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KAT’s Out of the Bag

Karl-Anthony Towns has one of the most singular games in history, but coaches have pigeonholed him because of his size rather than let his unicorn flag fly. With a new regime in Minnesota, Towns is finally ready to be his best self—and, maybe, take the Timberwolves to the next level.

Pablo Iglesias

When University of Kentucky assistant Kenny Payne first saw Karl-Anthony Towns play for Saint Joseph High School in New Jersey in person, he saw a 16-year-old center who rarely played in the paint and spent most of the game shooting 3s. While that type of game is perfect for the NBA in 2019, there were still questions about whether it was the best way to use a guy with his size in 2012.

“We told [Towns] that you will always have exceptional ballhandling skills and an unbelievable ability to shoot the ball. We are not going to take that away from you,” Payne told me by phone recently. “But the foundation of guys that dominate college basketball, the things that translate to the NBA game, is a fundamentally sound base of post play. You have to master 8 feet and in.”

The 3-point revolution was just beginning when Towns arrived at Kentucky in 2014. Steph Curry’s Warriors hadn’t won their first title, and few NBA front offices knew what to make of Towns. People around the Minnesota Timberwolves organization at the time told me that he didn’t overtake Jahlil Okafor to be the team’s choice for the no. 1 pick in the 2015 draft until after the NCAA season.

In the AAU circuit, Towns was perceived as “soft” because he was “being beasted by guys,” said NBC Sports college basketball and recruiting writer Scott Phillips. Towns was the rare skilled big man among a high school class of traditional bigs like Okafor, Cliff Alexander, and Kevon Looney. “He was kind of ahead of his time,” Phillips said.

John Calipari and the Wildcats staff wanted to change the perception of Towns, so they put him into a more traditional offensive role. Towns attempted only eight 3s in his one season in Lexington, and 42.7 percent of his offensive possessions came out of the post, per Synergy Sports.

“Karl is a different soul in that he’s highly intelligent. He’s his own man. He asks questions. He has opinions,” Payne said. “One of our first conversations about basketball came when I was working him out. I said, ‘All right, Karl, you are really smart. We can both agree that you are a lot smarter than me. But here’s the deal: You can never ever question the way that we are going to train, the way that you are going to play basketball.’”

It’s hard to argue with the results, even with Towns averaging only 21.1 minutes per game because Calipari split his rotation into two five-man platoons. He was unstoppable when he was on the floor, with per-40-minute averages of 19.5 points on 56.6 percent shooting, 12.7 rebounds, and 4.3 blocks. Towns controlled the paint on both sides of the ball, and Kentucky breezed through the regular season undefeated before losing in the Final Four.

In a sense, Towns was a victim of his own talent. He didn’t need to use every aspect of his game to dominate college basketball. Imagine a Mack truck with the speed and handling of a Porsche. If the driver never pressed the accelerator, no one would know how fast it could go. That was Towns at Kentucky.

He has shown more in the NBA, but he still hasn’t had the same freedom that he had in high school. Tom Thibodeau, who took over as coach and president of basketball operations in Minnesota in 2016 ahead of Towns’s sophomore season, wanted to keep his star big man in the paint almost as much as Calipari. So while Towns’s 3-point attempts have steadily risen since he came into the league, he also led the league in post-ups in 2016-17, and was second in 2018-19.

“I’ve barely shown shit,” Towns told me as we stood to the side of the Wolves practice court a few weeks ago.

It’s hard to believe a player who has made two All-Star teams and one All-NBA team is just scratching the surface, but the more you talk to people in Minnesota, the more you realize how far Towns can still go.

While Towns was being pushed off the 3-point line as recently as last season, a window into the future of the sport was on display in Las Vegas in the summer of 2012. Towns, then only 16, faced off with Anthony Davis, fresh off a national championship at Kentucky, in an exhibition between the Dominican Republic and Team USA.

Neither Towns nor Davis played much on the perimeter in college, but in the looser environment of an international exhibition, each shot a 3 over the other. After his, Davis playfully yelled at Calipari, who was coaching the Dominican team. In a postgame interview, Towns told a video crew from Slam Magazine that “Coach Cal really wanted to see how my low-post game was. He knew it was good, but he wanted to improve it.”

