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Karl-Anthony Towns on NBA Unicorns, Minnesota’s Minutes Gap, and Learning Tom Thibodeau’s Defense

The Timberwolves big man joined ‘The J.J. Redick Podcast’ in a wide-ranging conversation

Karl-Anthony Towns smiling with his arms crossed Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Ahead of the Sixers’ 118–112 win over the Timberwolves on Tuesday night, Minnesota big man Karl-Anthony Towns joined The J.J. Redick Podcast for a wide-ranging conversation about NBA unicorns, the future of big men, learning to play defense under Tom Thibodeau, and the minutes gap between Timberwolves starters and bench players.

Listen to the full podcast here. This transcript has been edited and condensed.

On NBA Unicorns and the Role of the Big Man on Defense

J.J. Redick: Do you know what I’m talking about when I say “NBA unicorn”?

Karl-Anthony Towns: Yes, yes. [Laughs.] Just a person who’s able to do it all and be as versatile as possible on the court.

Redick: And typically these unicorns come in larger sizes. … You are classified as a unicorn. Joel Embiid; I would put Kevin Durant in there; Kristaps Porzingis; another one of my teammates, Ben Simmons; Giannis [Antetokounmpo].

I’ve been in the league 12 years and there have been two real changes in my time in the league. One is this evolution of positionless basketball, and the other one is the evolution of the NBA big man. And one of the things that makes you a unicorn is your shooting ability. I don’t think people really saw that [while you were] at Kentucky, and I wasn’t even aware when you were coming out [of college] that you could shoot. … Where did this skill develop?

Towns: I’ve been shooting 3s my whole career, actually. It’s funny, ’cause I went to Kentucky, and it was something that they were talking about — either having me shoot or not shoot at all. And [John Calipari] wanted me to take the other route and not shoot at all, and [he] just kind of hid it in his back pocket. … But you know, I was in New Jersey — I was one of the state leaders in 3-pointers made, and I’ve been shooting the rock for a long time. And I went to college and took a year off [from shooting], and when I came in the league, I went back to being the player I usually am, which is trying to be as versatile as possible. I was able to shoot more and really have my game open up. …

My dad must’ve known the future. I don’t know what it was — whatever crystal ball he had — but from a young age, he always taught me how to be a guard [first]. … And then the second half of our workouts would always be big-man stuff. You know, footwork, making left-handed layups and drop steps.

Redick: Where do you think it goes from here for the big man? Like, the other day, we [the Sixers] were playing Cleveland, and Kevin Love was hurt. So he’s out of the game. They started one of their young guys at center … and he didn’t play much. And then for most of the game, it was like LeBron at the 4, Jeff Green at the 5, and then their guards. And they just switched everything. And it’s similar to how Golden State plays. But it just seems like the league is trending so much in that direction, and I’m wondering if this is cyclical, if this is just going to be for a short period of time, or if, let’s say, 10, 12 years from now, all the big men — all the centers — are like Porzingis and you.

Towns: [Laughs.] I think it’s just changing, you know? Humans are just getting faster, stronger. So I mean, you have to adjust with the period of time. I’m watching seventh-graders, eighth-graders doing windmills in games and stuff. It’s absolutely insane what I’m watching now. So, obviously, there’s so much more that’s asked of the big men now in the league, and like you said, you saw Jeff Green at the 5, LeBron at the 4. Just think about that — Jeff Green is able to be thrown in there as a Kevin Love, or a Tristan Thompson, and have to play their roles. That just shows you that those Kevin Loves and Tristan Thompsons are able to switch out and do what everyone else needs them to do from 1 through 5.

So obviously the big man is changing. … You know, when you’re seeing the Tim Duncans and you’re seeing the Shaquille O’Neals, it’s “Stay in the paint” and “Protect the rim” and do all these things. Now you’re asking your 5-men, “Hey, I need you to guard Steph Curry coming up, and then when you get a chance, switch on to Draymond [Green], and then quickly change your brain to go back to being a 5.” So much more is asked. … Who knows 10 years from now, five years from, now how the NBA will look? You’ll probably be seeing the 5 running the point. …

Redick: You bring up a good point, though, about big men — about the amount of information that you guys have to process on a defensive possession, and I think that’s the hardest thing. Like, I have to know my concepts, I have to know our team coverages and all that, but really the anchor of a modern NBA defense is a versatile 5 or a versatile 4, someone who can at one moment be in a sort of zone coverage and at the next moment be on a ball screen. … And I’m wondering if — because offense obviously comes fairly easy to you — but has [defense] been a challenge early in your career? Just being able to process all of that, and understanding all of those different coverages?

