Who Ya Got: Karl-Anthony Towns or Anthony Davis?
Picking between Anthony Davis and Karl-Anthony Towns verges on an unfair process.
"Why choose?" you might ask. "Can you really go wrong?"
Yes and no.
Davis and Towns both sit among the NBA's best under-25 building blocks. You can count the players you'd trade either for on one hand, and the New Orleans Pelicans and Minnesota Timberwolves, respectively, are beyond lucky to have them.
But transcendent cornerstones are not automatically on equal ground because of the coveted status they hold. One option is always better than the other, both immediately and down the road. Pitting Davis and Towns against each other is a one-percenter's errand, but the cachet both now ferry makes this a riveting and relevant debate all the same.
As with all of these bar-stool deliberations, the intention is not to make sweeping declarations relative to the rest of the league. We're merely poring over the resumes and play styles of two stars in search of the better option between them.
Anthony Davis. Karl-Anthony Towns. Who ya got entering 2017-18 and for the foreseabble future?
Eye tests and certain statistical barometers don't do Davis any favors here. Towns has more polish to his offensive game in a vacuum. His footwork from the blocks inward is nearly flawless, and he blends brute force with uncanny finesse and floor awareness.
His hook shots are already a deadly weapon from either side; he shot 60 percent on 210 such looks as a sophomore—a sophomore. He mixes in turnarounds, spin cycles, directional dribbles and plain backdowns, forever keeping the defense in limbo, somewhere between frantic collapsing and idle helplessness.
Davis doesn't employ the same vast bag of tricks. His hook attempts seem more like fadeaway push shots. He put down 52 percent of those looks last season, but the Pelicans don't use him in the same vein. His interior game is based almost solely upon length—and controlled chaos off the dribble—rather than footwork, timing and strength.
Towns has added far more value as a post-up option in each of his first two campaigns, according to NBA Math's Play-Type Profiles—a noticeable advantage he's unlikely to relinquish with New Orleans' back-to-the-basket sets now also tied to DeMarcus Cousins. But this result is more stylistic divergence than telltale superiority.
Davis essentially functions like a wing. He relies on a heavier dose of drives and pull-ups. Though Towns has shown he's more than willing to put the ball on the floor, he needs a pump fake or over-aggressive close-out to maximize his attack. Davis can get by on his first step alone, with an off-the-bounce stride that bears more resemblance to Giannis Antetokounmpo or Kevin Durant than a skyscraper.
Among the 270 players to chew through at least 50 drives in 2016-17, Davis placed second in points per attack, trailing only Durant. And his efficiency is not buoyed by scant volume; he averaged more drives per game than Danilo Gallinari.
Pull-up jumpers aren't necessarily Davis' forte, but they've become a necessary part of his game as New Orleans searches for surrounding creators. Where Towns shot 35.7 percent on 1.2 stop-and-pops per contest, Davis put down 42.7 percent of his 4.5 looks—accuracy and frequency that outpaced shooting specialists like Avery Bradley, Khris Middleton and Klay Thompson.
Noticeably more refined post moves and viable dribble attacks keep Towns on Davis' plane. But the latter's usage is higher (32.6 last year to Towns' 27.5), and he's never had a Zach LaVine or Andrew Wiggins to leverage against his moves.
Plus, it says a lot about the difficulty of Davis' role that his average shot distance (10.6) dwarfed Towns' (9.7) despite attempting roughly half as many three-pointers. As of now, given a choice between these two, he's the one you choose to manufacture shots from scratch.
Verdict: Davis (by a hair)
To the above-average shooter goes the spoils.
Stretching the floor past the three-point line wasn't a non-negotiable prerequisite for bigs when Davis entered the league, but his journey beyond the arc hasn't gone especially well since. He's two seasons into his gradual progression, over which time he's 75-of-242 from long range (31 percent).
