Karl-Anthony Towns put a little extra on his breakaway windmill dunk more than halfway through the second quarter of a cathartic 112-105 win over the Sacramento Kings on Monday. The ball dipped to his knees midflight before being wound back up for a quick and emphatic finish, the crown jewel of a startling 20-1 Wolves run in the second quarter over the span of roughly three and a half minutes. KAT was, perhaps more than anything, showing off his full range of motion, showing that he was all right. A pyrotechnic thumbs-up.
Wolves fans were in need of assuagement. Earlier that day, Towns had detailed the circumstances behind his two-game absence last week, ending a run of 303 consecutive starts, the longest streak to start a career in at least 48 years, according to Elias Sports Bureau. Towns was a passenger in Wolves assistant strength and conditioning coach Kurt Joseph’s SUV en route to the airport to catch a team flight to New York City for their Friday game against the Knicks. Accident-related traffic down the road forced Joseph to make an abrupt stop on the I-35W, but the semitruck behind them, cruising at what Towns estimated to be 35 to 45 miles per hour, didn’t brake in time. The car was nailed, but no one was seriously hurt. Towns sat out the next two games as a precaution, but returned to action as soon as he passed concussion testing.
“I would say I had a 5 percent chance of making it out alive,” Towns told reporters. “I hit the 5 percent mark. And then, I’d say 4 percent was to be seriously injured, and 1 percent was to be minorly injured. And I came out in the 1 percent.” Hearing the details of the accident, a Minnesota fan would be forgiven for recalling the untimely auto-related death of Timberwolves guard Malik Sealy in 2000. “In all honesty I should not have made it out like I did,” Towns said. “But I’m glad I did.”
That has been the dominant motif of the Wolves season thus far: near-disasters of varying degrees. And yet, with the win over the Kings, there is a strange sense of hope. After losing six of seven games between January 25 and February 8, the Wolves are now tied with the Lakers and only three games behind the foundering Spurs squad for the final spot in the playoffs. It’s convenient timing; the Wolves have won four of their past five games while seemingly every team around them is descending into chaos. Minnesota will need all the help it can get, because the schedule surely won’t be doing it any favors from here on out. The Wolves have the second-strongest remaining schedule, and nine of their next 13 games are on the road, where they have the worst record among all 11 viable Western Conference playoff contenders. Yet, amid all the foreboding, there are reasons for optimism. Robert Covington has missed the past 23 games due to an ankle injury, but he’s been the Wolves’ second-best player when he’s on the court; when Towns and Covington share the floor, the Wolves operate like a top-three defense.
Through all the microdramas, teams depend on their best players down the stretch to put them over whatever hump they’re looking at. Towns, only four days removed from the car accident, looked every bit himself Monday—which is to say, a uniquely skilled big man putting up monster numbers despite still figuring out who he can be as a player. The 2015 no. 1 pick logged 34 points, 21 rebounds, five assists, and two blocks in under 31 minutes against the Kings. It was his second 30-20 game of the season (though he’s come close more than a handful of times); there have been only six such performances leaguewide so far.
The preciousness of life provided a certain gloss to Towns’s dominant performance on Monday, but this is who he’s been ever since the Jimmy Butler trade. Over the past 44 games, Towns has been one of the most well-rounded players, averaging 24.3 points (on 53/38/83 splits), 12.4 rebounds, 3.6 assists, 0.9 steals, and 1.7 blocks per game, numbers that echo the raw production of prime Tim Duncan. After achieving golden-boy status in his rookie season, Towns has faced the inevitable effect of gravity on every young star who ascends too fast for fans to calibrate their expectations. He’s been rightfully maligned for defensive miscues and a general lack of effort over the years, but on a team beset by both injuries and institutional strife, it’s been fun watching Towns explore the outer limits to his game and stumble into something new. For instance, watch KAT fumble a pass, only to turn the play into a devastating Shammgod stepback 3:
There are maybe five players I would trust to execute that play intentionally, and none are 7 feet tall. Towns’s size, touch, and innate court sense afford him certain luxuries that don’t exist for most in the NBA. There comes a time in every star’s career when the game proverbially slows down, and Towns might be reaping the benefits of his newfound control. Theoretically, there isn’t anything KAT can’t do on the court. He has the size of a traditional center, the lateral agility of a wing, and a career 3-point percentage higher than that of both Chauncey Billups and Rashard Lewis; in fact, he currently has the highest career 3-point percentage of any player taller than 6-foot-10 in NBA history.
Take two of those three attributes (size, shooting ability), and you’ll have created an even more shot-happy Bucks-era Brook Lopez; package all three the way Towns has, and you’ll have created an unguardable playmaker.
It’d be tough to find a clearer example of the game slowing down for Towns than the play above. KAT drags his former Kentucky teammate Willie Cauley-Stein out to the 3-point line and forces him to get into a contest stance before driving past him. Another former teammate, Nemanja Bjelica, cuts on the drive as the help defender, but Towns, in stride, freezes them both right at the free throw line with a crossover stepback. Anthony Tolliver (Bjelica’s man) instinctually makes a hard cut from the right wing to the rim. From there, all it takes is a hard pass fake in Tolliver’s direction to draw both Bjelica and Alec Burks (defending the corner) down into the paint. The result is a wide-open 3 for Luol Deng.
With Jeff Teague in and out of the lineup all season with nagging injuries, Towns has stepped up to become the Wolves’ most reliable facilitator. Minnesota was devoid of any rhythm in the fourth quarter when Towns had a prolonged rest due to foul trouble, with insipid errors from Andrew Wiggins and Derrick Rose, supposedly two of the Wolves’ better players. (Even Tyus Jones’s eight assists in the Kings game are misleading: Seven of them went to Towns, and almost all of them were no-brainer dump-offs.) Nuggets rising star Nikola Jokic may be a one-of-one type of player in the way he controls the flow of a game, but like any math-based practice, there are numerous ways to arrive at the same conclusion. He’s created a new template for the modern NBA center. Jokic manipulates space best with timing and vision; Towns manipulates space with his athletic prowess and insistent threat as a shooter. Take away the 3, and Towns is more than comfortable making plays on the move.
The prevailing wisdom of today’s mismatch-driven league is to get the ball into your best player’s hands by any means. Ryan Saunders, ever the millennial, is learning first-hand just how genre-defying Towns is becoming. It’d be tempting to jump ahead into a future when Towns could become even more of a full-time point center, but the Wolves have somehow turned the present into something worth salvaging.