Karl-Anthony Towns came to the NBA last year with an array of moves that belied his 19 years, with an enthusiasm that won the state of Minnesota over, with a performance that earned him the NBA’s Rookie of the Year Award.
And it was nowhere near enough for Towns.
So, this summer, the former University of Kentucky star took on a weekslong research project. Determined to reach another level, Towns reached out to Hall of Famers and those destined to end up there. He talked to some via phone, some over dinner.
“I talked to a lot of NBA superstars, legends, about how I can improve myself offensively and defensively,” Towns said. And while he didn’t want to name names, at least one is the recently retired Kevin Garnett, who spent last season mentoring Towns. But Towns wasn’t just talking Xs and Os with these people.
“Not just skill-wise,” he said, “but taking a leadership role. Just different ways they led, whether he was more emotional or more conservative. I learned how to deal with it from their standpoint in the NBA.”
Remember, Towns will not turn 21 until Nov. 15.
But Timberwolves fans have watched Towns play and listened to him talk for a year now. They see how versatile he is on the court and how smooth he is off of it. Sometimes, listening to him talk, you feel like you’re talking to a Dale Carnegie grad. Can this be real?
Yes. This isn’t a sales pitch, it’s a statement of purpose:
“I want to be able to be what KG (Garnett) was,” Towns said. “I think I have that in me. I showed it a little last year a little bit. But I want to show it even more this year.”
He can do it all
Oh, he showed it. From the start he was a big man with skill. About a decade and a half ago Garnett was described as being as versatile as a Swiss Army Knife.
Towns is the latest model. Two snapshots:
▪ At Milwaukee, March 4. In the first five minutes of the game, Towns scored all 11 Wolves points. He hit a layup, then a baby hook from 5 feet. Then he hit midrange jumpers of 10 and 17 feet, and finally he drained a three-pointer.
▪ At Golden State, April 5: On a night in which he scored 20 points with 12 rebounds, four assists and two blocks, with the Wolves leading by two in overtime, Towns got switched up onto Steph Curry on the perimeter. Curry dribbled one way, then the other, behind his back, trying to shake Towns. Finally he drove toward the basket and was forced into an off-balanced, missed shot.
A 7-footer shutting down an MVP?
“Gotta guard,” Towns said. “Nothing else was on my mind. I think anyone who knows me since I was a young boy, I’ve never been scared to play anybody. Even when I was young and playing Team USA. I was not afraid to be on the court with LeBron, Carmelo, Kobe. I’ve never been afraid of a human being.”
But that doesn’t mean those summer-project talks didn’t fill him with trepidation.
“There are so many talented players who come in and out of the league, but only a few of them are remembered as being great,” Towns said. “That’s because they were willing to say, ‘I don’t know.’ I don’t know everything. I do not know how it is to be a great player and a Hall of Famer in this league. I want to learn, though. So I was willing to ask the greats, the superstars, the legends, how it is they became great. How they made their legend.”
Ready to carry the load
So, the question: Can a 20-year-old be The Leader on an NBA team?
Maybe not most. But maybe this one. On the court it’s a lock. Last season he became just the third rookie to average at least 18 points, 10 rebounds, two assists and 1.5 blocks per game. The other two were David Robinson and Tim Duncan.
But Towns is looking to have a bigger impact than just leading on the court.
“He’s been more vocal,” Zach LaVine said. “He’s first up in every line, and he makes sure me and (Andrew Wiggins) are right behind him. He knows the path he wants to be on. He does everything the right way. He can definitely be a leader.”
Tom Thibodeau has coached his share of precocious players. Even he is impressed with Towns’ awareness.
“It’s his ability to get better, to improve, to learn,” Thibodeau said. “I like the way he approached things in the offseason, talking to a number of people. Learning is a big part of being great. You never want to stop learning.”
To be sure, Towns made sure to ask about on-court skills. Tricks of their trade.
“Floaters, shots off the wrong leg, those kinds of shots,” Towns said. “Those are things I’ve added to my game.”
But the most important things are a little less tangible. Towns spent his summer vacation going a little deeper than that.
“The biggest thing is, I wanted to learn how I could be a better player, a better teammate, a better leader,” he said. “To prepare mentally, more than just physically, of how I could help this team go to the next level.”
He’ll be talking more. He was, by his own description, “more timid” last year.
“Because we had the big man behind us,” he said. But now KG’s gone. “I have to be more emotional, even more vocal than I already am. More passionate. I’m willing to take that job.”
Willing? That’s putting it mildly. Towns wants this, yearns for it. He wants to be a leader, he wants to carry that load. So don’t worry about placing too many expectations on his shoulders.
That will not faze him.
“Never, never,” he said. “Whatever the expectations the media have of me, I’ve always had two times the expectations of myself.”