2021-22 Minnesota Timberwolves Season Review: Karl-Anthony Towns

Karl-Anthony Towns stamped himself as one of the truly elite NBA players in his seventh season as a franchise cornerstone of the Minnesota Timberwolves.

The three-time All-Star delivered a resurgent 2021-22 campaign during which he averaged 24.6 points on 52.9/41.0/82.2 shooting splits, 9.8 rebounds, 3.6 assists to 3.1 turnovers, and 2.1 stocks in 33.5 minutes per game across 74 regular season contests.

Towns was rewarded with his second Third Team All-NBA selection (making him eligible for a supermax extension) and third All-Star selection, which he parlayed into becoming the 2022 3-point contest champion and the first big man to win the award since former Timberwolf Kevin Love won in 2012.

2022 NBA All-Star - AT&T Slam Dunk

Photo by Tim Nwachukwu/Getty Images

On that cold, blustery night in Cleveland, there was a tangible, seismic shift in the way Towns was viewed around the league; from there on, it felt like KAT was more respected, more feared, and more commonly talked about as the third-best big in the league. That carried a great deal of significance in securing Towns’ supermax eligibility by way of his Third Team All-NBA selection.

But perhaps most importantly, Towns made good on his promise to the late, great Flip Saunders — the man who drafted him No. 1 overall in 2015 — to bring the Wolves back to the playoffs. Despite a trio of disappointing collapses, he and his teammates sent a message to the NBA that these aren’t the same old Minnesota Timberwolves, and they’ll be back for more in the years to come.

In what many national media members erroneously labeled a poor playoff performance against the Memphis Grizzlies, Towns still averaged 21.8 points on 48.8/45.5/86.0 splits, 10.8 rebounds, 2.2 assists to 4.5 turnovers, and 2.7 stocks in 37.0 minutes per game. Sure, he turned the ball over too much, but there is a ton Towns can take with him into the summer, learn from and improve upon, and put in the rearview mirror next season.

Regardless of your feelings on KAT, it is impossible to ignore the impact he had on reigniting a sleeping giant fan base that came out in full force down the stretch of the season. His consistent play over the course of the season kept the Wolves afloat amid stretches of injuries, COVID, and tough opponents, and put them squarely in position to make noise in the playoffs.

He emerged as one of the league’s most dominant talents thanks to a renewed internal feeling of indomitability, which culminated with a franchise-record, 60-point performance in San Antonio in March.

Towns is at the center of the Timberwolves present and future, and it is pretty tough to not be excited about what is on the horizon with Towns behind the wheel of the Wolves, Anthony Edwards riding shotgun and Chris Finch navigating from the back seat.


2022 NBA Playoffs - Minnesota Timberwolves v Memphis Grizzlies

Photo by Joe Murphy/NBAE via Getty Images

Towns learned from game-to-game while in the playoffs, too. He felt the weight of the NBA landscape on his shoulders after he played one of, if not the worst game of his career against the Los Angeles Clippers in the play-in game. Instead of letting that impact his performance in Game 1 of the Western Conference Quarterfinals on the road in Memphis, he used it as fuel.

Towns roared back with 29 points on 11/18 FG, 13 rebounds, three assists, and a block in 43 minutes in a 13-point road win over the Grizzlies. Resilience personified.


Minnesota Timberwolves v Toronto Raptors

Photo by Vaughn Ridley/NBAE via Getty Images

Driving

The only big man in the NBA who found more consistent success on the drive this season than Towns was Giannis Antetokounmpo. Think about that for a second.

KAT did a better job this season of staying under control and not committing offensive fouls while on the drive as well. He still needs to improve as a passer off the drive, but is still capable of making good reads and good passes, too.

But Towns impressed most using his drives to score at the rim. He averaged a career-high 6.6 points per game on a career-high 7.9 drives per game, and shot a career-best 58.3% on those drives.

The next step for KAT will be to add the ability to play off of one or both feet. Right now, he euros on nearly every drive he doesn’t take a straight line and elevate. He gets himself into trouble 1) when he gets caught in the air after the second step and is forced to throw tough passes and 2) because his default is to play off one foot, which can lead to offensive fouls and rushed shots at times.

Both trouble spots strain his playmaking, as evidenced by Towns registering both the second-lowest assist rate and second-highest turnover rate of his career.

But there was plenty of good, too. He attacked the rim with high-level combos that included an array of jabs, shot fakes, dribble moves, cadence changes, and finishing angles to continually keep defenses off balance.

