Analytics Art: Breaking down Towns’ rookie season in historic terms

By Ben Leibowitz, Special to NBA.com

The Minnesota Timberwolves haven’t made the playoffs since 2004 — a 12-season postseason drought that’s the longest active streak in the NBA. And yet, they’re one of the league’s most intriguing young teams.

They aren’t intriguing because of their 29-win campaign in 2015-16. And the intrigue isn’t due to slashing scorer Andrew Wiggins, nor because Tom Thibodeau was recently hired as the Wolves’ next coach and president of basketball operations. The key source of excitement in Minnesota lies in Kia Rookie of the Year winner Karl-Anthony Towns.

In a landscape where NBA bigs tend to adapt gradually to the pros — in order to put on weight, develop and hone their post moves, etc. — Towns hit the ground running. He started all 82 games as a 20-year-old, averaging 18.3 points, 10.5 rebounds, two assists and 1.7 blocks, all while shooting 54.2 percent and making 34.1 percent of his 3-pointers.

Despite his lack of experience, Towns was masterfully efficient from the field. His ability to knock down mid-range shots was particularly impressive. He shot 48.2 percent on shots around the free throw line and elbows — nearly 10 percent better than league average from that zone. He shot above 47 percent from each baseline spot as well, which was also superior to the league average.

So, how did Towns compare to his fellow rookies?

By a raw numbers perspective (average points, rebounds and assists), Towns finished comfortably ahead of the pack. Philadelphia 76ers center Jahlil Okafor, who was second by those combined stats, only played 53 games due to injury. Towns’ ability to stuff box scores was illustrated by his massive advantage in double-doubles over his fellow rookies.

Towns’ 51 double-doubles not only lapped the rookie field, but put him third in the league behind All-Stars Andre Drummond (66) and Russell Westbrook (54).

Towns exceeded lofty expectations as a scorer, rebounder, shot blocker and even as a passer. There’s clout to the argument that the youngster should make All-NBA Third Team at center as the workload Towns took on (and the stability he brought to the Timberwolves) put him clearly ahead in the eyes of voters.

All that said, how does Towns’ season compare to other legendary big men who were also ROY winners?

On a per-game basis, Towns’ numbers are closest to Derrick Coleman, the former top pick of the New Jersey Nets. A 6-foot-10, 230-pound lefty out of Syracuse, Coleman was selected one spot ahead of future Hall of Fame point guard Gary Payton in the 1990 NBA Draft.

Towns boasts a bigger frame (two inches taller and approximately 15 pounds heavier) than Coleman and he was a far more efficient rookie scorer than Coleman, too. Aside from those factors, this first-year comparison is rather fitting.

Both averaged around 18 points, 10 rebounds, two assists and more than one block. Coleman also shot about 34 percent from beyond the arc, though he did take 50 fewer 3-pointers as a rookie compared to Towns. Still, it’s fair to say Coleman was far from a post-bound center. He could step out and hit mid-range shots, just as Towns showed he was capable of doing.

If you narrow down the comparisons to stats per 36 minutes, however, a different narrative emerges.

Both David Robinson and Shaquille O’Neal are in a class of their own as dominant rookie big men by this measure, but Towns clearly falls into the second tier — along with Blake Griffin, Chris Webber and Tim Duncan.

Towns notched 20.6 points, 11.7 rebounds, 2.2 assists and 1.9 blocks per 36 minutes. Those figures are much more similar to Duncan than they are to Coleman, but Duncan went 0-of-10 on 3-pointers as a rookie and never developed that skill in his career. The latest No. 1 overall pick already has the ability to hit his 3-point tries.

Translation: Towns is going to be ridiculously good.

With the poise he showed as a rookie and the numbers putting him on par with guys like Duncan, Griffin and others, Minnesota has a bonafide star on its hands.

With those qualifying factors, Towns joins only Robinson and Duncan. How’s that for elite company?

This article was originally published on PointAfter, a partner of NBA.com.

Ben Leibowitz is a writer for PointAfter, a sports data aggregation and visualization website that’s part of the Graphiq network. Visit PointAfter to get all the information about NBA Players, NBA Historical Teams and dozens of other topics.

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