Shabazz Muhammad was well aware of Karl-Anthony Towns when the Minnesota Timberwolves made him the first overall pick in last June’s NBA Draft, having watched the 7-foot Towns patrol the post as a key member of John Calipari’s talent-laden team at Kentucky.
But Towns had secrets — secrets that he soon revealed to his teammates. Muhammad observed how easily Towns lofted parabolic three-pointers at training camp.
“I was like, ‘Where did you buy that jump shot?’” Muhammad said. “And he was kind of like, ‘I always had one! Coach Cal wouldn’t let me shoot it!’ And I was like: ‘Man, that’s pretty good. You’re the No. 1 pick and you didn’t even show some parts of your game.’”
Muhammad, a third-year wing and a part of the Timberwolves’ well-publicized kiddie corps, paused and considered the possibilities.
“His ceiling,” Muhammad said, “is high.”
Towns, who recently turned 20, has made an easy transition to life in the NBA, averaging 15.2 points and 9.3 rebounds a game for the Timberwolves (9-13), who will next visit the New York Knicks on Wednesday. It will be a homecoming of sorts for Towns, who grew up in Piscataway, N.J., and attended St. Joseph High School, a preparatory school in Metuchen, N.J. His teammates have watched him improve week by week — perhaps even day by day.
Last Wednesday, amid the hoopla of Kobe Bryant’s final game in Minneapolis, Towns clogged the box score in a 123-122 overtime victory against the Los Angeles Lakers. Towns collected 26 points and 14 rebounds while shooting 11-for-19 from the field. One of his most impressive feats did not even count — cradling the ball up from his ankles for a dunk that came after the whistle.
“That was nasty,” Muhammad said.
Towns’s confidence was on full display. After he connected on a 17-foot jump shot toward the end of regulation, he bowed for the crowd. His night was punctuated by four interviews: one on the court with the in-house announcer, another with the local television broadcast team, a third with NBA TV (during which he did a pretty solid impression of Shaquille O’Neal, one of the hosts) and finally a small news conference for reporters in front of his locker.
Karl Towns, his father, waited outside. He said he was extremely proud of his son, except for his two missed free throws.
“He owes me 10 push-ups, and he knows it,” Karl Towns said.
As the Timberwolves continue to search for an offensive rhythm, Ricky Rubio, now one of the team’s more experienced players, said he was getting a better feel for where and when Towns wanted the ball. Rubio declined to offer specifics.
“Well,” Rubio said, “if I tell you, they’re going to start knowing, and then they’ll stop it.”
If nothing else, it is abundantly clear that Towns is comfortable handling the ball, and shooting it, from the perimeter. Even though Towns attempted just eight three-pointers in his lone season at Kentucky, Sam Mitchell, the Timberwolves’ coach, said he knew that Towns was capable of developing a reliable outside shot before the team selected him in the draft.
“That’s one of the things that kind of swayed us in his direction,” Mitchell said.
Playing a 7-footer who can stretch the floor has become an invaluable asset for NBA teams. Consider the Knicks, who have benefited from the shot-making pyrotechnics of the 7-foot-3 Kristaps Porzingis, another lottery pick from the most recent draft class.
The mere threat that Towns will launch from the outside is often enough to draw defenders away from the basket. It was evident in the third quarter against the Lakers. Towns was stationed just inside the three-point arc when he received the ball. Sensing pressure from his defender, Towns whipped a one-handed bounce pass through traffic to Muhammad, who drew a foul.
Towns had spent the first few weeks of the season largely operating in the post. Through his first 15 games, he attempted just six three-pointers. But he was honing his mechanics in practice, far from public view, until he finally felt confident that he could make the shot consistently. The coaching staff let him loose. During a recent five-game stretch, he was 6-for-9 from the three-point line.
“I always want to be working on the tricks in my bag,” Towns said. “I just wait to develop the trick fully and make sure it’s the best trick I can possibly use.”
In other words, his three-point shot is one such trick. He promised more to come.
Towns has always been on an advanced curriculum. At 16, he joined the Dominican Republic’s national team for a summer of exhibitions. Towns said he tried to learn as much as possible from teammates like Al Horford — lessons about the importance of repetition, about the complexities of defending the pick-and-roll.
“It put me light-years ahead in terms of my knowledge for the game,” Towns said. “Not so much physically — physically, I couldn’t do anything at that age.”
His education has continued with the Timberwolves, who commissioned Kevin Garnett to act as Towns’s mentor. If it was widely viewed as a gamble — Garnett can be abrasive — he has embraced Towns and the team’s young core. After a recent practice, Garnett remained behind to counsel Andrew Wiggins on post moves for at least a half-hour. Towns has attached himself to Garnett as much as possible.
“Talking, watching, learning,” Towns said. “It’s an all-day thing.”
He has mimicked Garnett’s preparation, going so far as to shoot additional baskets after he lifts weights in hope of building his muscle memory. Garnett also advised Towns to keep their tutorials private. Pressed to offer a couple of morsels, Towns shook his head.
“I don’t want to say,” he said. “There are some things he does that I think we’re all accustomed to seeing, but there are some that are kind of unusual.”
Karl Towns, his father, said he could sense Garnett’s influence. He said there was no doubt that Garnett had accelerated his son’s growth.
“K.G. is an architect,” Karl Towns said.
If Towns has enormous potential, at least one person has no interest in discussing it. Last Thursday, ahead of the team’s loss to the Denver Nuggets on Friday, Mitchell was asked what was next for Towns in his development. Mitchell did not appreciate the question.
“Guys,” he said, “the next thing in his development is Denver. I mean, he’s played 20 games, guys, and you want to — his next development? You think he’s learned how to play in the NBA after 20 games? It’s 20 games into his first year.”
Mitchell added: “You get better during the offseason. You don’t get better during the season. So there is no next development.”
That, of course, would be news to Towns, who has a mental checklist of skills he wants to add. Mitchell did say that he wants Towns to simply improve his consistency: his defense, his shooting, his screens, his cuts.
“It’s all about progress,” said Karl Towns, his father.
His son lives by himself in an apartment not far from Target Center. During his free time, he takes online courses through Kentucky. He watches football and boxing on television. And he plays video games with Muhammad, his next-door neighbor. At 23, Muhammad qualifies as a sage voice.
“We kick it every day,” Muhammad said.
Mostly, though, Towns hangs out at the team’s practice facility. He usually arrives around 8:45 a.m., Muhammad said, well before the start of the team’s late-morning workouts. Towns shoots and lifts weights. He listens to Garnett. And he goes about his business of becoming a pro.