Towns’ touch around the rim and ability to finish through contact is a delight, too. Even just a fraction of his driving highlights from the second half of the season are a marvel.

It is exceptionally rare for someone Towns’ size to be able to create their own shots off the dribble (outside of back-to-the-basket situations, of course); what sets Towns above quite literally every other big in the NBA is that he can do it as an elite driver and as an elite shooter.

Scoring Versatility

Towns this season was remarkably efficient as a scorer. Only five players played in at least 60 games, and carried a usage rate north of 25% while holding an effective field goal percentage of greater than 55.0%. From most to least efficient in that group: Nikola Jokić, KAT, Giannis, Zach LaVine and Stephen Curry.

The level at which Towns was able to produce no matter how Finch and company decided to use him was pretty incredible. He was above average in nine of 10 Synergy play types, with the only below average spot being post-ups, where he ranked in the 49th percentile.

What stands out to me most here is that Towns averaged 2.7 isolations per game and averaged 1.13 points per isolation — good for the 93rd percentile. When you add the filter of players with at least two isolations per game, he ranked third (!!!) in points per iso behind only Spencer Dinwiddie (in Dallas) and DeMar DeRozan. He was slightly better than the usual suspects: Luka Dončić, Kevin Durant, and James Harden (in Philly) were immediately behind him.

Todd Whitehead crafts great basketball analytics content for Synergy. He tried to approximate the most versatile scorers using Gini coefficients (see explanation below). Towns ranked as the league’s most versatile scorer using that process, meaning his scoring was most evenly distributed across Synergy’s 10 play types.

If you want to look at the numbers in a more traditional efficiency sense, Towns ranked second in the league in points per possession across all 10 of those play types combined, trailing only the back-to-back MVP.

Frustratingly, Towns registered the lowest number of possessions ending in a shot, foul or turnover among the league’s 10 most efficient players by this method. Simply put, the Wolves need to use Towns more as a scorer more than they do.

There’s no doubt Towns would’ve vault into the top spot this season had Finch converted more of his time on the block into being used as a shooter in off-ball actions that get him easier looks from deep. KAT shot only 4.9 3s per game this year, his lowest mark since 2018-19. Keep in mind that on Towns’ 60-point night, he posted up and got the ball just three times, and took 11 3s. It’s not an accident he got to 60 that way. Towns averaged 37 points across the four games this season in which he attempted at least 10 3s. Minnesota went 2-2 in those games, but Towns was a positive player in each game.

There is no reason a career 40% 3-point shooter on high volume shouldn’t be taking considerably more 3s. Trae Young, Devin Booker, Curry, LaVine, and CJ McCollum are all great examples of scorers who shot 38% or better this season, yet took at least seven 3s a night. KAT should be shooting closer to 10 3s per game than five. I do not care if that cuts into Edwards’ shots or D’Angelo Russell’s shots, or if that means KAT lets 20 shots fly per night. It needs to happen. He is so damn good from 3 and the Wolves need to lean into it as much as possible.

These actions are so simple and repeatable. It doesn’t matter if they become a more prominent aspect of other team’s scouting reports on the Wolves. Imagine teams scrambling to chase a 7-foot, 250-pound center around screens five-plus times per game.

That would only further unlock Towns as a driver and allow him to make simple reads against spread defenses in five-on-four or four-on-three/two playmaking situations.

Releasing After Screens

When I was watching film for the season review I wrote about D’Angelo Russell, something that stood out to me was how well KAT kept the spacing on the floor and found passing lanes after setting screens.

One play in particular really caught me eye. Here, KAT could easily dive behind Ja Morant for a layup, but instead flares out to try and get an easy look from 3 since Xavier Tillman Sr. has his back turned. It’s a win-win scenario, because he can either shoot a wide open 3, or wait for Tillman Sr. to close out and attack the paint on the drive, which is the look Towns would’ve had he just rolled hard to the middle of the floor initially. Maintaining that optionality is key and Towns is great at it.

As I wrote in the aforementioned piece, there is still plenty of room for Towns and Russell to grow as a two-man battery in the screen game. But, in order for that to happen, Towns has to set more screens for Russell; Minnesota went away from that far too much in the Memphis series for my liking.

Towns isn’t the same vertical, rim running threat that Russell has preferred to play with in PnR — such as Jarrett Allen during Russell’s time in Brooklyn — but Towns is incredibly skilled as a shooter on pops and both as a playmaker and scorer on the roll. Russell is more used to a player who just flies toward the basket after setting a screen. That’s part of the reason why he was so successful in PnR with Jarred Vanderbilt this season.

