I had a really hard time deciding on what to write about Karl Towns. In my pieces on D’Angelo Russell and Jahlil Okafor I explained why they were both being unfairly discredited by many, but that isn’t the case with Towns. He’s not quite a consensus #1 pick, and he might not even go #1 overall, but almost everyone thinks he’s at least deserving of #1 pick status. In this case, I don’t feel the need to try and change anyone’s view because I basically agree, and also have Towns #1 on my board.
Even though I have him first, if anything, I feel the need to smear him more than anything because the hype is getting a bit out of hand. Towns is a great prospect, but he’s not miles ahead of Okafor or Russell. Towns is also not without flaws of his own. His agility in short areas isn’t great, his athleticism is somewhat overrated, his STL% is indicative of mediocre defensive instincts, he doesn’t have great fluidity or touch finishing, and his post game is stiff and needs a lot of developing for it to be effective in the NBA.
Towns biggest flaw is really that he’s not amazing at any one thing, and never profiles as a primary creator for an offense. However, that shouldn’t prevent him from being a potential star. Today’s NBA understands the importance of defense, floor spacing, and ball movement, and Towns could very realistically be great in all those areas. If so, Towns would absolutely be a star; Al Horford with more rim protection, a three-point shot and maybe even more off the bounce creating ability is absolutely a star in the modern NBA.
What makes Towns such a great prospect is his combination of upside and safety. Gleaning too much from workout videos is never a smart strategy, but just watch Towns workout, and it’s easy to see his upside. A true center who can hit threes, finish at the rim, put the ball on the floor, pass well, move well on defense, and protect the rim is an amazing player, and Towns could be one.
Towns also has great safety as a prospect. Looking back at my first piece on this site, Towns is a great example of what makes a prospect “safe”. Scouts universally consider him a top-2 talent, almost all draft models have him in their top-3, his tool package lacks any glaring flaw that would prevent him from fitting in the NBA, and he has no major off the court concerns. Checking all the boxes at a high level is a rare thing for a prospect to do, and what makes him so safe.
So, since basically everyone is in agreement on him being a great prospect, doing a deep scouting report on his game seems a little pointless. Towns is definitely deserving of the #1 pick, but I don’t see him as a true can’t miss tier 1 level prospect. Instead, in a second tier that Russell and Okafor also inhabit. They all are fine picks at #1 overall, but none is the type of can’t miss talent that there should be no argument about going first in the draft. To illustrate this point, I’m going to compare Towns to some of the more recent great big men prospects, trying to purely evaluate them from when they were coming into the NBA.
Karl Towns vs. Joel Embiid
Layne Vashro EWP/HUM average score: Towns–11.0, Embiid–9.3
Embiid is obviously the much riskier prospect of the two. His much higher TOV% indicates his more raw feel for the game, and the foot injury makes him a huge risk compared to Towns. I don’t know enough about Embiid’s medical situation to really evaluate it with any certainty, so for now the comparison is assuming health. Assuming health obviously means a lot with Embiid, but on the court Embiid is bigger physically, a better vertical athlete, and a more fluid post scorer with similar other strengths to Towns.
Towns 3-point stroke is probably better than Embiid’s, but Embiid projects as more of a true elite rim protector, and a potentially better scorer on the offensive end. If I was an actual NBA team I’d have to truly evaluate the injury risk, but I’m not, and I have a love for Embiid’s upside that Towns just cannot match. Worth noting, I would’ve taken Embiid first last year, even accounting for the injury.
Edge: Joel Embiid
Karl Towns vs. Nerlens Noel
Layne Vashro EWP/HUM average score: Towns–11.0, Noel–14.4
Noel was another injury risk due to coming off an ACL tear, but like Embiid, I would’ve taken Noel first in his respective draft. While scouts didn’t love him the way they love Towns, his score in Layne’s model is evidence of his truly incredible defensive statistics, and gives him an amount of upside scouts probably didn’t account for. Combining his defensive stats with his incredible quickness, instincts, and leaping ability, Noel honestly might be the best defensive prospect of the past 20 years. That statement probably strikes you as hyperbolic, but considering Noel just posted the single best DBPM for anyone aged 21 or younger ever, being the best defensive prospect of the last 20 years might be more plausible than most think.
This is a bit of a side note to looking at the prospects in hindsight, but in general Noel is just so underrated. I would be surprised if he doesn’t win at least one DPOY in his career, and though defense is consistently underrated by fans, he could very well be a true superstar based on his defense alone.
With all that being said, Noel is miles behind Towns as an offensive prospect, and Towns is a very good defensive prospect in his own right. Noel’s lack of good hands or shooting range really prevents him from ever profiling as more than an average offensive player, and Towns versatility ultimately gives him the edge between the two. Noel’s potentially transcendent defense shouldn’t be forgotten, and this head to head is much closer than many would expect.
Slight Edge: Karl Towns
Karl Towns vs. Anthony Davis
Layne Vashro EWP/HUM average score: Towns–11.0, Davis–16.6
This may be shocking news to you, but Anthony Davis was a really amazing prospect. From both a statistical and a scouting perspective, virtually everyone agreed that Anthony Davis was awesome. Other than a low usage rate on offense, it is hard to pick out any real flaw with Davis’s profile.
He was a destroyer on the defensive end with crazy length, athleticism, and instincts; arguably at the same level as Noel even. On offense, he was a great decision-maker who scored super efficiently around the basket with his soft touch and athletic ability, and he showed flashes of a dangerous jump shot. It isn’t really a knock on Towns to say he’s not at Davis’s level as a prospect, almost no one is.
Big Edge: Anthony Davis
Karl Towns vs. Demarcus Cousins
Layne Vashro EWP/HUM average score: Towns–11.0, Cousins–7.4
I never published anything online at the time so there’s no way to verify this, but I honestly did believe Cousins should’ve gone #1 or #2 overall in the 2010 draft. Despite not having the shot blocking skills of Towns, Cousins greater STL% suggest his superior instincts, and why he has managed to be a very good NBA defender when he’s actually trying.
Also, Cousins offensive game was at a level that Towns can’t really approach, scoring with similar efficiency on a much higher volume due to his coordination, ball handling, and strength. Towns is a very good rebounder in his own right, but Cousins absolutely killed the glass on both ends, especially the offensive side.
This one is really close, Cousins isn’t too far behind on defense, and his super strengths of rebounding and scoring are better than any one thing Towns does, but Towns superior fit on the offensive end helps a team in a way that Cousins can’t. The attitude concerns were (and are) a very big thing for Cousins, and factoring everything in I give the slightest of edges to Towns.
Slight Edge: Karl Towns
Wrapping up based on the different edges I gave them; the ranking would be Davis, Embiid, Towns, Noel, Cousins. Cousins has almost certainly outperformed his median projection as a prospect, even considering he deserved to be a #1 pick. We will see if Embiid, Towns, or Noel can surpass him, it’s probably not likely, but they’re all pretty special prospects in their own right. Cousins vs. Noel is a super interesting one, but Noel’s defense is definitely better than Cousins offense, and Noel’s offense isn’t too far behind Cousins defense, giving Noel a slight edge due to his completely outlier defensive talent.
Tier wise, Davis is clearly above the rest, and that’s not just acting in hindsight. He was almost as good an offensive prospect as anyone in this group with his efficiency and versatility, and almost as good a defender as anyone with his mobility and instincts. The rest of them are all packed pretty tightly in the same tier, with only Embiid maybe pushing into Davis’s tier just based on talent. It’s going to be a lot of fun to see how Noel, Embiid and Towns develop and realize how dumb this list will probably look in hindsight.