Towns, Giannis, Embiid or Porzingis: Who Ya Got as Best Young Cornerstone?
You know how it goes. It's mid-August. You're gathered around a table, bar or campfire, shooting the breeze, having a few cocktails or roasting some marshmallows. Then, silence strikes, only to be broken a moment later by the brave soul willing to ask the question you've all been dancing around the entire time.
Who ya got?
This question is not an easy one. They're all young studs. You can't go wrong.
Except, you can.
After taking into account everything we've seen from each cornerstone—with 2016-17 serving as the strongest reference point—a correct answer emerges.
(Note: This discussion pertains to just these four players. Nikola Jokic would be in the discussion if this was a "The Best Cornerstones, Period" dive. It's not. As with all editions of B/R's "Who Ya Got?" series, the conversation was isolated to a specific set of players. The "Kevin Durant vs. Kawhi Leonard" debate, for instance, does not mean LeBron James is nonexistent.)
The Case for Giannis Antetokounmpo
2016-17 Per-Game Stats: 22.9 points, 8.8 rebounds, 5.4 assists, 1.6 steals, 1.9 blocks, 52.1 percent shooting
Giannis Antetokounmpo's 2016-17 detonation represented everything Most Improved Player campaigns are supposed to epitomize: a player moving beyond potential into stardom. But it also stood for something more, something bigger—something these splash landings don't have to be, and seldom are:
The arrival of a top-10 player and Hall of Fame talent, beyond dispute, whose skill set is so vast and unique it may never be fully appreciated or understood.
Antetokounmpo led the Milwaukee Bucks in all five major stat categories, becoming the fifth player overall to do so, and the first since LeBron James in 2008-09. He also finished inside the top 20 of the league in total points, rebounds, assists, steals and blocks. No player, not even James himself, has done that before.
As Bleacher Report's Adam Fromal wrote of Antetokounmpo's per-game lines while pegging him as the Association's seventh-best player last season: "Using the closest comparisons, this means Antetokounmpo scores like CJ McCollum, rebounds like LeBron James, dishes out dimes like Kemba Walker, records steals like Tony Allen and swats shots like Kristaps Porzingis."
With the effective field-goal percentage (54.1) of Kawhi Leonard.
All without an established three-point shot.
Outside shooting remains the lone hole in Antetokounmpo's game. And it's not so much a hole as a tiny crack. He reaches the rim with his long strides so much it doesn't matter. No one averaged more shots in the restricted area last season, and he drilled juuust enough of his wide-open triples to keep defenses half-honest (33.3 percent)
Plus, he knows the deep ball is his weakness and, as of December, had plans to work out the kinks over the summer. In the meantime, he's a top-10 superstar anyway. Imagine what'll happen if and when he's even an average shooter from beyond the arc.
The Case for Joel Embiid
2016-17 Per-Game Stats: 20.2 points, 7.8 rebounds, 2.1 assists, 0.9 steals, 2.5 blocks, 46.6 percent shooting
Thirty-one appearances through three seasons is nowhere near enough to establish yourself as a franchise cornerstone.
Unless you're Joel Embiid.
Health remains the 7-footer's only drawback—which is a big deal. Foot issues tethered him to the sidelines for his first two years, and a sore left knee turned into a torn meniscus that required surgery and ended a magical, if improbable, NBA debut.
Teams cannot overlook so many absences. This includes the Philadelphia 76ers. Embiid hasn't yet played a half-season, and he's already extension-eligible. Treating him as your foundational building block comes with incomprehensible risk.
But the reward, from what we've seen so far, trumps those perils and pitfalls.
Embiid emerged from his injury-plagued hibernation last season as the unicorn the NBA didn't know it employed. He wasn't just a silhouette of Hakeem Olajuwon in the right light. He could shoot threes. He could switch across multiple assignments on defense. He swallowed shots at the rim.
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar is the only other player to ever tally at least 25 points, 10 rebounds, three assists and three blocks per 36 minutes. Not rookie. Player, bar none.
Rim protectors, on average, let up 1.07 points per contested shot around the basket in 2016-17. Embiid allowed roughly 0.82 points per attempt—a difference of 0.25. So, relative to the league average, he saved nearly 61 points at the iron when taking into account the 240 attempts he challenged—ninth-most in the league. In. 31. Games.
Prorate that number to reflect a full 82 games, and Embiid saved points at the rim with top-two effectiveness, trailing only league-leader Rudy Gobert.
The coup de grace: Philadelphia outscored opponents by 3.2 points per 100 possessions with Embiid on the floor. That net rating is nearly identical to the season-long mark for the Boston Celtics (plus-3.1), who finished with an Eastern Conference-best 53 wins.
