Before every game, those who run analytics for the Timberwolves hand interim coach Ryan Saunders one of a few reports. One is specifically related to Karl-Anthony Towns and how best for Towns to score, Saunders said.
Among the bullet points on this report: Where has Towns been most successful scoring against this opponent? From which block does he have an easier time scoring? How has Towns fared with certain defenders guarding him? Is Towns better off posting up or coming off a pick-and-roll?
“I do pay attention to them, and I do look at numbers before each game,” Saunders said.
In the second half of the season, Towns’ offensive numbers have been elite, Tuesday’s 6-for-17 shooting night against the Clippers notwithstanding. He is averaging 30.9 points since the All-Star break, second in the league. His performance has been one of the few reasons for fans to feel good amid a trying season. Towns has put himself in the conversation to pick up All-NBA honors, and if he does, he’ll see his five-year contract extension jump from around $158 million to $190 million.
One reason for Towns’ blossoming statistics could be Saunders’ nuanced and analytical take on getting Towns in the ball in productive spots on the floor. The Wolves also simply are featuring Towns more often.
Towns’ usage rate has increased from 26 percent under Tom Thibodeau to 30 percent under Saunders. That means when Towns is on the floor, 30 percent of the Wolves’ possessions result in a Towns shot, turnover or trip to the foul line.
“I think it’s just a different philosophy, a different strategy we’re using,” Towns said. “Just more usage for me. I’m getting a chance to be used more and just trying to make the most of it for my teammates.”
Towns is tied with Spurs forward LaMarcus Aldridge as the most frequently used player in the league in the post, averaging 12.5 touches per game. He takes 5.3 shot attempts per game following post-ups and shoots 52.3 percent off those touches, per NBA.com. His number of post-up touches increased from 11.4 per game under Thibodeau to 14 under Saunders, and his field-goal percentage off those touches has improved from 49.8 to 55.4. Towns is also taking more threes this season, up to 4.8 attempts per game from 3.5, and his percentage has fallen only a tick, from .421 to .412.
“Like any great player, whatever your strategy is, the end of the night when you look at the boxscore, he’s going to have a bunch of points and rebounds,” Warriors coach Steve Kerr said. “It’s about trying to make him work for everything, not fouling and not giving him easy stuff. … But you’re not going to win the boxscore against him. He’s too good.”
In post-up situations Towns might face a double-team, from different places on the floor. But Saunders said in general Towns has been navigating double teams better thanks in part to his ability to pass out of them, like when Towns palms the ball and fires a fastball to the opposite side of the floor out of a trap.
“He’s being more patient. I think he’s letting plays develop …” Saunders said. “We work on it in practice and shootarounds. When a team does trap from the baseline, here are your outlets. … He’s basically able like a quarterback to go through his progressions.”
But whether he’s getting the ball in the post, on a screen-and-roll or in transition at the top of the three-point line, Towns said he has no preference how the ball gets to him, saying he’s “comfortable when the ball touches my hand.”
As comfortable as he has ever been.