A lot has changed for the New York Knicks and the Minnesota Timberwolves over the last six months, as they have gone from having the two worst records in the league to having two of the most promising rookies to enter the league in a long time. Karl-Anthony Towns was the consensus top prospect in the draft while Kristaps Porzingis was seen as a project but they have been in a neck-and-neck race for Rookie of the Year. They met for the first time on Wednesday in what could be the start of an individual rivalry that could one day compare to LeBron James vs. Carmelo Anthony.
The Knicks won the game 107-102 but the story of the night was Towns vs. Porzingis. They are different players with different backgrounds and different strengths and weaknesses but what’s really striking about them at this stage in their careers are the similarities in their games - they are both seven-foot-plus, who can play inside and out on both sides of the ball, they are both long and athletic enough to play above the rim and guard on the perimeter and they are both capable of shooting 3’s, putting the ball on the floor and making plays for others. In other words, they represent the next stage in the evolution of the game.
Towns came out of the gate playing a little too aggressively and looking to do a little too much, perhaps because he was eager to make an impression against a guy who gets more publicity because he plays in New York City as opposed to Minnesota or maybe because he grew up in New Jersey and was playing in front of friends and family. It took him a little while to settle down but he eventually made his mark with 25 points and 10 rebounds on 21 shots.
Porzingis made most of his impact on the defensive side of the ball, where his ability to protect the rim stifled the Timberwolves offense in the first half and ignited the Knicks break, helping New York to get out to a 20-point halftime lead. And while he had a down night on offense, his ability to shoot 3’s still opened up the floor for the rest of the Knicks. He finished with 11 points, 6 rebounds, 3 assists and 7 blocks on 14 shots.
The ironic part is that Towns came into the game blocking more shots per game while Porzingis was known as the better shooter and they both ended up out-playing the other on their preferred end of the floor. Porzingis looked like Rudy Gobert in the first half, controlling the area above the front of the rim and repeatedly swatting away Andrew Wiggins and Shabazz Muhammad. Towns got the memo in the second half, stepping out on the perimeter and knocking down 2-4 from 3.
The biggest edge Towns has over Porzingis is that he is much thicker and more physically developed. At 7’0 250 with a 7’3 wingspan, Towns is a teenager with the body of a grown man and he’s not afraid to use his bulk to bang with veteran big men like Robin Lopez on both sides of the ball. After playing a year under John Calipari at Kentucky where he was forced to stay in the post, Towns has a back-to-the-basket game that is mature beyond his years and his jump-hook is already a legitimate weapon that forces opposing teams to double him when he sets up too close to the basket.
The biggest edge Porzingis has over Towns is his preposterous amount of length. At 7’3 240 with a 7’6 wingspan, Porzingis is one of the longest players in the NBA and he’s extremely mobile and coordinated for a guy who is in the upper 1% of the league in terms of physical dimensions. He can just put his hands straight up in the air and protect the rim while Towns has to be more proactive in terms of positioning himself and reading opposing players.
Towns is more polished on the offensive side of the ball, which became clear as Porzingis struggled from deep (1-6) on Wednesday. Porzingis isn’t much of a threat as a shot-creator when his jumper isn’t going in while Towns can supplement his jumper by playing with his back to the basket or facing up from 20+ feet and driving the ball all the way to the rim. Porzingis length means he can almost always get a good look off but sometimes he falls in love with the outside shot and he has to get stronger to be more effective making shots in the paint.
It’s not always obvious in their assist totals but the intriguing thing about both guys is how comfortable they are with the ball in their hands looking to create shots for other players. Most 7’0 come into the league with the mindset of catch the ball then dunk the ball but Towns and Porzingis are heady players who know how to read the defense and find the open man. As they become more featured players in the offense as the years go by, expect both of these guys to be threading passes to teammates and serving as initiators from the high post and the low post.
On the defensive side of the ball, the most intriguing part of their games is that they project as guys who can guard 25+ feet from the rim just as well as they can the front of the rim. It’s no longer enough for big men in the modern NBA to be able to protect the paint - with the league trending towards small-ball and spreading the floor with shooters, 7’0 have to be able to guard the pick-and-roll and move their feet in space. To put it another way, Towns and Porzingis should be able to stay on the floor when they face teams like the Golden State Warriors.
Put it all together and there just aren’t that many holes in either one of their games, which is a pretty crazy thing to say about two 7’0 who aren’t old enough to drink in the US. That’s why they have been able to step in right away and play big minutes on teams who are still in the playoff race and that’s why they have both been huge parts of their teams getting out of the basement. When you add a 7’0 who can be an impact player on both sides of the ball and has the versatility to play at either the 5 or the 4, you are going to be a significantly better team, no matter how old they are.
The positional responsibilities for each guy are a little murky and it’s more helpful to think of it as they each start the game playing with another 7’0 - Kevin Garnett (or Gorgui Dieng) for Towns and Robin Lopez for Porzingis. Towns plays as more of a 5 and Porzingis plays as more of a 4 but they slide between both frontcourt positions over the course of a game. They play for old-school front offices who like super-sized front-lines so you don’t see them playing as small-ball 5’s next to 4 wings as much as you would for more progressive teams.
The way that Porzingis and Towns can play inside and out as 5’s certainly seems like the pendulum swinging back the other way against the small-ball revolution and the ultimate counter to the Warriors 5-out attacks. However, it’s hard to watch them play against each other and not wonder what they could do playing with each other. If you could put two 7’0 this versatile together, you would have all the strengths of a 3-out team on defense and all the strengths of a 5-out team on offense.
For the most part, pairing two big men together is a fool’s errand in the modern game. The only way to make it work is if they could both defend on the perimeter, they could both make shots from the perimeter and they could both score with their back to the basket and make plays for each other out of the high post. If two 7’0 could do all of those things, it wouldn’t matter how small, how fast and how skilled the other team was. Just imagine the devastation these two could work together on the offensive boards against a line-up with no one taller than 6’8.
In all likelihood, Towns and Porzingis will never play with each other for the simple fact that the Wolves and the Knicks are going to do everything in their power to keep them on their teams for the next two decades. With the way the game is going, though, every young big man out there has to start playing like these guys and we should eventually start seeing more and more of them trickle into the NBA. It’s kill or be killed when you face the Line-up of Death and only the best and most versatile big men are going to be able to survive. It’s selection pressure in real time in the same way that bacteria become more drug-resistant as time goes by.
The ultimate dream is to get two versatile 7’0 who can play with each other on the same team. The problem is that very few big men have needed that type of versatility in a sport where they have traditionally been able to dominate based on size alone. Karl Towns and Kristaps Porzingis are each one half of a restoration that would return the big man to the throne. The rest of the league better hope they never get to play with someone who could be the other half.