Gersson Rosas, the Wolves’ new president of basketball operations, worked under Daryl Morey in Houston at the time. A native of Colombia, he had deep roots in the international basketball scene. It didn’t take long for Towns to catch his eye:

“I remember [Towns] at 16 at the Hoop Summit. He was a freak in terms of skill and feel. He could already shoot the heck out of the ball,” Rosas told me as we sat in the video room of the Wolves practice facility. “He’s just a natural athlete. We put him in the batting cage and the guy can really hit the ball. Take him to Top Golf and he’s the best guy there.”

Rosas called Towns the best shooting big man in the league, and even that might be underselling him. He has a case to be the best shooting big man of all time. Towns is no. 1 in career 3-point percentage among the 41 7-footers in NBA history who have taken at least 100 3s:

Big Men Career 3s

Player Career 3PA Career 3P%
Player Career 3PA Career 3P%
Karl-Anthony Towns 1,003 39.2
Channing Frye 2,706 38.8
Meyers Leonard 703 38.5
Wang Zhizhi 182 38.5
Dirk Nowitzki 5,210 38.0

Big men might not even be the best comparison for Towns. His combination of scoring and long-range shooting is unique for a player of any size. He is no. 2 in career 3-point percentage among players who have averaged at least 20 points per game and taken at least 100 3s. The only guy ahead of him is Steph Curry.

There is little doubt that Towns could take more 3s than he did last season. The percentage of his total field goal attempts that came from behind the arc (.270) was more than two times lower than Curry’s (.604). The difference between Towns and Curry is that Towns isn’t a 6-foot-3 guard who needs ballhandling wizardry to get his shot off. Towns is 7 feet and 248 pounds—he can shoot over the vast majority of NBA defenders without doing anything special. There is no way to keep him from shooting 3s. The only team that could ever stop him was his own.

The new regime in Minnesota doesn’t have a target number for Towns’s 3-point attempts. Ryan Saunders, who enters his first full season as head coach after taking over for Thibodeau as the interim last season, just wants to give him more chances to take the shot within the flow of the offense.

“We want to put him in positions and actions where he is handling the ball at the top of the key and the ball goes through him. You want the ball to touch your best players’ hands each time down the court,” Saunders told me in his office after a practice. “He’s got huge feet but he moves like a guard sometimes. We ran him off a pin-down screen today, and it worked. He is a guy who can do things that you wouldn’t expect.”

Giving Towns the chance to take more 3s is only the first step. The benefit of playing him at the 3-point line goes beyond the value of the shots themselves. It also changes the structure of the Wolves offense.

“When you have a big who is shooting 40 percent from 3, we can live all night with him shooting those shots because of how good a shooter he is,” Rosas said. “The defense is not going to give that up. And when you have to lift a big to play him [at the 3-point line], that changes the whole dimension of” the game.

Look at the space Jeff Teague had on this drive in a preseason game last week. Towns had taken a 3 the play before, forcing Warriors center Marquese Chriss to guard him 25-plus feet from the basket:

When I asked Towns how he would be used differently this season, he gave me a look like I didn’t really know what I was asking.

“I feel that I’m going to be used. I’m going to be able to be used,” he said. “I’m having fun. I’m having fun playing the game. Being able to be as creative as I am on both sides of the basketball is very important to me.”

Toward the end of Towns’s freshman season at Kentucky, when the Wildcats were in the midst of chasing history, Payne remembers going to dinner with Towns and junior center Willie Cauley-Stein. While Cauley-Stein wound up being taken with the no. 6 pick, Towns had clearly established himself as their best player. But instead of demanding that his teammates get him the ball more often, he went out of his way to make sure they were involved in the offense.

“[Towns] tells Willie, don’t worry about this or that. I’m going to make sure that you get baskets. You just make sure that you are on the court at the same time that I am,” said Payne with a laugh. “I’m like, Willie, do you understand what he just said to you? You have been in college for three years and he’s been there for three months. He’s telling you that he’s going to make sure that you are OK. That is the kind of mind-set, the kind of giver, the kind of thought process the kid has.”

