It was just a jump shot on All-Star Saturday Night, merely a 3-pointer that wouldn’t contribute anything to Karl-Anthony Towns’ career scoring totals.
Or maybe it was something more.
Maybe when Towns — the rookie center whose Minnesota Timberwolves visit the New Orleans Pelicans at 6 p.m. Saturday in the Smoothie King Center — made a 3-pointer in Toronto to beat Boston Celtics guard Isaiah Thomas in the finals of the Skills Challenge, he was making a statement of sorts.
“This moment is bigger than me,” Towns said then. “This is a moment that hopefully the NBA can cherish for a long time, to see the transition of … bigs (from) only having to be on the post (to also being) outside, dribbling the ball, dribble up the court and shoot 3s.”
It was, Towns said, a sign that modern NBA big men are transitioning “into a new facet of their games.”
Few are doing it better than the stars who will square off Saturday night.
The 7-foot, 244-pound Towns is averaging 17.3 points, 10.2 rebounds and 1.8 blocks for the Timberwolves. He has made 20 of 56 3-pointers and has proved as comfortable driving to the basket as posting up with his back to it.
The 6-10 Anthony Davis is averaging 24.1 points, 10.2 rebounds and 2.2 blocks. He has made 27 of 85 3-pointers and is showing an increased diversity to his offensive game in his fourth NBA season.
Davis and Towns likely would have been highly regarded NBA prospects in any era. But a decade ago, it’s unlikely they would have had free rein to do all that they do.
“What has happened so many times with USA basketball — and I’m talking about basketball in general in the States — is that, when you’re a big guy like that, they make you play with your back to the basket and that’s it,” Pelicans coach Alvin Gentry said. “I think what a lot of the young coaches ... are finding out now is that (big men) have to have a skill level to be able to do all those things — shoot it, pass it, be able to dribble, post-ups and all that. It has to be incorporated in your whole game.”
The NBA is in a golden age of versatile big men, an era ushered in, perhaps, by Dirk Nowitzki and now elevated by young players like Davis, Towns, Kristaps Porzingis of the New York Knicks and emerging Indiana Pacers rookie Myles Turner.
Even the Sacramento Kings’ DeMarcus Cousins — a 6-11, 270-pound bruiser in the paint — is putting the ball on the floor, driving to the basket, making pinpoint passes on the move and launching 3-pointers.
“There’s no traditional big men anymore,” Davis said. “Everybody can handle the ball or shoot it or start an offense or whatever. That’s the way the game has evolved. That’s the way bigs play.”
Towns is the latest in the game’s evolution. Though not yet as advanced a player as either, he’s physically bigger than Davis and lighter on his feet than Cousins. He’s dangerous in the post and on the perimeter and also plays with an intelligence to do “all the little things to help his team win,” Davis said.
“Karl-Anthony Towns, to me, is where this league is going,” Gentry said. “Big, strong kids that really play — and I’m sure the USA Basketball people are going to go crazy over this — like Europeans.”
If the versatile-big-man movement began in Europe, it clearly has migrated. That’s in part, Gentry said, to the exposure elite young American players get to their European counterparts as they play with USA Basketball teams overseas or in stateside events against their foreign peers.
Now high-level American big men are inspiring Europeans like Porzingis, the versatile 7-footer who, at age 20, cites the 22-year-old Davis as a model for his game.
“That’s just unbelievable,” Davis said. “He was asking me questions during the game when we played (the Knicks).”
Towns and Davis are linked by a college program at Kentucky and a coach, John Calipari, who stressed the importance of low-post scoring to a pair of players who arrived on campus already comfortable shooting jumpers and handling the ball.
Their similarities are apparent. Davis and Towns are adept at jump hooks with either hand, but they’re also comfortable using a shot fake to dribble into the paint. Both will shoot the open 3-pointer if a defense sags.
And both participated in the Skills Challenge at All-Star Weekend, a competition in which players race to complete an obstacle course that emphasizes ballhandling, passing and shooting.
When Towns won, Davis — who lost to Cousins in the opening round — was among the big men mobbing him, realizing the significance of a moment that appears to be the start of a sea change among frontcourt stars.
The lumbering low-post player is a dying breed. Towns and Davis represent an evolution.
“I think it makes our league so much better,” Gentry said. “I think the basketball is so much better. The flow of the game is so much better. That’s all the fans want to see. They want to see good basketball.”
The Pelicans’ Anthony Davis and the Timberwolves’ Karl-Anthony Towns meet Saturday night for the third time this season. A look at how they fared in the previous two games:
Towns Category Davis
19.5 Points per game 31.0
12.5 Rebounds per game 7.5
1.0 Blocks per game 1.0
57.1 Field-goal percentage 59.5
50.0 3-point percentage 50.0
0 Wins 2