. 1 pick — presumably LSU forward Ben Simmons.

Next season’s 76ers will not, however, be the NBA team most loaded down with young talent. That will probably be the Minnesota Timberwolves.

Using the draft-pick value chart of ESPN’s Kevin Pelton, we aggregated the amount of young talent on each roster during the lottery era (since 1985) for a table, which you can find at the bottom of this post.1 For next year’s Sixers, this process could yield the second-most draft-value points of any team since ’85, provided Embiid somehow stays intact long enough to make the leaderboard cutoff and Nik Stauskas somehow plays above his usual sub-replacement-level standards.

But even if all that happens, Philly will run behind the 2016-17 Timberwolves of Andrew Wiggins, Zach LaVine, Gorgui Dieng, Shabazz Muhammad — and, especially, 2016 rookie of the year Karl-Anthony Towns.

In Towns, the Timberwolves have something the other teams on this list need if they hope to make the turn from “stockpiling assets” to becoming genuine contenders. Specifically, a high draft pick who turns into a superstar. Although draft value is a functional proxy for talent — none of the teams that had an abundance of draft value were truly bereft — nailing a pick like Towns is the difference between real and abstract value, between the Thunder in 2010 and the Bulls in 2003.

As a rookie, Towns picked up 18.3 points, 10.5 rebounds and 1.7 blocks in 32 minutes per game, with a shooting line of .542/.341/.811. That’s exceptional for a first-year big, but to really get across how great he was we need to dig a little deeper. Here’s his CARMELO projection for next season:

karl-anthony-towns

Some context to go along with the chart: Based on his rookie season, KAT’s CARMELO “upside score” is 50.2. Simply, that’s our best guess at how many wins Towns will add to his team over the next six seasons. It means our model thinks he’ll be worth 50.2 wins above replacement over that period, which would have ranked seventh in the league in 2015-16, wedged between Kevin Durant and Kawhi Leonard. That’s an alarmingly good projection, considering he’ll be entering his second season and presumably has not reached his potential — the other players who project anywhere near that range are all established stars whose six-year outlook includes only their prime seasons and the gradual decline from that peak. For Towns, it’s possible his best years aren’t even included in those six.

The key thing here, the obvious thing, is that Towns’s status as a franchise centerpiece is not merely the product of especially sanguine long-term forecasts, as is occasionally the case with promising players still searching for their final forms like Marcus Smart or Elfrid Payton. Towns dominated this season, producing numbers in a way that doesn’t just suggest that he’ll be great, but that he is already great.

This is an important distinction! The holes in Towns’s game — he doesn’t always establish good position or use his size effectively in the post; he doesn’t yet have a great feel for space in the pick-and-roll — are things that typically come along as players grow accustomed to the league. Meanwhile, the parts of his game that prop up his exceptional numbers — solid handle, an excellent face-up game from the wing, being a good finisher around the rim — are things that are much harder to teach a big man. And he already does some good things to highlight his strengths, like using his speed to get down the court and plant himself deep in the post early in a possession, unlike, say, DeMarcus Cousins, who does exactly the opposite.

It’s also probably fair to assume that the Wolves’ improvements in other areas will compound any growth by Towns. For instance, Towns’s overall numbers for chances created off of the pick-and-roll are unimpressive, but those are tanked in part by a good deal of his PNRs coming with LaVine, who is very bad at those plays, and in part by the Wolves’ truly awful shooting. Minnesota scored 87.4 points per 100 chances created off of Towns’ screens, but that number shot up to 95.1 points per 100 when Towns took the shot. It’s not a coincidence that Minnesota attempted the second-fewest threes per game this season and shot the fifth-worst percentage of them. Surround Towns with a few shooters, and who knows what’ll happen.

The degree of difficulty for Towns comes through in the deeper-dive stats. By quantified shot quality, which estimates how difficult shots are based on factors like location and the position of the nearest defenders, Towns got shots that would be expected to fall at a rate equivalent to a 48.3 percent effective field goal percentage, which is very bad. His actual eFG% was 55.6, near the top of the league. The difference between the two — his shot-making prowess, or quantified shooter impact — was +7.2, which is fifth among players who took at least 500 shots, sandwiched between Klay Thompson (+6.6) and Leonard (+8.7).

That’s a long way of saying that Towns’s already stellar shot chart, like this one from StatMuse, is even more impressive than it looks:

KAT StatMust shot chart

The Timberwolves have many obvious needs — perimeter defense, outside shooting, perhaps even a point guard who doesn’t shoot 37 percent from the field. One or two of those may be addressed with that No. 5 pick, or in free agency, or through further development of the young lions surrounding Towns. But unlike just about every other young team in the process of squadding up, the Wolves already have their superstar.


DRAFT
TEAM PLAYER POS AGE YEAR PICK VALUE
2016-17 MIN Andrew Wiggins SG 21 2014 1 4000
Karl-Anthony Towns C 21 2015 1 4000
1st-round pick, 2016 2016 5 2500
Zach LaVine PG 21 2014 13 1760
Shabazz Muhammad SG 24 2013 14 1690
Gorgui Dieng C 27 2013 21 1340
Total (projected) 15290
2016-17 PHI 1st-round pick, 2016 2016 1 4000
Jahlil Okafor C 21 2015 3 2890
Joel Embiid C 22 2014 3 2890
Nerlens Noel PF 22 2013 6 2380
Nik Stauskas SG 23 2014 8 2200
Jerami Grant SF 22 2014 39 500
Total (projected) 14860
2001-02 LAC Elton Brand PF 22 1999 1 4000
Michael Olowokandi C 26 1998 1 4000
Darius Miles SF 20 2000 3 2890
Corey Maggette SG 22 1999 13 1760
Quentin Richardson SG 21 2000 18 1490
Total 14140
2004-05 CHI Tyson Chandler C 22 2001 2 3250
Ben Gordon SG 21 2004 3 2890
Eddy Curry C 22 2001 4 2660
Kirk Hinrich PG 24 2003 7 2280
Luol Deng SF 19 2004 7 2280
Chris Duhon PG 22 2004 38 530
Total 13890
2009-10 OKC Kevin Durant SF 21 2007 2 3250
James Harden SG 20 2009 3 2890
Russell Westbrook PG 21 2008 4 2660
Jeff Green PF 23 2007 5 2500
Thabo Sefolosha SG 25 2006 13 1760
Total 13060
2015-16 MIN Andrew Wiggins SG 20 2014 1 4000
Karl-Anthony Towns C 20 2015 1 4000
Zach LaVine PG 20 2014 13 1760
Shabazz Muhammad SG 23 2013 14 1690
Gorgui Dieng C 26 2013 21 1340
Total 12790
Teams with the highest combined draft value (among players selected in the previous four NBA drafts and playing at least 1,500 minutes), 1985-2017*

*This assumes the 2016 first-round draft picks also will play at least 1,500 minutes next season

Sources: Basketball-reference.com, kevin pelton/espn

Nate Silver contributed research.

Footnotes

  1. To be included in his team’s total, a player had to log enough minutes to qualify for Basketball-Reference.com’s rate-statistic leaderboards — generally 1,500 minutes in a normal, 82-game season — and he had to be selected in one of the previous four NBA drafts.

Kyle Wagner is a senior editor at FiveThirtyEight.

Neil Paine is a senior sportswriter for FiveThirtyEight.

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