Towns, who has averaged 2.6 assists per game and 2.5 turnovers per game in his first four seasons in the NBA, hasn’t gotten those same opportunities in Minnesota, where he has been used more to finish plays than create them for others. His development was stalled the past two seasons by the never-ending circus surrounding Jimmy Butler, who pushed Towns into a smaller role on offense before forcing his way out of town.

It was hard for Towns to be a playmaker in Thibodeau’s system. A big man in the low post on a team without 3-point shooting has no one to pass to. Minnesota was dead last in the NBA in 3-point attempts in 2016-17 and 2017-18 and no. 26 in 2018-19. This clip, with all five Utah defenders in the paint, is a typical example of the defensive coverages that Towns faced:

“Everyone wants to put the 4 on me, and have their big have a weakside block on me to give the 4 more help,” Towns said. “So the 5 is not having to get in foul trouble or guard me one-on-one.”

The Wolves can actually counter that defense this season. Instead of Taj Gibson, a traditional power forward who couldn’t stretch the floor, they are starting Robert Covington, a 3-and-D forward whom they acquired from the 76ers in the Butler trade, at the 4.

Going small is going to make the Wolves “more dynamic, more lethal,” Covington said. “That is still going to put [defenses] in a bind. That’s going to take them away from the rim. Ultimately I am going to be away from the ball a lot. A lot of centers want to watch the ball, and I move all the time. If you turn your head, I’m not going to be there.”

Minnesota will invert its offense this season. Instead of the big man stationed in the paint and the guards spread out along the perimeter, the Wolves want Towns at the 3-point line and in the high post with the other four players cutting into the paint.

“I’ve been cutting more than I have my entire career,” said Jordan Bell, who signed a one-year contract with the Wolves in the offseason. “KAT is such a good playmaker up top and he attracts so much attention. There’s not usually a big guy who has that much attention on him as far as having the ball in his hands on the perimeter.”

These two passes to a cutting Andrew Wiggins are perfect examples of the way Towns can make plays in the new offense:

It’s a simple equation for Minnesota: Make the game easier for Towns and he will make it easier for his teammates.

“The best thing that I’ve found with [Towns] is that he’s unselfish,” Rosas said. “He knows that he’s naturally talented enough that he’s going to get his numbers. He understands the game within the game. Which is—if I do the right things by the offense, the offense will do the right things by me.”

For as much as Towns has been misused on offense, the Wolves’ biggest problems have come on the other end of the floor. And Towns, as the anchor of a bottom-seven defense for four straight seasons, has received a lot of the blame. Joel Embiid even called him out on Instagram last season.

Gorgui Dieng, Towns’s teammate since the latter came into the NBA, didn’t mince words when discussing where Towns needs to improve:

“I think KAT is a great player. And he is very talented. But he still has to decide where he wants to go with it. If he really wants to win or if he just wants to play to play. He’s not a kid anymore. If we want to change, it has to start with him,” Dieng told me. “If he really cares about defense, we are in good shape.”

There is no reason for Towns to be a bad defender. He was considered an elite defensive prospect coming out of college, and his combination of size, length, and athleticism make him one of the rare big men with the versatility to protect the rim and extend out on the perimeter.

“If we want to be a successful team, we have to have a better defense,” Rosas said. “[Towns] has the ability to impact the game on that end, not only as a pick-and-roll defender, as a rim protector, but as a defensive rebounder.”

The Wolves hope part of that improvement will come from a new defense installed by former Trail Blazers assistant David Vanterpool. Portland ran an analytically oriented scheme the past two seasons, finishing at no. 6 in defense in 2017-18 and no. 16 in 2018-19 despite not having many defensive-minded players. The Blazers planted their big men at the rim, ran offensive players off the 3-point line, and tried to lure opponents into taking lower-percentage long 2s. Towns has shown flashes of the ability to switch screens when guarding the pick-and-roll, so it will be interesting to see how much room Vanterpool gives him to break his scheme this season.

