The NBA is experiencing a major boom in young big men. Players such as Hassan Whiteside, Andre Drummond, and Kristaps Porzingis are showing that centers can still have a huge role in today’s pace-and-space NBA. But there are two young centers who have fans and general managers drooling over their potential: Karl-Anthony Towns of the Minnesota Timberwolves, and Joel Embiid of the Philadelphia 76ers.
It would be unfair to call these two examples of the prototypical modern big men, because they each bring skill sets rarely seen in men their size. Both are incredibly athletic, with the ability to move their feet like a guard while maintaining the strength needed to battle in the post. Both Towns and Embiid could become top-tier players, MVP-candidates, and all-timers when all is said and done.
But which one would you rather have if you could pick? It’s time to break down Towns vs. Embiid, Dr. Jack Ramsey Style. Keep in mind as we go that Embiid has played just five games of real NBA basketball, which is an incredibly small sample size. However, because of the way he’s delivered on the eye test, I still think this is a fair comparison.
Embiid has been compared to a seven foot version of Hakeem Olajuwon. That’s high praise, but you can see where it comes from in his ability in the low post. He has tremendous footwork for such a big and unexperienced player, with a mix of power and touch for optimal finishing ability around the rim. Just watch this video and say you can’t see the similarity:
Embiid also has the size, length, and explosiveness to finish lobs at the rim, and the stats show that he gets to the free throw line (8.0 FTA per game) more often than Towns (3.4 FTA per game). Towns can do all of these things, just not as well as Embiid.
Through five games, Embiid is making 58.3% of his threes. That shows that he can hurt teams from behind the arc, but I have to give this one to Towns. Towns showed that he can consistently make jump shots from the long two and three-point areas over a whole season, shooting 36% from behind the arc through 90 career games. Plus, Towns has shot 81% from the line in his career . I just need to see Embiid do it consistently before I can put him with Towns. Plus, Towns’ quickness and savviness have allowed him to attack the rim from the perimeter off the catch and dribble more effectively than any player his size besides Kevin Durant.
Both can handle the ball very well for men of their stature, but as I said, Towns’ quickness has proven effective in attacking the rim off the dribble. Both utilize a series of fakes and twitches to get the defense off-balance. But Towns takes this category for a few reasons.
Embiid has improved his passing out of the post since he started at Kansas, but still struggles at times. Towns, meanwhile, has shown the big man passing gene displayed in greats such as Bill Walton and more minor players like Andrew Bogut. If Minnesota wanted to, they could run their whole offense through Towns simply by throwing the ball into him in the post, running cutters off screens, and letting Towns make a decision.
Plus, watch the ball-handling Towns displays here:
The guy can dribble like a guard, and I just haven’t seen that from Embiid.
Here’s where we get into the nitty gritty. Last season, players defended by Towns shot a full 4% worse on shots within 6 feet of the basket than they normally did. That’s pretty impressive.
Embiid, meanwhile, has made players shoot an incredible 14% worse on shots within six feet of the basket then they normally have this season. Again, it’s a really small sample size, especially considering the numbers of the players he’s guarded, but that’s still encouraging.
Some other stats to keep in mind: Embiid has a 8.1% block percentage compared to Towns’ 4.2%, Towns has a career 3.0 defensive win shares compared to Embiid’s 0.2, and Embiid’s 100 defensive rating slightly edges Towns’ 106.
Ultimately, both guys anchor the middle of a defense really well, and will continue to develop. I think Towns has the edge in positioning and timing, whereas Embiid’s immense size and physical tools allow him to be a more intimidating rim protector. But it’s too close for me to call right now.
This is the defining area that makes both of these guys so valuable. In today’s NBA, versatility is a must-have. Switching on defense has become common place with all the great shooting and smart ball movement, so bigs need to be able to guard smaller players outside.
We know Joel Embiid can do it. Watch him guard John Wall here and hold his own:
Very impressive. However, Towns already one-upped him when he took on the league MVP last spring and locked him down on multiple possessions. Towns’ ability to switch and stay in front of Curry was a huge part of the Wolves’ game plan for their late-season win in Oracle Arena, and that’s the type of talent that takes teams to the next level.
Slight Edge: Towns
Both are great, competitive rebounders for young big men. Towns showed all of last season that he could hold down the glass, while Embiid’s very first taste of NBA action came in his first preseason game fighting on the glass against Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph.
Towns averages 8.3 defensive rebounds and 3.1 offensive rebounds per 36 minutes, while Embiid averages 7.8 DRB and 3.2 ORB per 36. Purely on stats, I have to go with Towns, but Embiid’s size and explosiveness could bring him up a few notches.
Slight Edge: Towns
Embiid is now two inches taller than when he was drafted, standing at about 7’2, 250 pounds. He’s got longer arms and broader shoulders than the 7’0 Towns, and when combined with his leaping ability, Embiid just takes up more area than Towns does. I think this has to go to Embiid.
Both are really fluid athletes. Both can change direction in a heartbeat and can move their feet with guards on the perimeter. I think Embiid is a little stronger and can jump a little higher than Towns, but it’s striking just how fast Towns can run at his size. he can accelerate as fast as a guard, even with the ball in his hand, and he covers ground quickly when he’s running the floor. When he’s the trailer on a fast break, he looks like a force of nature coming down the lane.
Slight Edge: Towns
Everything Towns has done has made him appear to be the second coming of Tim Duncan: unselfish leader who only cares about winning and the well-being of his teammates. He gets along really well with his young teammates, as I saw when I got to interview Tyus Jones last year, and he gets to learn under Kevin Garnett, another great role model of a lead-by-example big man.
Embiid hasn’t left me with the same impression. He’s a little crazy on Twitter, and there were grumblings within the 76ers organization about his attitude and committment to rehab over the last few seasons. All that stuff seems to be a minor blip, as Embiid has received nothing but praise as he’s made his debut, but he hasn’t been the perfect example that Towns has.
That puts the tally at 5-2 Towns. It’s really closer than that, and that could change as Embiid’s minutes increase and we get to see him more.
There is another worry with Embiid that isn’t present with Towns: injuries. Embiid has had a number of ailments since he arrived at Kansas in 2013, and it’s been a legitimate question as to whether it would stunt his development or even halt it like it did for Greg Oden. Like it or not, it will hover over his career until he proves that he can stay on the floor consistently for a few seasons. With Towns, that isn’t a worry.
So yes, if I had to pick one, I would go with Towns. In my opinion, he’s the much safer option while providing much of the upside that Embiid has to offer. Put it this way: Towns is just about guaranteed to be an MVP-candidate for multiple straight years in his prime, barring an unexpected injury. Embiid is very similar, but without the “unexpected” coming before the injury. Either way, both the Timberwolves and 76ers should count themselves lucky that they have these guys on their teams.