Mike Gallagher

Offseason Beat

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Is Karl-Anthony Towns No. 1?

Tuesday, August 8, 2017


The top pick in any fantasy draft is a luxury and sometimes it can be a no-brainer. Fantasy baseball owners will take Mike Trout every time and most fantasy football people will grab David Johnson this year. In fantasy hoops, it’s a much tougher nut to crack and it has been for several years.

 

Last year, it was between Russell Westbrook, James Harden, Kevin Durant and Stephen Curry. Excluding KD's injury, you were happy with how each of those guys performed on a game-to-game basis. This year, you have all of those guys in the mix for the top pick yet again, but this time a couple up-and-coming stars made their claims to be the first pick overall in nine-category leagues.

 

To kick off this mini series, let’s make a case for Karl-Anthony Towns to go No. 1 in eight- and nine-category leagues. 

 

Before we even get to his tremendous skillset, his position is definitely a factor here. With more teams going smaller, the center spot has been as thin as ever. There’s a pretty decent drop off after the big eight centers come off the board (primary position of C): KAT, Nikola Jokic, Rudy Gobert, Myles Turner, DeMarcus Cousins, Hassan Whiteside, Brook Lopez and Marc Gasol. After those guys, you’re probably going to have to take a guy to make you punt FT%, a wild injury risk, a player with an unclear role, or a guy who could get rested late. If you don’t get one or two of those guys, you’re probably not going to be able to have the best-available approach in the later rounds. If you don’t believe me, do a mock draft with active owners, go without a center early, and see what happens.

 

Another part of Towns’ game that cannot be topped is how he hasn’t missed a single game in the last two seasons. Towns joins only Corey Brewer and teammate Gorgui Dieng as the only three players to log 82 games in each of the last two seasons. To take it a step further, KAT never even really gave us a scare with an injury. In fact, the Rotoworld database only has Towns going to the locker room just once in his NBA career back on Nov. 5, 2016 during the fourth quarter — he also made it back on the bench in a blowout loss to OKC that night.

 

When you think of a Rookie of the Year with this kind of durability, you have to think of Damian Lillard. In his first three years, Dame Dolla had as many platinum records as he did missed games (zero). Yeah, he did miss seven games in each of his last two years, but KAT has that same feel as a guy you know will give you 75-plus games. If you had to bet on a player to play in all 82, that list should start with the 2015 top pick.

 

Side note: I love Dame this year after he went No. 6 for post-break rank in nine-cat leagues.

 

Another awesome part about KAT is that he doesn’t really hurt you anywhere. Yeah his 2.6 turnovers per game won’t help, but two of the other No. 1 candidates had more than double that — Westbrook at 5.4, Harden at 5.7 — and Giannis Antetokounmpo posted 2.9 per outing. I will add that I’ll rarely care about turnovers during a draft.

 

If you care about percentages, KAT is your main man with only KD as his competition for that distinction. Last year, only DeAndre Jordan and Rudy Gobert were better for the FG% category than KAT’s 54.2 percent from the field at an 18.0 shots-per-game clip — volume is a huge factor on that, obviously. Plus, he was first among centers (primary position) for output in free throw percentage contribution while only Kevin Love topped him among PF/Cs — again, volume here. You absolutely shouldn’t punt any percentage with KAT because he’s too valuable there, but he does help you a lot with some of those below-average shooters.

 

As any DFS player will tell you, the most obvious part of KAT’s game is his massive double-double potential. After the break, he averaged 28.4 points and 13.4 rebounds, including one of the two 40-20 games last year when he dropped 40 points and 21 boards at Staples Center against the Lakers on Apr. 9 (Anthony Davis had the other on Mar. 11). The only players to score more total points after the break were Russell Westbrook and Damian Lillard topped KAT by just three points. Towns also came in at fourth for total rebounds and for rebounds per game. He’s still only going to be just 21 years old when the season starts. 

 

OK, let’s cover what could keep KAT down. One obvious concern for KAT is the impact of Jimmy Butler. While it is justified to think that because Butler tied KAT for minutes per game at 37.0 last year and with Jimmy also posting a career-high 26.5 usage rate, that usage rate still ranked just 37th in the NBA last year among qualifiers. That usage rate really isn’t a big deal and it’s not really a huge difference from Zach LaVine’s 21.8 usage rate. Which brings me to the next point.

 

When you look at KAT’s pre- and post-break splits, it’s natural to think that LaVine’s ACL tear on Feb. 3 is a reason why KAT bumped up his points per game by 4.7. As it turns out, it really wasn’t about the volume and it was more about the efficiency. With LaVine on the court last year, Towns only had a 58.4 true shooting percentage (TS%) to go with his 27.6 usage rate. Without LaVine, KAT’s TS% rose to a pristine 64.6 while his usage rate had a mild drop to 27.3 USG%. You could see why when you look at KAT’s shooting by distance on/off with LaVine:

 

He just mashed inside and was better almost everywhere. Basically, it’s all about KAT getting better in his second season. By the way, KAT actually had a better field goal percentage with LaVine before the ACL tear in February — only played 412 minutes before that injury.