Much like a center fielder when a fly ball is hit, Towns’ first step after setting a screen is usually back, away from the basket. Personally, I enjoy this because it gives him an extra half second to read the defense. If the guard starts to get down hill and both defenders go with the guard, it’s a wide open 3; if Towns’ defender tries to take away the 3, he starts to roll into his guard’s passing lane and gets the ball in the middle of the floor.

A leaner, meaner Towns was fantastic once he caught the ball after setting a screen. Whether it was attacking off the dribble, posting in the mid-range, or firing a 3, it didn’t matter; he found ways to make defenses pay no matter how they played him in those actions, and it was a joy to watch.


Oklahoma City Thunder v Minnesota Timberwolves

Photo by Harrison Barden/Getty Images

Defense

The most important reason for the Timberwolves’ jump from 27th in 2020-21 (116.2 defensive rating) to 13th in 2021-22 (111.6) on the defensive end of the floor was deploying a scheme that empowers Towns to do what he’s best at: make plays.

Towns thrived in a much more aggressive defensive setting that saw him playing up at the level of the screen, as opposed to playing in a drop, for the first time in his seven-year career.

By no means is Towns a bad rim protector, but he is better suited to use his length out in the open floor, where his athleticism shines. The former Kentucky superstar struggled with timing and was rather reactionary in drop coverage; you could tell he was antsy in drop, just itching to get his hands on the ball.

He was able to do that much more in the high wall coverage, in which Towns set a career-high in deflections (136) and registered his best year in deflections per game (1.84) outside of his injury-shortened 2020 season. Unsurprisingly, Towns set a new career-best in steals (1.0) and still managed to record 1.1 blocks per game despite contesting by far his fewest shots per game in a season in his career (9.27).

The Timberwolves had a more even distribution of shot contesters this season, which was probably a good thing for helping to keep KAT out of foul trouble. He still had his fair share of unfortunate fouls — which reared their head at times in the play-in and playoffs — and his 3.6 fouls per game was similar to his last four seasons. But, Towns is much better at contesting shots in motion — either as a help defender or as a shot blocker trailing a drive — as opposed to doing so as a stationary drop defender. The high wall scheme more frequently places him in motion.

Towns is an excellent perimeter defender for his size, too. He was unafraid to switch out on defenders and put himself on an island if opposing offenses forced a switch. He held his own out there, too. After reviewing every iso KAT faced, it was pretty clear that his matchups found more success shooting step-back 3s than they did attacking him. He isn’t great at closing out on step-backs (and committed some fouls on jump shooters because of it), but was much better walling up drivers. Outside of those with great burst, isolators didn’t enjoy testing Towns off the dribble.

A thing to clean up here is obviously the number of fouls Towns commits that send him to the bench in foul trouble. Too often does he foul in the first quarter with one foul, second quarter with two fouls, etc. in order to prevent an easy bucket. Towns getting in foul trouble is worth far more than two points to the opponent. If Towns had more consistent focus on that fact, he would make an even more significant, positive impact on the Wolves’ record next season.


Minnesota Timberwolves v Dallas Mavericks

Photo by Ron Jenkins/Getty Images

Outside of his reactions to foul calls, which are unlikely to change despite some bright spots in the Memphis series, Towns needs to be better in the post.

Finch posted up Towns on 14.6% of the possessions the big man was used in the offensive action, but Towns shot only 52.5% in those situations and turned it over a career-worst 21.8% of the time he posted up. There is no reason for a player as talented as Towns to turn the ball over on the block more often than he draws a shooting foul.

Synergy this season had Towns at 3.2 post-ups per game that ended in a shot, foul or turnover. He ranked in the 49th percentile on those possessions, but that PPP number does not take into account the hundreds of wasted possessions the Wolves had this season during which they wasted a 10-15 seconds just trying to get the ball into Towns on the post. Whether that was on Russell for not entering it in or Towns not winning position quickly enough, it doesn’t matter.

This is a great example. The Wolves take their time getting up the court and use 13 seconds just to get in position and get Towns the ball. Towns then takes four seconds before doing anything decisive with the ball, fails to finish, and begs for a call that isn’t coming. Denver then flies up the floor in a four-on-three and gets an easy layup.

Most of Towns’ bad post-ups simply are a cause of him taking too long to get into his move(s) and failing to win the battle of physicality. Now that he is playing at a lower weight than when he was primarily a post-up player under Thibs, when Towns had his back to the basket more frequently, he is unable to consistently blend together his size, agility and athleticism the same way he can as a driver.