Towns has enjoyed a smoother dive into the deep end. He jacked just eight threes during his lone crusade at Kentucky but is shooting 131-of-363 (36.1 percent) from outside after two seasons with the Timberwolves—giving him more makes than Davis has amassed through his first five years.
Both players saw around one-quarter of their looks in 2016-17 come off the catch, and neither is a high-usage spot-up sniper. But Towns' effective field-goal percentage from the standstill position (55.6) rates significantly higher than Davis' mark (45.3).
Turn the clock back to 2015-16, and the gap between the two isn't so stark. Give Davis a full year beside Cousins and Jrue Holiday, and he should be a more efficient—and higher volume—catch-and-fire option. Really, he has no choice.
No clear victor emerges when looking at dives out of the pick-and-roll. Towns struggled to finish in those situations as a rookie but rebounded as a second-year contributor, piling on more points per possession than his counterpart off screens and as the roll man while basically matching his potency as a cutter.
Davis once again wins the volume battle. He saw more touches per game in every play type, and his efficiency figures to skyrocket if and when the Pelicans deploy the marksmen necessary to forge breathing room down the middle.
Still, their usage in these instances last year is comparable. And with Towns serving as the more reliable long-distance spotter, he checks in as the better off-ball weapon.
Good luck rendering a verdict on this one now, or even by the end of next season.
Neither skyscraper is known for his passing abilities. Towns is averaging more assists per 36 minutes (2.4) for his career, but Davis (1.8) has improved as a distributor despite routinely being hampered by an uninspiring supporting cast.
Dig a little deeper, and a clear winner still fails to emerge.
Towns generated more points per game off dimes last season, but the difference is negligible (6.2 to 5.2). He's the more frequent passer out of the post and on drives, but his assist rates hardly reflect as much, and New Orleans' recent dearth of dependable shooters has left Davis to focus on scoring and drawing fouls.
Deferring is easier with higher-grade threats around you. The Timberwolves didn't shoot as much—or as well—as the Pelicans from behind the rainbow, but they were able to have three shooters orbit Towns at every turn. New Orleans battled more congested floor balance.
Cutters went too early, creating inadvertent pileups in the lanes, or only two legitimate spot-up options were on the court at a time. Davis also didn't have the luxury of dumping entry passes into Wiggins or Shabazz Muhammad. That context matters, as Kyle Howard wrote for Hashtag Basketball in February:
"It's key to remember that no matter how good of a passer someone is, they cannot physically put the ball in the hoop for their teammates. When reviewing the numbers, it seems clear that Davis' teammates are the reason for his low assist totals.
"Take post-ups for example. Davis himself is in the 58th percentile on scoring opportunities in the post. However, when only passes out of the post are accounted for, he drops all the way to the 34th percentile. When he passes it to a cutter, that number once again drops, all the way to the 13th percentile."
Spending more time next to Cousins, Holiday and even Rajon Rondo could enhance Davis' passing out of double-teams and on the move. Or this influx of ball-handlers could act as a permanent cap on his ceiling. The same goes for Towns while running with Wiggins, Jimmy Butler and Jeff Teague.
For now, even with some of the metrics tilting toward Minnesota's tower, this race is too close to call.
Some of Towns' defensive warts are overblown.
Missed rotations, shot-swatting scavenger hunts, transition collapses and late-possession breakdowns are scattered throughout his body of work, but he's getting better. He's already a good defensive rebounder and better post stopper than Davis, while his reads in space and against pick-and-roll divers are on the come-up.
And let's not forget: Minnesota wrapped 2016-17 as the NBA's youngest team. Towns is a kid among toddlers. Everyone else around him, up until now, has been developing on the defensive end. That both extends and complicates the learning process.
"Oftentimes it is a lack of communication," Timberwolves head coach Tom Thibodeau told the MinnPost's Britt Robinson in February. "Or it is back-pedaling instead of sprinting back and turning. To be honest, we have probably worked on defensive transition here more than I have with any other team."
