Karl-Anthony Towns’ NBA career got off to a historic start, with the No. 1 overall pick out of Kentucky putting up the kind of numbers not seen for a rookie since Tim Duncan and Shaquille O’Neal.
He was the first teenager to post double-doubles in his first two games in NBA history, posted double-doubles in six of his first eight games and helped the Minnesota Timberwolves get off to a surprisingly successful start with wins on the road against Chicago, Atlanta and Miami.
The production, and the playing time, has been more modest over the last five games, but not enough to stop the versatile center from being named Western Conference rookie of the month for November.
“Sometimes it’s not fair what we’re asking him to do as a rookie at 20 years old,” interim coach Sam Mitchell said. “But the comfort zone that we have with him is that he’s shown us early that he can handle a little bit more than what normal rookies can. And he plays hard.”
Towns averaged 16.0 points, 10.4 rebounds, 2.4 blocks and 29.5 minutes per game over his first 13 games, including a 28-point, 14-rebound, four-block effort in a win at Denver in the second game of the year. He also had 21 points, 12 rebounds and six blocks in an overtime loss at Orlando and 17 points, 12 rebounds and three blocks to help beat Atlanta.
“He dominated a lot of games,” said Timberwolves forward Andrew Wiggins, who won five of the six conference rookie awards last year on his way to being voted rookie of the year. “He started off the year amazing with all the double-doubles. He’s truly deserving of the award.”
But over the last five games, he is averaging 8.4 points, 6.0 rebounds, 1.6 blocks in just 22.2 minutes per game. Over the last four games, he has played a grand total of 2 minutes, 42 seconds of 48 available fourth-quarter minutes.
Fans have assailed Mitchell on social media for his rotations, pleading to see more of the big man on the court late in games – both for the experience and their belief that he is a better option than backup center Gorgui Dieng, who is seeing nearly all of those minutes.
Mitchell said there are two reasons for his approach: Dieng’s improvement during this stretch, particularly with pick-and-roll defense, and an effort to avoid having Towns log heavy minutes this early in his career.
“At 20 years old, he says, ‘Coach I’m fine, I can play forever,’ ” Mitchell said. “Yeah, but when you hit 29 or 30, we still want you to feel like you can play forever. We don’t want you to be 30 but feel like you’re 35.”
Towns is used to playing short minutes after averaging just over 20 last year at Kentucky. He said learning to share playing time on a talented team in college prepared him for this experience in the NBA. But there is still some adjusting going on.
“I’m not used to being on the bench for crunch time,” Towns said. “But everything comes with a reason. We’re playing so great down the stretch. Just making sure every time I can see something on the bench that can help us win.”
Towns still averaged 27.5 minutes a game for the month and was second among rookies in scoring (14.4) and first in rebounding (9.4), blocked shots (2.2) and free throw percentage (86.7).
“A testament to the work I put in in the summer,” Towns said. “It’s just one month. The season is a compilation of month. We just have to put a lot of work together to not have one rookie of the month award, but just to have a great team record and accomplish what we’ve set out to accomplish.”
Despite a 2-7 record at home, the Timberwolves are a surprising 8-10 on the season, halfway to their win total for all of last year. “There’s nothing wrong with Karl sitting there some nights and learning what to do,” Mitchell said. “And he has plenty of opportunities. We won games with Karl finishing games. We won games with (Dieng) finishing games. It’s 18 games into Karl’s career, guys. Why are we going to burn him out 18 games into a 20-year-old’s career? It doesn’t make sense.”