Written By Tim Faklis (ZoneCoverage.com)
Photo Provided by the Minnesota Timberwolves
Starting next season, Andrew Wiggins will be a max contract player. A year from that, Karl-Anthony Towns will join him.
Aside from being teammates, the pair has a lot in common. They were both No. 1 overall picks, they both have a Rookie of the Year trophy in their case and they both love video games — that last one matters less, probably.
Their pasts are already storied, and their contracts reflect that.
But in the grand scheme of everything, has their actually on-court NBA development justified the money they will be making? As of right now, that’s where the differences begin to set in.
Because when comparing the development of Towns and Wiggins, two very different tales are being told despite dollar amounts expected to sit in similar positions.
Before we break it all down, let’s look at some of the stats, comparing their rookie year to the year they just had. In other words, this is the progress they have made.
Before we get to Wiggins, let’s start with the player with the exclusively green line.
Towns had career highs in several categories and had one of the best shooting seasons in the history of the NBA — big man or not.
He and Larry Bird — in 1984-85 — are the only two players in NBA history to average over 20 points, 10 rebounds, shoot at least 50 percent from the field, 40 percent from 3-point range and 85 percent from the free-throw line.
KAT, meet Bird. pic.twitter.com/eIvxK526hC
— Timberwolves (@Timberwolves) April 12, 2018
This year, Towns proved that his floor — in other words, his worst-case “if healthy” scenario — will include elite offensive output, shooting and rebounding. He made his first All-Star game this year, even despite being the third-most used player on the team in field goal attempts — and when you count Derrick Rose, he was fifth in usage rate for the season, according to Basketball-Reference.com.
The question for Towns always revolved around his defense, and that was just as true as ever this season. His defensive real plus-minus — a flawed stat, a one that’s generally considered the most reliable individual defensive metric — has improved year by year, as has his overall net rating.
Part of that — for him and Wiggins — comes with the team he was on this year — adding Jimmy Butler, Jeff Teague and Taj Gibson gave the Wolves a chance to improve on both ends, and the scores were generally better when they were in the game. Towns played the majority of his minutes with those guys, boosting his on/off numbers whether he played well or not.
But for the majority of the time, Towns did play well. He evolved from an erratic defender often making the wrong decision to an inconsistent but improved defensive piece. That level of improvement might not be a sexy one, but it is a step in the right direction.
But what are the odds that Towns will ever become a true rim protector, thus allowing him to realistically join the ranks of two-way greats like Anthony Davis?
Typically, defensive stars look like defensive stars right out of the gate. When Davis was a rookie, the eye test told you everything you needed to know about his defensive future. He made more mistakes as a 19-year-old, sure, but it was clear that he was going to figure it out. The excitement he brought on the offensive end was exhilarating as the plays he would make defensively.
It was clear Davis was going to be a defensive stopper at a young age. It appears that Joel Embiid and Rudy Gobert will follow in his footsteps.
It would take a monumental leap of improvement for Towns to ever get to that level defensively. If that’s the case, the title for “best center in the NBA” will be tough for him to claim. But the offensive numbers he put up this year more than make up for those offensive shortcomings.
Earlier this week, the Timberwolves announced the firings of three members of their coaching and basketball staff. One of them was Vince Legarza, who has worked closely with Towns since he arrived in 2015-16.
But whether Legarza was directly responsible for any improvements or not, it’s been clear since Day 1 that Towns had this type of potential in him.
He might never become a two-way star, but he might already be the most versatile offensive big in the NBA. If that’s his floor, that’s a scary thought, and it’s plenty worthy of a max contract.
For that reason, he likely won’t have to meet with Wolves owner Glen Taylor before he signs his contract. Not like Wiggins.
For Wiggins, it’s a little tougher to find the positivity. There is some there, but it requires weeding through some of the more sobering parts of his development so far.
The worst of it: he has not improved offensively, and might have regressed this season in that regard.
While Towns steadily improved each part of his game in each of his first three seasons, Wiggins has charted scattered results. Now with four years under his belt, his best shooting season came in Year 2, his best passing year — according to assist percentage and turnover rate — came in Year 3 and his best defensive season came this year.
But if you’re a Wiggins optimist trying to find meaning behind his scattered results and non-linear improvement, the defensive strides this year matters.
Judging both in terms of statistics — defensive win shares, defensive real plus-minus and net rating — and the eye test, Wiggins improved defensively this year. He was more active, more aware, made better reads and generally looked better on the defensive end this year.
This was especially true through the second half of the season. While he struggled on James Harden in the postseason, the regular season sample size was kind to Wiggins.
And by that logic, that means all he needs to figure out is his offense. On one hand, that’s a tall task. He puts up plenty of points, but has yet to do so in an efficient manner. He’s improved his ball handling and passing, and his shooting form has always looked stellar, but he’s never been able to put it together.
Part of it is shot selection. In fact, most of it is shot selection.
According to NBA.com, 29.2 percent of Wiggins’ shots came from mid-range this season. And when looking at the shot zone for each spot on the floor in the mid-range, he shot below league average.
The areas that make the most sense for Wiggins to shoot from an efficiency standpoint — at the rim, in the corners and above the break — were the areas where he shot league average. But when looking at the spots on the floor where he took the majority of his shots — contested midrange jumpers and on the outer edges of the paint — he shot poorly.
A Wiggins optimist would have to hope that the defense he showed towards the end of the year was for real, and then he’d have to hope that Wiggins starts taking the shots he is best at taking. They would have to hope he stops taking contested — mostly fadeaway — midrange jumpers and focuses on attacking the paint, getting to the free throw line and setting up for 3 on plays from teammates.
If that all happens, Wiggins could end up making the max contract he signed last summer all worth it. But that’s a lot to ask, and his inconsistent progression makes it hard to feel confident in a leap taking place.
But that’s the difference between Wiggins and Towns. Both will be max players in the next couple years, but their situations going forward are entirely different. Towns’ floor is already at an elite level, while Wiggins still hasn’t found the best version of himself at the NBA level.
Either way, they’ll have plenty of time to figure it out together, for better or for worse.
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