Head2Head: Joel Embiid vs. Karl-Anthony Towns

At the start of their careers, Minnesota center Karl Anthony Towns—the first pick in the 2015 NBA Draft—had the advantage on Philadelphia center Joel Embiid—the third pick in the 2014 NBA Draft—for two reasons: Embiid only played 31 games in the 2014-15, 2015-16 and 2016-17 seasons because of injuries; Towns came out the gates strong in Years 1 and 2, not missing a single game, while averaging 18 points and 11 rebounds as a rookie in 2015-16 and then 25 points and 12 rebounds in 2016-17.

Since that time, however, Embiid has staked his own claim as the best center in the East, while making his first All-Star team in 2017-18, just as Towns made his first All-Star appearance.

Now, we pit them head-to-head in an online comparison that will preview the actual head-to-head matchup these two stars face when Philly hosts Minny Tuesday January 15 in a high-profile Clash of the Titans on NBA TV.

 2018-19  G (MPG)  PPG  RPG  APG  SPG  BPG  RPM  PER  TSP
Joel Embiid  40 (33.7)  26.9  13.5  3.5  0.6  1.9  +3.77  25.4  .598
Karl-Anthony Towns  41 (33.6)  22.1  12.3  3.0  0.9  1.9  +2.86  23.7  .598
Stats through January 9, 2019
Key: G games; MPG minutes per game; PPG points per game; RPG rebounds per game; APG assist per game; SPG steals per game; BPG blocks per game; RPM Real Plus-Minus; PER Player Efficiency Rating; TSP true shooting percentage.
Sources: Basketball-Reference and ESPN

 

Scoring
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Now that Jimmy Butler is gone from Minnesota, expect Towns to become the first option again. The main reason GM/Coach Tom Thibodeau got fired was because he forgot where his bread was buttered, ultimately turning KAT into a fifth option on the Timberwolves. No hyperbole: Last season, Derrick Rose, Jamal Crawford, Andrew Wiggins and Butler all took more shots-per-minute than Towns, even though their 23-year-old center led the team in true shooting percentage (.646). This season, the discrepancy was not as bad, though he still shared shots with Rose, Wiggins and Butler, whose propensity to run isolation and pick-and-roll plays for himself, turned Towns into merely a roll player instead of the post-up force who has since averaged 23.3 points per game following Butler’s departure. Remember, Towns is a threat both far and nearby, as both a career 39 percent three-point shooter and career 71 percent finisher at the rim within three feet, according to Basketball-Reference.com. More importantly, the Butler trade has helped Towns become a better all-around player once again. Towns is once again an impact on both ends while his T-Wolves have gone 14-12 following the 4-9 start. Moving forward, it will be up to interim head coach Ryan Saunders to bring out the best in the T-Wolves if Minnesota is going to make a playoff push in the second half of the season.

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Embiid—as he so aptly put it last month—has struggled to fit in with the All-Star Butler as of yet, although the 76ers as a team definitely benefited from the trade (9-6 before; 18-9 after). The numbers indicate Embiid is just as dominant, with the 7-1, 255-pound Sixer averaging 26.0 points and 13.6 rebounds in his 25 games thereafter on .586 true shooting percentage (53 percent on 2s and 29 percent on 3s), which was not far off his pre-Butler stats. In a nutshell, trading Butler has allowed the 7-0, 248-pound Towns to find his A-game again, while acquiring Butler has helped the 76ers as a team, with Embiid making the necessary adjustments on the fly. Going forward, Philly head coach Brett Brown just has to remember this: Embiid is never as dominant as he is when he catches the ball near the basket (he makes 75 percent of his shots within three feet of the rim). As long as point guard Ben Simmons and Butler feed him there, the big man will stay happy and effective and Philadelphia will grow as a team.

Advantage: Tie


Floor Game
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Both the 24-year-old Embiid and 23-year-old Towns are fine post passers for as young as they are. Towns, especially, has been dropping more dimes of late since becoming the focal point of the offense post-Butler trade. On the ballhandling front, Towns holds a slight advantage with his comfort level of putting the ball on the floor. Towns is not afraid to lead the break after a rebound. But if we had to give the edge to one, it would be Embiid, even though he is more turnover-prone than Towns. Our reasoning: Embiid plays with more reluctant shooters (read: Ben Simmons) than Towns has thus far in their careers (read: Rose, Crawford, Butler, Wiggins, etc.). Had Embiid been nurtured as a Wolf, he might already be a five-assist man with his propensity to look for back-door passes on the arc, or for drop-offs near the hoop.

Advantage: Embiid


Defense
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Since his Kentucky days, Towns has never been praised as a rim protector. He can and does block shots, but the gap is so large between Towns’ stellar offense and his defense that it makes the latter look like it’s lacking. But make no mistake: Towns is a plus defender and cleans up the glass.

The Philly center, mind you, earned second-team All-Defense honors in 2017-18, while leading a top 5 team defense last season. More so, Embiid takes it more personal when opposing players score against him, giving him that much-needed edge on the defensive end. Granted, Philadelphia is not faring this well as defensive unit this season (12ththus far), but Embiid is still playing great D this season, compared to Towns’ good D.

Advantage: Embiid


Leadership
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It is tough to say whether either center is a great leader yet, which is understandable given their young ages. Embiid is embracing the challenge of trying to lead his teammates, and he has a good right-hand man in J.J. Redick to lean on when times get tough. He’s also outspoken and has candidly embraced the blue-collar Philly culture and been the embodiment of “The Process,” both of which has endured him with fans. On the flip side, Towns is just now coming out of the shadow of Butler which should give him room to bloom. Right now, Embiid has the edge, but both men have plenty of tasks to accomplish before either is in the class of LeBron, KD or Curry.

Advantage: Embiid


Intangibles
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As mentioned, Embiid is a fan favorite in his home city, and his colorful personality provides much-needed levity in a frenzied sports town thirsty for a championship. Embiid’s candor also makes him the perfect heel to opponents, serving as a lightning rod to deflect teammates from media scrutiny.

Many moons ago, an unknown coach once said availability is the greatest ability of them all. With that in mind, we cannot finish this column without mentioning Towns’ incredible string of playing every single game thus far in his four-year career. Contrast that with Embiid’s two-year absence to start off his NBA career and the subsequent cautious approach with his minutes when he returned. With 246 games under his belt in his first three seasons—and 41 games in his fourth season thus far—Towns has a perfect attendance record that all fans, coaches and players should appreciate.

Advantage: Towns


The Verdict
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KAT may have won Act 1 of their early years, but it is safe to say Embiid is winning Act 2. But now that Towns feels unencumbered once again, we expect to see him make a comeback for Act 3. Will it be enough to overtake Embiid in the 2020s? Only time will tell.

Winner: Embiid