Karl-Anthony Towns is the NBA's best prospect since LeBron James

May 16, 2016, 10:24 AM

— -- On Monday, Minnesota Timberwolves center Karl-Anthony Towns was named the NBA's Rookie of the Year after a unanimous vote. If his impressive debut was any indication, it won't be the last hardware Towns will earn during his career.

Based on his lone season at Kentucky, we knew that Towns -- taken No. 1 overall last June -- had great potential. But by putting together one of the best performances ever by a player his age, Towns has made a strong case for being the top prospect at this point of his career since four-time MVP LeBron James.

Ranking Towns' rookie season

Let's compare Towns' performance as a rookie to other top first-year contributors. His 12.4 wins above replacement player (WARP) by my metric ranks 13th among rookies since the merger.

Ten of the 12 players ahead of Towns won rookie of the year, with the Johnsons as the exceptions. Marques finished second in the voting behind Walter Davis (a fine rookie in his own right with 10.7 WARP) while Magic had the misfortune of being a rookie the same year as Larry Bird.

While Towns' performance as a rookie wasn't historic, note the age category. Every player ahead of him on the list was older, and only Magic Johnson and Chris Paul (whose age rounds up to an even 21) were 20 at the conclusion of the regular season. Towns won't turn 21 until November.

When we compare Towns to players of the same age, his play looks all the more impressive.

Ranking Towns among his age group

Let's change that list to instead feature players who, like Towns, were still teenagers at the start of the season. Admittedly, Towns is now among the oldest of these players since his birthday came during the first month of the schedule. Still, this serves to identify players including Towns who were two years out of high school -- rookies during the one-and-done era or second-year players before the NBA raised the age limit to 19.

Towns shoots near the top of the list.

Among this group, James stands out. He didn't come close to cracking the list of best rookies, posting "just" 7.7 WARP in his first season (a figure that's still good for sixth among teenagers), but James' second year served notice of the kind of superstar he would soon become.

After him, Towns and Dwight Howard are the two other players to post double-digit WARP in a season they began as teenagers. Towns was much more effective on a per-minute basis, with Howard making up part of the gap by averaging nearly 37 minutes per game to Towns' 32 minutes.

That leaves one legitimate contender to Towns as the best prospect at the same age since James: fellow Kentucky big man Anthony Davis. Despite the gap between them in WARP, Davis was nearly as effective on a per-minute basis as a rookie as Towns but was limited to just 64 games and 28.8 minutes per game by injuries. So let's take a closer look at the two players after their rookie seasons.

Comparing Towns to Davis

Based on his freshman season under John Calipari, which resulted in consensus national player of the year honors and national championship, Davis entered the NBA with more hype than Towns. Insider's Chad Ford ranked him fifth among all prospects entering the league from 2000 to 2014. By contrast, Towns didn't emerge as the top prospect in last year's draft until midway through his freshman season, and the debate between him and Jahlil Okafor still raged as recently as the draft lottery.

Once the two Kentucky stars got to the NBA, however, a few factors swung the comparison as rookies in Towns' favor. The first is durability. Unfortunately, the injuries that hampered Davis as a rookie have been a problem throughout his career. He's yet to play more than 68 games in a season, and the knee debridement Davis underwent in March may be an indicator of long-term trouble with the knee.

On the court, Towns showed more ability to create his own shot as a rookie than Davis. He was assisted on 68 percent of his baskets last season, compared to 77 percent for Davis. Not coincidentally, Towns was able to use a higher share of the Timberwolves' plays, posting a 25 percent usage rate as a rookie. Davis didn't reach that mark until Year 2, using 22 percent of his team's plays during his rookie season.

That's important because although Davis has made strides as a shot creator, it remains a relatively weak spot in his game. When he was forced to create more of his own shots this season due to the injuries that struck the New Orleans Pelicans at the guard spot, Davis saw his efficiency as a scorer plummet.

When we account for the difficulty of the shots he took, Davis was actually a poor shooter as a rookie. Davis shot 5.4 percent worse than the 53.4 percent effective field goal percentage (eFG) an average shooter would be expected to post on the same shots he took as a rookie, based on quantified shot quality (qSQ).

In part because of his 3-point shooting (he made 30 3s as a rookie, while Davis didn't make any), Towns had an eFG 7.2 percent better than his 48.3 percent qSQ, putting him among the league's top 20 shot makers in terms of quantified shooter impact. For a 20-year-old rookie, that's remarkable.

Lastly, Towns showed more promise as a playmaker, handing out 2.2 assists per 36 minutes as a rookie. Davis, who averaged barely half that mark as a rookie (1.2 per 36 minutes), didn't reach Towns' level until his third season.

Projecting Towns

So what might Towns become years down the road, when he reaches his NBA prime? His rookie season suggested the potential to become a talent unlike any we've seen before.

Towns has the versatility to score inside and out. Per Basketball-Reference.com, his 50.6 percent shooting on 2-point jumpers beyond 16 feet ranked second among players with at least 100 attempts, and many of those shots will likely become 3-pointers in future seasons. Additionally, Towns was one of the league's best post scorers, averaging .99 points per direct post-up, tied for fourth among the 20 players with at least 400 post opportunities.

Versatility could also be Towns' defining characteristic at the other end of the court. He's an above-average shot-blocker, but Towns displayed his real potential on April 5 when the Timberwolves became only the second team all season to beat the Golden State Warriors at Oracle Arena. In that game, Towns repeatedly switched on Stephen Curry and chased around the smaller MVP, allowing him to make only one of four shot attempts on those plays.

A center who can shoot 3s, score in the post, block shots and switch onto smaller guards defensively? That's the kind of potential that makes Towns the best prospect since James.