Towns: Yeah, I mean, when you come out of college, you’re playing a certain type of defense. [And with any coach] it takes some time to get used to their system, the way they like to run their defensive schemes. … But for us, when you look at big men now … it’s a job, and you have to understand all the coverages. You have to be able to not only understand what your guy likes to do at the 5 or the 4, but then you have to understand the tendencies of the 1, the 2, the 3 because you never know when you’re going to have to switch on them and have to guard them. … It’s something that’s different. You see old-school film of NBA, you’re not seeing Shaquille O’Neal run at [Shareef] Abdur-Rahim at the 3-point line. Everyone’s playing different sides, and it’s just amazing.

Minnesota’s Minutes Gap

Redick: One of the hot-button topics around your team is the issue of playing time, and how much you guys play your starters versus your bench relative to the rest of the NBA. And [Timberwolves head coach Tom Thibodeau] had developed a reputation a little bit in Chicago for playing his starters a lot, and he’s doing the same thing here. I wanted to get your thoughts on that, because I’m curious: Are you OK with the minutes you’re playing? Do you think short term, long term — even now at 22 — do you think about that sort of thing?

Towns: Yeah, I do. I think about it short term and long term. Obviously, short term: [I’m] 22 years old, I’m young, eager to play all the time, always so happy to lace my shoes up and go on that court, so obviously if I feel that I can help our team win, I want to be on the court as much as possible. For me, long term, is it probably the smartest thing? No. But you don’t think about the long term, because you don’t get to the long term without taking care of the short term. …

Thibs makes his decisions; he’s thought about it, and he’s thought about it with other coaches, and they’ve come up with the decision that, “We need Karl to play …” I think it’s 35 minutes a game — which is less for me than last year. Last year it was [37], now it’s 35, so actually I’ve lost minutes. … If anyone ever had a problem with the minutes, it’s as easy as knocking on [Thibodeau’s] door and talking to him about it and having a thoughtful discussion about it.

Playing Defense in a Tom Thibodeau Scheme

Redick: I’m really curious to ask you about your experience with Thibs, and before I do, I played for Stan Van Gundy for five years, and I started with him my second year [in the league]. And one of the hardest adjustments that I had to make in my career was, essentially, just learning how to play for him and playing for someone as intense as him. But looking back, it’s the best thing that ever happened in my career — I wouldn’t be who I am without Stan. And both Stan and Thibs, they come from the same coaching tree with [Pat] Riley … and I’m wondering how that adjustment was initially and how it is going now, even in Year 2?

Towns: Obviously initially, when you’re trying to learn something super complicated — especially a defensive scheme as complicated as Thibs’s — it takes time, because I was already a rookie, and now it’s only my second year. Think about it — I had no stability in those four years leading up: high school I had a coach; college I had a coach, left in one year; and then my first year [in the NBA I] tragically lost Flip [Saunders and then played under] Sam Mitchell; and now this year I’m with Coach Thibodeau. So, I’ve never really had a true defensive scheme to stick with. I’ve always been adjusting on the fly.

When [Thibodeau] first came in, I just really wanted to learn. I took some extra time with him, started early … and now I understand the system much better. … It’s been amazing, because even with Jimmy [Butler], Taj [Gibson], Aaron Brooks — guys who’ve played for Thibs for a much longer period of time — they understand the schemes, so it’s always great to ask them questions and to be able to play off of them. And times when I mess up on defense, they’re able to help me out because they understand where they need to be in the scheme. … And when you have somebody who’s that passionate about winning, who loves the game that much, and who’s willing to give all his time to have us as prepared as possible, that makes our culture better. It makes us feel better knowing that whenever we step onto the court, we feel we’re the most prepared team in the NBA.

Redick: Yeah, having played for Stan — and Thibs, of course, their personality types, at times, can be intense and wear on you. But when I played for Stan, I would always go back to, like, “What is this guy’s agenda?” And it was the same agenda every time. It was winning. And I’ve been around great coaches in the NBA — and this is not a knock on any coach I’ve ever had because I’ve had great coaches — but I’ve never seen someone outwork Stan. I’ve never seen someone more prepared than Stan. And so … I always would come back to that core thing: This guy is about winning.

Towns: Just like with you and Stan, with us with Thibs, we understand that every time we step on that court, he has our back. … When we go in the game, we always feel that we have an advantage. … We understand that, going in, we have the most prepared coaching staff, he’s prepared us the most for our game, he understands every intricacy that comes with the game, and we’re ready to go. And at the end of the day, whether we lose or we win, he prepared us for that moment.