The Wolves also made some key changes to their supporting cast. It starts with Covington, who played only 22 games for them last season before injuring his knee. According to NBA Advanced Stats, Minnesota had a defensive rating of 106.7 in 568 minutes when Towns played next to Covington, a first-team All-Defensive selection in 2017-18. That number skyrocketed to 111.4 in his 1,544 minutes without Covington.

”When you have a great defender like [Covington], everyone’s defense looks way better because … they fix and fill in holes and they make things happen,” Towns said at Wolves media day. “If RoCo is on that side of the wing, I don’t have to worry about penetration coming into the paint.”

The Wolves believe Towns needs more switchable wings like Covington around him, which could be one of the biggest benefits of their new offensive system. If Towns is spending more time at the 3-point line, they can add bigger and more athletic perimeter defenders at the expense of shooting. Rosas made adding size on the perimeter a priority this offseason, and now Minnesota has one of the biggest groups of wings in the league:

SG: Treveon Graham (6-5, 225), Josh Okogie (6-4, 212)
SF: Andrew Wiggins (6-8, 194), Jarrett Culver (6-7, 195)
PF: Robert Covington (6-9, 225), Jake Layman (6-9 215), Jordan Bell (6-9 224)

The downside of playing three wings around Towns is that he has to do more of the heavy lifting in the paint. Sharing a frontcourt with big men like Gibson and Dieng meant that he didn’t always have to match up with elite centers. If the Wolves use Towns more as the sole big man, he has to hold up against bigger guys like Embiid and Nikola Jokic, who will try to overpower him.

Getty Images

“[Towns] has to be a smart defender,” Saunders said. “Somebody who basically does his work early … so you are not getting yourself out of position to where you are going to have to foul to prevent a basket.”

Minnesota expects Towns to focus more and pay better attention to detail. The hope is that he’ll follow the maturation process of many elite scorers: establish themselves on offense early in their careers before becoming more well-rounded as they move into their prime. The Wolves will need Towns to make that leap this season to have any shot at making the playoffs in a loaded Western Conference, but Rosas is also keeping an eye on the bigger picture.

“We have talked about legacy, we have talked about winning. We are very fortunate that he is a mature guy who understands that the only way you are going to be confirmed as a player in this league is by winning,” Rosas said. “For us, the fortunate thing is that he’s 24, not 34. … We don’t want to be shortsighted. It’s laying a foundation as he grows and develops. As he enters his prime, our team is going to be built to maximize his windows and have the highest levels of success.”

Rosas has long been considered one of the brightest front office prospects in the NBA. So he could afford to be picky about the job he chose. When I asked him what made the Wolves job the one, he mentioned two things: Towns and the opportunity for “alignment” among him, the coaching staff, and the organization. He will get to execute his vision for how to build around a unique talent.

“We can do different things, even compared to Houston. … When you have a big you can invert [on offense] and cause mismatch nightmares. There’s a lot of things that we are doing to push the modern NBA offense,” he told me. “[Towns] gives you the model of the super-skilled, super-versatile, and super-intelligent player that understands how this whole thing works.”

Still, there are some parallels between Rosas’s new team and his old one. The Rockets acquired Harden at 23, the same age Towns is now, and then methodically added talent without ever bottoming out, building around Harden and changing the way NBA offenses worked in the process.

“We want to be a championship organization. We feel good about where we are going and what we are building, and KAT’s obviously a huge part of that,” Saunders said. “It will be heavily focused on him, and he’s up to that challenge, and I think he’s excited for that challenge. … You want to make sure that you are respecting his talent. And that’s what we plan to do.”

It has been a long time coming for Towns. His whole life people told him that a guy his size needed to play in the post, and that there was something wrong about wanting to play on the perimeter. But there has always been something special about him.

Payne said that conversations with Towns in high school were like talking to an adult. “One of the first conversations we had was about him reading Golf Digest and he’s explaining to me that he read the articles and became a single-digit handicap golfer. And I’m like, c’mon man.”

Six years later, the basketball world has finally caught up to Towns. He won’t even reach his prime for another four or five years. He might be the only one who knows how good he can be when he gets there.

“I’m having a good time right now being able to really play my game, and extend my game,” Towns said. “It’s always fun when you get to let the KAT out of the bag, no pun intended.”

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