Now that Towns is consistently the primary concern of opposing defenses, he is seeing doubles at a higher rate. He has room to grow with making better, quicker decisions in those situations. He is most certainly capable of doing so, because he’s shown flashes of doing it, but that makes it more frustrating when he doesn’t.

Part of improving this is actually not on Towns. When Towns is doubled from the high side (away from the basket) consistently in a game, it’d be smart to just move away from post ups entirely. He’s better at passing against low doubles because it’s easier for him to see the floor and find safety valves. But when he does face the high X, utilizing Towns as a shooter and driver in those instances is the way to go. Some games won’t be favorable matchups for post-ups and that’s perfectly fine. Just don’t force it.

I can understand why Finch tries to force it on some occasions. Towns has produced more excellent seasons as a post-up player than poor ones. He was terrific in the post in each of his first four seasons.

Not to mention that Towns has exceptional touch around the rim, can face-up and attack from anywhere on the floor, and draws a good number of fouls in post-up situations, too. His highlight reel of good post-ups is extensive, too.

The keys moving forward for Towns will be body control and making quick decisions, both of which are 100% completely in his own control. He can improve if he works at them. Given how glaring those weaknesses were in high-leverage moments, I’d bet KAT comes back in September ready to prove he has a counter for the doubles.


2022 NBA Playoffs - Grizzlies v Timberwolves

Photo by Jordan Johnson/NBAE via Getty Images

I’m not sure if Devin Booker still plays in the summer runs that double team him constantly, but if they need another big man, Towns could fit in nicely.

It is hard to replicate the feeling of being doubled in the post in any other setting than live game action, even if it’s not full speed or against the same caliber defenders. Doing it consistently in that setting may actually help slow the game down for Towns and hasten his post decision-making.

Finding the setting to improve passing out of the post and making quick decisions against double teams should be atop his summer to-do list from a basketball perspective. Minnesota now has the weapons around him to space the floor in Russell, Edwards, McDaniels and Beasley, so tapping into his passing chops through a different medium will be pivotal.


Minnesota Timberwolves v Sacramento Kings

Photo by Rocky Widner/NBAE via Getty Images

The future is exceptionally bright for Karl-Anthony Towns in Minneapolis. He is the head of a very young, very exciting snake that will be, at full strength, a perennial playoff team moving forward.

The first step for him will be signing a four-year, $211 million supermax extension that kicks in for the 2024-25 season, meaning he would be signed with the Wolves for his prime, and through 2027-28, his age 32 season.

Anthony Edwards will be eligible for a five-year, rookie maximum extension after next season, which would keep him in Minnesota through the 2028-2029 season. The same goes for Edwards’ fellow 2020 draftee Jaden McDaniels, although a four-year extension for less than the max appears more likely for McDaniels at this stage.

However the extensions for Edwards and McDaniels shake out, the important thing is that the Wolves have a clear long-term core of highly skilled, dynamic, two-way players that have a mouth-watering ceiling as a collective. Russell could join those three as a long-term fit depending on how the chips fall over the next month, which would certainly be a welcomed addition at the right price, as he was largely fantastic this season.

How new President of Basketball Operations Tim Connelly works with his loaded front office to round out the roster beyond the team’s core of Towns, Edwards and McDaniels will be fascinating. With four picks and the full mid-level exception, Minnesota will have the flexibility to venture down several different roads to upgrade the roster.

Connelly has alluded to Towns having the skills to play the 4.

I’m not sold on the notion that potential defensive and rebounding upgrades will make up for a loss of spacing on the offensive end. Towns’ explosion as a driving big was a fun development that unlocked the league’s best offense over the second half of the season; introducing a bigger 5, even if that player is a rim-running 5, would cut into that.

I believe a bigger, physical 4 that can space the floor and rebound would work best next to Towns. But, those players come at a premium in the NBA and the options that may be available for the Wolves at No. 19 on draft night likely are not good enough to start on Day 1 for a playoff team.

We’ll know more about Finch and Connelly’s vision for Towns once they transactionally address whether they see KAT as a 4 or a 5 long-term.

Either way, the future in Minnesota legitimately does not have a ceiling and Towns is a driving force behind that. For years, Timberwolves fans have clamored for Towns to get some help. Now, they’ve shifted from dreaming about the playoffs to dreaming about hardware.

That shift isn’t possible without Karl-Anthony Towns.

Leave a Comment