The Case for Kristaps Porzingis
2016-17 Per-Game Stats: 18.1 points, 7.2 rebounds, 1.5 assists, 0.7 steals, 2.0 blocks, 45.0 percent shooting
Some of Kristaps Porzingis' luster has worn off amid the New York Knicks' inability to stick with a direction. It also doesn't help that they continue to slot him at the wrong position. About 75 percent of his career minutes have come at power forward, when really, he should be jumping center.
Positional designations are increasingly meaningless, but they still hold weight when you're a 7'3" skyscraper tasked with, at times, chasing around glorified wings. Porzingis' performance in spite of this misuse factors into his charm, though.
Technically, at his height, he shouldn't be a patented offensive mismatch when playing the 4. But he remains a nightmare. He has the handle to put the ball on the floor, even if his drives can be uncoordinated, and the fluidity with which he rises and fires off the dribble defies his length.
It should take him longer to gather himself. His release should look awkward. Jagged. Something. Instead, he rates as the most efficient pull-up shooter among this quartet. His average shot distance, at 14.1 feet last season, also dwarfs that from his peers. Embiid has the second-highest mark, at 11.2 feet.
Phil Jackson is no doubt still cringing at this perimeter reliance, but the value in constantly stretching defenses wafer thin, even when you're playing the wrong position, cannot be overestimated. Nor can Porzingis' own defensive stands.
Most critiques focus on his issues when guarding in space. Well, players his size aren't supposed to be stranded on islands as often as him. The Knicks' turnstile factory forces him into multipurpose roles that transcend his job description.
No one else from this list combined to defend as many pick-and-roll ball-handler, roll-men, spot-up and isolation possessions per game last year. Porzingis was far from the most prolific stopper in these categories, but spreading himself across so many different play types is a feat unto itself.
What's more, he hasn't lost his appeal as a traditional rim protector. He placed third in total points saved at the basket as a sophomore, ceding status only to Gobert and Draymond Green.
It's like Ethan Sherwood Strauss, then of ESPN.com, tweeted back in 2015: "The Knicks really drafted a guy with 'If Dirk could win DPOY' potential."
The Case for Karl-Anthony Towns
2016-17 Per-Game Stats: 25.1 points, 12.3 rebounds, 2.7 assists, 0.7 steals, 1.3 blocks, 54.2 percent shooting
Karl-Anthony Towns' sophomore crusade ended up getting lost somewhere between Antetokounmpo's dominance, Embiid's feel-good debut and the Minnesota Timberwolves' disappointing 31-win campaign.
Talk about criminally unfair.
Towns made strides in almost area of the game. He was devastating out of the pick-and-roll. He improved his three-point clip while upping his volume. He graded out as one of the five most efficient higher-usage post-up scorers. His entire defensive approach needs work, but he's a better switcher than advertised and already a convincing glass-crasher and vertical rim protector.
Skeptics will use the Timberwolves' suboptimal showing last year to detract something, anything, from Towns' efforts. By individual catch-all measures, though, he's verging on a top-25 player.
Squish those rankings together, and Towns posts an average finish of under 22. No, this doesn't lead the field. Antetokounmpo notches a ninth-place average (which, whoa). But flirting with, and perhaps capturing, top-25 status is pretty good when you haven't even played three seasons.
Really damn good, in fact.
The Verdict: Giannis Antetokounmpo
Antetokounmpo wins out here by a fairly comfortable margin.
Embiid deserves to be mentioned in this discussion, but picking anyone who has appeared in only 31 games entering his fourth season is irresponsible. His case strengthens tenfold if he finishes next year in one piece.
Porzingis hasn't received nearly enough—or any—time as the Knicks' focal point. They watered down his sophomore march by deploying both Carmelo Anthony and Derrick Rose while also playing him out of position. Porzingis-plus-bench units gave a nice glimpse into his ceiling as an alpha, but he saw fewer than 350 minutes of pure solo time.
Towns has the second-strongest argument of the foursome. Durability vaults him past Embiid by default, and he's thus far proved to be a more efficient scorer than Porzingis, despite slightly heavier usage. Towns doesn't have the defensive edge, but his rim protection will come, and he's by far the superior rebounder.
None of which matters. The ultimate outcome won't change. The NBA is a do-everything wing's league now. Antetokounmpo encapsulates that more than anyone. He melds the defensive versatility found in wings with the attack mode of a guard and the reach of a big.
If not for his work-in-progress jumper, Antetokounmpo would be the full-tilt hybrid of Durant and Green—a player without any real weakness. In some ways, given the offensive credentials he's collected while working around his outside limitations, he's already that player.
Whatever he is, the Association hasn't seen it before. Maybe the NBA Finals, lead-my-team-in-every-stat version of LeBron James. That particular locked-in adaptation of the four-time MVP is similarly indescribable.
And, incidentally, Antetokounmpo is as well-positioned as anyone to inherit James' throne as the league's best player—a distinction that doesn't, and may never, belong to any of his three peers.