As we reflect on their first matchup of the season, let’s take a quick look at how Karl-Anthony Towns and Nikola Jokic fair in a comparison against one another.
There has been a lot of angst among Wolves Nation this season when analyzing the team as every glimpse of optimism is trumped by an even more miserable loss. The process can be exhausting, as we all know.
But let’s step away from all of this stress for just a few minutes and analyze a unique matchup between two of the NBA’s best, albeit increasingly criticized, big men that we have the pleasure of watching this evening.
Why the comparison?
Karl-Anthony Towns and Nikola Jokic will forever be clumped together when categorizing the next wave of elite frontcourt players. There just aren’t a whole lot of people who are able to accomplish so many tasks on the offensive end of the floor while also being classified as a big man in today’s NBA.
They also have each seen their stars fade somewhat this season, with many analysts and writers focusing on their weak spots that need to be fixed now that the initial honeymoon phase is over (it really is remarkable how quickly players in the NBA can become stale talking points once the perception is that they aren’t immediately living up to their potential).
Each has the ability to execute post-up play extremely well. Both have shown the ability to consistently step out being the three-point line and punish opponents on a nightly basis. And each, in their own way, can make plays for their teammates and enhance the performances of the people around them.
However, the ways in which they do these things and the nuances that they incorporate into each of their respective games greatly differ. Let’s take a look:
Nikola Jokic is an absolutely captivating and uniquely gifted NBA big man. As a player who is distinctly limited when it comes to physical gifts, it is mesmerizing to watch him play, and many times dominate, in a league with so many athletic freaks.
Jokic is a Clydesdale living in a league of thoroughbreds, using calculated and efficient motions to outsmart and out-execute his opponents who many times are far superior in athleticism. Watching him play against your team is equal parts compelling and frustrating, as he carves apart defenses with nifty backdoor passes and plodding offensive movements.
His pure athletic gifts are so limited that when he jumps high enough to get toilet paper underneath his shoes, it prompts a raucous ovation from Nugget fans and teammates alike (only slightly kidding). This is what makes it even more amazing that he’s able to succeed at such a high level. Among all frontcourt players classified as a center, Jokic ranks in the top-10 in points, rebounds and assists.
His advanced metrics are equally impressive, as he currently is third in assist percentage and assist-to-turnover ratio among the same group of players.
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He plays with a sort of casual swagger that hypnotizes opponents into slumber, which he then capitalizes on by whipping an unexpected pass to a streaking teammate that few other NBA players would even attempt. His game is so effortless that it almost seems lazy, with lumbering motions around the court surrounding uniquely smooth post moves and silky touch from the outside.
With his aforementioned physical limitations, Jokic’s individual defensive ceiling is about the same height as an elf’s living room. His room for error is just too small that one misstep can lead to him being severely out of position, giving way to an easy basket for the opponent.
However, even with these limitations, his team defensive rating is 103.8. This means that the Nuggets are 3.5 points per possession better on the defensive end when Jokic is on the floor (Denver currently sits at a 107.3 defensive rating, 24th in the NBA). This is an encouraging sign for Nuggets fans, as Jokic has seemed to find a way to positively impact his team defensively, even as his natural restrictions make it increasingly difficult for him to do.
Towns’ public perception has seemed to take a nosedive thus far in the 2017-18 NBA season. His apparent stagnation on the defensive end of the floor, as well as his reduced statistical output, has given both the national and local media ammunition to pick apart his game.
The eye test leads viewers to drastically varying opinions on this generational talent. His game can be best described as amazingly coordinated flailing. Towns’ movements on the offensive end of the court many times look either herky-jerky or slightly out of control, only to end with a smooth jump hook or long euro-step giving the Timberwolves many made buckets.
On the defensive end of the court, Towns has yet to find the correct balance between over-exertion and underwhelming focus. On one possession, he can be found moving so quickly to alter a drive to the basket that he leaves his man completely alone for a simple drop off pass or an easy uncontested put-back slam. The next he will lose focus of his assignment and wander away from the guy he is guarding entirely, creating an easy basket for the opposing team and causing Tom Thibodeau pop multiple blood vessels in his infuriated face.
As far as stats go, Towns traditional splits don’t vary too much from his career averages. He’s averaging 20.5 points per game, while grabbing over 11 rebounds and dishing out 2 assists per contest. Also, more encouragingly, he is taking more three pointers (3.7 compared to 3.4 last year) and making them at the highest clip of his career (38.3%). The fact that all of those statistics don’t satiate fans appetites of what Towns should be just speaks to the incredibly high expectations he has created for himself over his young career.
The fact that both of these players will be compared against one another for years to come is both completely inevitable and somewhat misleading.
The debate of who is the better player is typically driven by Jokic’s unparalleled advanced offensive metrics during the 2016-17 season versus Towns reputation as the up-and-coming and once-in-a-generation big man who is the kryptonite of the NBA. Yet their games and skill sets drastically differ from one another.
Jokic is the player that contributes during games in a way that ensures his teammates will be put in the best place to succeed. His court vision and lust for making breathtaking passes through traffic in both half court and open floor situations makes him one of the most unique big men in the league. Think something along the lines of a Ricky Rubio type of player when it comes to basketball intelligence and understanding of game flow, but with a much more diverse scoring portfolio and playing the center position.
Towns is the player who thrives when searching for his own shot. Wolves color commentator Jim Petersen has stated on many occasions how KAT has the ability to make great passes when he wants to, its just that he has such a high level of confidence in his ability to score that his thirst for buckets outranks his passing instincts. Towns is the player who has the potential to score 50 points in every game he plays in, and do it in a variety of ways that makes him almost matchless when scouring the league.
I’ll admit that I am very much Team Towns, and that I don’t view this debate as particularly close. In watching games between Denver and Minnesota, it is very clear that KAT also hears these discussions and seems to take his matchup with Jokic personal. His drives to the lane are a little bit more ferocious. He seems to muster up more energy in his defensive assignments. Overall he appears to make it very clear that he wants the argument to be not who is the better player, but how much does Jokic have to improve on in order to catch up with him?
(And on Wednesday, in case you missed it, Towns put up 22 points, 10 rebounds, three steals, and two assists with only one turnover while Jokic scuffled to the tune of 22 points, six rebounds, four assists, two blocks, and a whopping, NBA-season-high, 10 turnovers.)
It always seems to create a fun matchup, which is something that fans have the privilege of looking forward to for years to come. It’s be a blast to see Towns try and answer every crafty Jokic assist with a thunderous slam on the other end, just as it’s enjoyable to see how Jokic attempts to counter Towns’ physical prowess with his smooth offensive repertoire.
It will likely be something that has major influence on the power balance of the Northwest Division for many seasons. And speaking for Wolves fans, I think we’ll take that.