Grading Towns on a curve, though, doesn't help. Davis is too damn good.
Last year's ninth-best defense played like a top-five fortress with him in the lineup, and he added average or above-average value to every play type except guarding pick-and-roll ball-handlers, according to NBA Math. He polices passing lanes like a wing and uses his length to break up plays from a stationary position.
Additional perimeter assignments and more aggressive ball denials eat into his block totals, but he can still swallow attempts at the rim. Relative to the expected value of a shot around the hoop last season, Davis saved the Pelicans 37.5 points when contesting chip-in opportunities—more than twice what Towns did for the Timberwolves (16.8).
Remaining even half-stingy at the rim is difficult when wearing so many hats. Plenty of other players challenged more close-range shooters, but only one joined Davis in pestering more than nine two-pointers, hassling more than three triples and racking up more than two deflections per game: Defensive Player of the Year Draymond Green.
In an era dominated by wings masquerading as bigs, Davis flips the script—a tower who fuses the responsibilities of Rudy Gobert with those of Antetokounmpo rather than the other way around.
The styles for both these players feel a little underappreciated at the moment.
Infatuations with Davis' improvisation have faded in time. He's been in the league for a half-decade. Bigs who do funky things with the ball are not just rampant, but they shoot threes. Truer wings are taking over the Association. The Pelicans have enjoyed fleeting, and minimal, success. Past injuries have taught us to approach his standing among other superstars with a spoonful of suspicion.
So many factors are at play. But his tenure and a shifting skill-set landscape should not detract from the way he plays. He is uniquely built to survive, and thrive, in whatever personnel movement the NBA sires next.
He is not straddling the line between wings and bigs. He is that line. And if he ever incorporates a consistent three-point touch or gets to lead more end-to-end breaks, Antetokounmpo and Kawhi Leonard won't be so comfortably positioned to receive LeBron James' best-player torch.
The nuances of Towns' game fall even further by the wayside. He is looped into a broader discussion beside other contemporary bigs who began their careers around the same time (Joel Embiid, Nikola Jokic, Kristaps Porzingis and Myles Turner).
In many ways, though, Towns is the most important billboard of them all. He represents the cross section of traditional size and strength and voguish range—that territory where Jahlil Okafor's antiquated arsenal collides with Porzingis' ultramodern armory. (Embiid might grow into this token if he remains healthy enough; Jokic needs to display more defensive switchability before doing the same.)
Don't bother parsing historical ranks for a clear-cut answer. Davis and Towns are both all-timers at this stage of their development.
Towns is the only player to clear 3,000 points, 1,500 rebounds, 200 blocks and 100 made threes by the end of his sophomore season. Hakeem Olajuwon (five) is the only player to average at least 20 points, 10 rebounds, one steal and two blocks more times than Davis (four) over the first five years of his career.
Who Ya Got?
The hedging ends here. Davis is the choice.
Towns gives the four-time All-Star a serious scare for a third-year product. That we're posing this question in the first place is a feat by itself. Average out his catch-all metrics, and he profiles as a top-25 player with the tools and timeline to climb higher—so much higher—before the end of 2017-18.
Davis is just better.
Look at his stat ranks from this past year, with Towns' place in parenthesis:
- Player Efficiency Rating: 4 (11)
- ESPN's Real-Plus Minus: 17 (51)
- NBA Math's Total Points Added: 22 (13)
- Value Over Replacement: 22 (12)
Mash these standings together, and Davis secures an average finish under 17, ahead of Towns' sub-22 mean.
Again: Towns is younger. He has less experience. He's only going to get better. But Davis hasn't yet reached his peak, and this recent infusion of megastar bigs is not license to forget how friggin' good he's already become.
Maybe Towns eventually leapfrogs him. But if he does, it won't be next season.
And given the premium placed on wings these days, along with Davis' singular ability to draw that line between two worlds, Towns may never pass him at all.
Final Verdict: Davis