What to watch for: Karl-Anthony Towns is back, Timberwolves visit Bulls

Rob Schaefer
NBC Sports Chicago

A returned Karl-Anthony Towns and the stumbling Minnesota Timberwolves roll into Chicago losers of their last six - can the Bulls take advantage? The game tips off at 7 p.m. CT on NBC Sports Chicago - until then, here's what to watch for:

Timberwolves' last five games (0-5)

  • Jan. 20 - L vs. Nuggets: 107-100

  • Jan. 18 - L vs. Raptors: 122-112

  • Jan. 17 - L at Pacers: 116-114

  • Jan. 15 -- L vs. Pacers: 104-99

  • Jan. 13 - L vs. Thunder: 117-104

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Storyline(s) to watch

Of the Timberwolves' (15-28) 28 losses, 17 of them have come as a result of two rather lengthy losing streaks. The first - an 11-gamer from Dec. 1 to Dec. 23 - marred a surprising 10-8 start to the season and dropped them to the bottom of the Western Conference. Minnesota now rides into Chicago in the midst of a six-game winless stretch and losers of 20 of their last 25. 

Last week, the team shipped its starting point guard Jeff Teague to Atlanta, a signal of a shift towards development. Like the Bulls, the Timberwolves have implemented a sparkling new offensive system this season, and to similarly underwhelming results: Minnesota owns the league's 22nd-rated offense (105.9 points per 100 possessions) and though they jack the third-most 3-point attempts per game in the NBA (39.3), they convert at the second-lowest clip (32.4%). On a team-wide basis, just about their only above average skill is running - they start Robert Covington in the power forward slot, rarely play two bigs together and rank seventh in the NBA in PACE

For the Bulls (16-29), this one kicks off a three-game stretch of relative reprieve. Currently 3-8 in the month of January, their next three opponents - Minnesota, Sacramento, Cleveland - own a cumulative record of 42-88, as of this writing. Zach LaVine watch continues: He's averaging 28 points per game on 59.6% shooting in four career games against the team that drafted him and 30 points per game this January.

Player to watch: Karl-Anthony Towns

Towns missed an extended 15-game stretch from mid-December to mid-January with a sprained left knee, but returned last week. In three games since, he's averaging 22.3 points, 6.3 rebounds and 4 assists per contest on 43.1/28.6/89.5 shooting splits - but that's a small sample size compared to the gaudy 26.5 points, 11.7 rebounds, 4.4 assists (51.4/41.8/79.6) averages he registered in 23 games before injury. He's good.

 

Questions persist in regards to his defense, but Towns remains an absolute juggernaut of an offensive center, and his impact is immense. Per Cleaning the Glass, the Timberwolves score a whopping 14.1 points per 100 possessions more with Towns on the floor rather than off, sport a 54% eFG% with him (compared to 47.6% without) and he drastically (positively) impacts their volume and efficiency at the rim and from 3-point range. He can create from anywhere on the floor, and against the Bulls' currently undermanned frontcourt, it wouldn't be shocking to see him feast.

Matchup to watch: The Rooks

Coby White and Jarrett Culver were picked one spot away from each other in the 2019 draft (Culver no. 6, White no. 7). Now, they'll square off for the first time.

With the aforementioned trade of Teague, the Wolves seem to have opened up a permanent spot and role in the starting lineup for Culver - a well-timed development. In the month of January, he's averaging 14.5 points and 5 rebounds on 45.7% shooting (31 minutes per), and has scored in double-figures in 11 of his last 12 games. While the playmaking still needs some molding (0.57 assist:usage ratio), these are great strides for a player who got off to a clanky shooting start to the season.

White has had his ups and downs, as well, but has yet to be given the rein Culver has gotten recently (23.6 minutes per game in January). Still, he's a candidate to break out on any given night, and while Culver's defense is renowned, White outweighs him in pure scoring ability. If they find themselves across from one another, it adds another layer of intrigue to what should be a competitive matchup.

Injury report

No new official developments for the Bulls, but Otto Porter Jr. was at practice yesterday (sans boot) fielding rebounds for teammates. He's still not cleared for any basketball activities as of yet, but it's a step in the right direction. 

Jim Boylen: "It'd be wrong of me to give you a timetable on that [Porter's return]. He's improving and what we're hoping for is as he gets his shoes back on and gets on the floor those juices start flowing and hopefully he can be back sooner rather than later. So, we'll see how it goes, we will not take a chance with him but we're excited about his progress."

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What to watch for: Karl-Anthony Towns is back, Timberwolves visit Bulls originally appeared on NBC Sports Chicago

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