Karl-Anthony Towns is, without question, running away with the NBA's 2016 Rookie of the Year race. He leads all current rookies in points, rebounds, player efficiency rating and win shares. He's second in blocks and box plus-minus (BPM), which measures how much better the average team is per 100 possessions with a given player on the floor.
So here's a real question: Has any Kentucky product ever balled this well, this quickly at the pro level?
TLDR: KAT's gonna have serious bragging rights when he goes back to Lexington for offseason pickup ball.
Separation from the Best
Eric Bledsoe. Devin Booker. DeMarcus Cousins. Anthony Davis. Alex Groza. Brandon Knight. Nerlens Noel. Rajon Rondo. John Wall. The list of Kentucky standouts who have managed to separate themselves at the NBA level is not short.
Ninety players who attended Kentucky have also gone on to play in the NBA. Of those 90, nearly 50 have logged at least 500 minutes during their rookie campaigns.
Not one of them posted a higher PER than Towns—including Davis, who owns one of the 25 highest first-year PERs in league history:
These numbers aren't available for players such as Groza, but Towns towers over his recorded competition. And he's doing it through more playing time than most of his Wildcats brethren, so his PER isn't receiving a boom from short-sample bursts.
Towns is on pace to log around 2,500 minutes with the Minnesota Timberwolves. Only four Kentucky prospects have crossed that threshold as rookies: Jamal Mashburn, Ron Mercer, Antoine Walker and Wall.
Towns arrived in Minnesota as one of the most polished offensive products Kentucky has sent to the NBA. He's shooting a ridiculous 48-plus percent between 16 feet and the three-point line, and already we're seeing signs of an exceptional passer:
No Wildcat has notched a better rookie offensive box plus-minus (OBPM) than Towns (1.7), and he's only the third player to tally an above-average BPM on both sides of the court overall, joining Derek Anderson and Davis.
Towns' seven win shares are already tops among Kentucky legacies. He has benefited from superior health, allowing him to drum up that total. But his win-share-per-48-minute splits are third when ranked against his college siblings and nearly identical to Davis' rookie average:
Sam Bowie is the lone player to receive more minutes than Towns as a rookie. But Towns will lead this group in total playing time when this season is over. That he's earned so much burn and still has a chance to be one of the top two or three per-minute win collectors is just absurd.
Hanging with the Big Boys
Pitting Towns against fellow bigs, as opposed to including guards and wings, doesn't weaken his case in the slightest.
Here's a look at some of Kentucky's high-profile behemoths and how their debut crusades stack up with Towns':
|Sam Bowie (1984-85)||29.2||10.0||57.8||8.6||2.8||0.7||2.7||14.8|
|DeMarcus Cousins (2010-11)||28.5||14.1||48.4||8.6||2.5||1.0||0.8||27.2|
|Anthony Davis (2012-13)||28.8||13.5||55.9||8.2||1.0||1.2||1.8||21.8|
|Karl-Anthony Towns (2015-16)||31.5||18.0||59.4||10.3||1.7||0.7||1.7||24.7|
There isn't anyone who produced at a level head-and-shoulders above Towns. And while his assist and block totals may at times pale in comparison to his cohorts, he's clearly the most efficient player of this small sector. His usage rate is second only to Cousins, and yet his true shooting percentage—which measures two-point, three-point and free-throw efficiency—topples over the rest.
Towns the rookie is, in many ways, already on par with his seasoned counterparts. Just look at how his efficiency in certain scoring situations measures up to present-day All-Stars Cousins and Davis:
Possession discrepancies do exist, and both Cousins and Davis are using more of their team's overall touches. But this is a rookie holding his own on offense against four- and six-year veteran stars, respectively.
On the defensive end, Towns is already an expert at policing the paint. His rotations around the rim are almost flawless, and he's Minnesota's lifeline when it gets caught in bad switches. He also has a knack for catching up to ball-handlers when the Timberwolves defense stumbles in transition:
Minnesota's wings are mostly terrible when it comes to getting over screens, and the team doesn't hesitate to switch Towns onto point guards. He has the lateral sharpness to cut off dribble penetration and the length to ward off any would-be open jumpers:
Opponents are shooting under 50 percent at the rim against Towns, and he's contesting more looks at the iron than Cousins and Davis. His defensive box plus-minus is significantly worse than both, and the Timberwolves are statistically stingier with him on the bench, but he's also a starter for the league's second-worst defense.
The individual groundwork has been laid, and that's more important. Towns is a two-way player—a schematic plus on both ends of the court, already worthy of being mentioned in the same breath as those much more experienced than himself.
Face for a New Era
Throw away the association to Kentucky, and Towns remains an absurdly talented youngster with career-long greatness in his sights.
His numbers are, as a rookie, the stuff of legends—quite literally, per ESPN Stats & Info:
Karl-Anthony Towns now has 4 career 30-pt, 10-reb games. In last 30 seasons, only Shaq, LeBron and Durant had more before 21st birthday— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) March 19, 2016
But just as the NBA has tried, and failed, to find a workable historical outline for Davis, Towns finds himself in uncharted territory. He's a big man who entered the league shooting threes and protecting the rim.
Not even Davis is an accurate comparison. Prior to being sidelined for the rest of this season, per ESPN.com's Justin Verrier, he only just started hoisting triples. He didn't make a single three during his first campaign; Towns has drilled more than 20.
Spreading the floor and acting as a secondary playmaker is Towns' normal. This is a 7-footer who won the Skills Challenge over All-Star Weekend—a contest once reserved for and subsequently dominated by guards and wings.
"They're on a really, really short list," New Orleans Pelicans head coach Alvin Gentry said of Davis and Towns, per Pelicans.com's Jim Eichenhofer. "If you're looking around our league now—obviously with LeBron [James]'s age, if you're starting a franchise [now], that may be a little bit different [than several years ago], but those two guys are two of the best players in the league right now, as a 22-year-old and a 20-year-old."
Towns has earned this status; he deserves to be placed beside Davis already. He is the most productive rookie Kentucky has ever sent to the pros.
More than that, as one of the architects of a new play style for bigs like himself and Davis, Towns is the most important rookie the school has ever delivered.
Dan Favale covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter @danfavale.