 

While KAT’s overall usage and efficiency shouldn’t see much of a drop off, you can probably bet KAT’s late-game usage could suffer. Coach Tom Thibodeau said Jimmy Butler is “one of the best closers in the game.” He’s right.

 

Butler had a 41.3 usage rate in the clutch with an incredible 63.0 TS%. Defenses tighten up late, so that number is even better than it looks. Among the 24 players with at least a 33 usage rate and five total games of clutch time last season, Butler ranked second for TS% (Isaiah Thomas ranked first at 65.4). There’s really no reason to think Butler won’t be near 40 even on a more talented team, but that's OK because clutch minutes only accounted for 4.0 percent of KAT's minute total.

 

KAT actually wasn’t a “wow” clutch guy for both volume and efficiency last year, posting a 22.9 usage rate on a 53.5 TS%. As you may expect based on the numbers above, KAT was still really efficient in the second half of the season in the final 41 games with his outstanding 67.4 TS%. So, you’d think he would’ve had a high usage rate, right? Nope. Towns sat at just 23.0 in those 93 minutes. That’s because Andrew Wiggins was way up there at 39.3, but only made 49.9 TS% — this does not compute, by the way.

 

You would think the Wolves know this and try to get KAT the ball more late in games, and hopefully take the ball away from Wiggins. Still, that adjustment is probably not going to be enough to overcome Clutch Jimmy. We should still expect KAT to be close to 30 on usage rate in the clutch to go with outstanding efficiency.

 

Moving along, Towns did have a very respectable 2.7 assists per game last year. In fantasy, getting 10 assists from your center per week counts for something, and KAT did come in at sixth for total dimes among centers, and 11th among PF/Cs. That raises the question on if KAT’s dimes could go up or down with Ricky Rubio out, and Jimmy Butler and Jeff Teague in.

 

Towns did have a 1.1 assist percentage boost when he wasn’t with Rubio (812 minutes). To put that in simpler terms for his 37 minutes-per-game average, that puts him at 2.8 dimes per game without Rubio, and 2.6 with him. Although, remember that Rubio missed time earlier in the year before Towns truly broke out.

 

So what about Butler? Despite Jimmy’s outstanding season for scoring, efficiency and usage, he still didn’t hold the ball too often. He ranked 31st in the NBA for time of possession per game at 5.0 minutes, which doesn’t come close to Rubio’s sixth-ranked 7.5 minutes per game — Butler also played 4.1 more minutes per, as well.

 

Butler’s offense may even help KAT and it’s not a coincidence the Bulls had a 3.0 net rating with Jimmy and a -7.1 without him. Here’s a look at some of the net differences on TS% during the season for the other Bulls starters last year with Jimmy on the court (+ means it was better with Jimmy, - was better without him, and these are the playoff starters' stats for the regular season):

Player  
Rajon Rondo +7.3
Robin Lopez +3.3 
Nikola Mirotic +3.2 
Dwyane Wade +3.1 

If Jimmy can have that effect on KAT, it’s possible the big man could near 65 TS% and maybe even match his post-break 28 points per game with fewer possessions used.

 

Several All-Star bigs have a nice bump in scoring in their third seasons. Let’s take a look at the top scoring bigs regarding their jump in points per game and efficiency from their second to third season.

Player PPG FG%
Anthony Davis +3.6 +1.6
DeMarcus Cousins -1.0 +1.7
Blake Griffin -2.7 -1.1
Kevin Love +6.2 +2.0
Brook Lopez +1.6 -0.7
Marc Gasol -2.9 -5.4
Paul Millsap +5.4 +3.0

 Besides the small sample, there are obviously different circumstances here with some players getting extra talent next to them (Cousins), some players still being very raw at this time (Gasol and Millsap), and some in a near ideal role (Love and Davis). Based on what we saw last year, KAT should be in a great spot to be a plus on FG% and maybe even points with Jimmy still around.

 

OK, so that’s a lot to consider here, but the big question on KAT is if his improvement in his third season going to be enough to overcome Butler. Most importantly, KAT ranked first overall for both nine-cat value per game and for overall value during the 2017 portion of the season, so you could say he was firmly in the catbird seat to be the top pick before the Butler deal. Sure, adding Jimmy is slightly going to cap KAT’s upside, but you could definitely say the same for Paul George on Westy and Chris Paul on Harden.

 

For me, I’m taking KAT No. 1 in eight- and nine-cat leagues in both rotisserie and head-to-head formats.



Mike Gallagher has covered fantasy hoops for eight years and this season is his second with Rotoworld. You can find him on Twitter talking about a player's shots at the rim.



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