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Are We Sure … Karl-Anthony Towns Isn’t the Best Big Man in the NBA?

The Wolves center dominated down the stretch last season. Could he hit an even higher level now that the team is building around him instead of Jimmy Butler?

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

The NBA offseason established a bunch of new story lines that require closer inspection. Throughout the next month-plus, we’re giving second thoughts to the most intriguing ones.

Today’s question: Are we sure Karl-Anthony Towns isn’t already the best big man in the NBA?

Karl-Anthony Towns is 23 years old. He will be 24 for much of the 2019-20 campaign, his fifth season in the NBA. He is just outside the top 10 in NBA MVP futures odds, according to FanDuel, sharing the same odds as Kyrie Irving and Luka Doncic. Depending on how much of a leap Doncic will make in his sophomore season, Towns is the youngest MVP contender in the NBA. Still, his youth—he is only four months older than the Suns’ 2019 lottery pick, Cameron Johnson—belies the exhausting shifts in the way people have reengineered KAT’s narrative and trajectory since his 2015-16 rookie season. Which, if you’ve forgotten, was incredible. He was one of only eight rookies in history to average at least 18 points, 10 rebounds, and 1.5 blocks per game, joining present-and-future Hall of Fame players like Tim Duncan, Shaquille O’Neal, Hakeem Olajuwon, and David Robinson.

He demonstrated unique gifts then—the size, length, and verticality to be an ideal rim protector; the strength to power through fellow centers down on the block; the touch and willingness to extend his range out to the 3-point line; the lateral mobility to one day become an omnipositional defender. It was a foreign combination of skills housed in the frame of a vintage center. But more than that was the idea that his skill set wasn’t just a word cloud waiting to be potentiated—the results were already plain to see. His future, by sheer force of talent, felt predetermined.

Of course, it wasn’t: He was 20 years old. The only thing truly preordained at that age is the swiftness with which attitudes and environments change. Indeed, over the past three seasons, KAT has grown into something else. These days, he’s less Kevin Garnett, more Dirk Nowitzki—a historically good shooter at his position, hidden by his obvious physical gifts. He’s not the all-world defender he flashed the potential of becoming earlier in his career, but he’s developed his offensive game in ways no one could have predicted him to in his lone season at Kentucky—in ways that turn him into a true one-of-one in today’s league.

Unlike either KG or Dirk, though, Towns is playing in an era when teams actually know how to build around an anomalous player. And the Wolves are showing signs that they know what needs to be done to best complement their star. Good timing: Towns’s five-year, $158 million max extension has kicked in and will take him through his age-27 season, the same season Garnett made his first conference final and the year Dirk made his first NBA Finals. For now, youth is still on KAT’s side. And maybe it’s time then, as he enters Year 5 of his career, to start celebrating Towns for what he is rather than what he isn’t.

That player arrived around the time 2019 did. Towns had started to spread his wings after the mid-November trade that sent Jimmy Butler to the Sixers, but he reached a new level after the Wolves fired Tom Thibodeau in early January. In the 37 games Towns played under Wolves coach Ryan Saunders, he averaged 26.8 points (on a ridiculous 54/42/84 shooting split), 12.4 rebounds, 3.7 assists, and 1.3 blocks per game. The most eye-popping figure of the lot might be Towns’s accuracy from 3, hitting 42 percent on nearly five attempts per game. Nowitzki, for what it’s worth, never reached five attempts per game in any season of his career; Towns will almost assuredly surpass it in 2019-20. The second most eye-popping figure might be his assist average, which matches Garnett’s career number. Towns’s ever-expanding perimeter skills slowed the game down for himself, and the space he was suddenly operating in allowed him to flash some dormant creativity as a facilitator.

The Wolves are still asking the world of Towns to bring them back into the playoffs, but for once, they aren’t trying to build a superstructure on top of a lofty idea of what Towns might be; they’re building around the skills he’s already elite at. All the pieces in place at Minnesota now are meant to accentuate Towns’s unique gravity as a sharpshooting, semitraditional big man. The franchise’s confidence in his ability to serve as a primary playmaker for others can be seen in their draft-night moves, trading a point forward in Dario Saric in order to land Jarrett Culver, a Swiss army knife wing who could easily thrive playing under Towns’s auspices in an inverted offensive scheme.

KAT hasn’t quite lived up to his billing as a defensive playmaker after his rookie season, and the Wolves have worked on augmenting his support on that end of the floor with two recent big-men acquisitions in Jordan Bell and Noah Vonleh. Bell cut his teeth on championship Warriors teams as a Draymond Green disciple, moonlighting at center and showcasing his switchability; Vonleh has spent the past few seasons rounding out into a quality role player with the length and mobility to cover a lot of ground on defense.

Minnesota can play big up front, and it can play small, with 3-and-D soldiers like Robert Covington or Jake Layman moving up a position to man the 4. The Wolves have a cadre of players comfortable playing off the ball, cutting and relocating to give Towns the space to either pass, pull up, or drive down the center of the lane. Nikola Jokic is a better passer but even at his most assertive won’t take over a game on offense the same way KAT can; Joel Embiid, Giannis Antetokounmpo, and Anthony Davis all have rightful claims at being better two-way players, but none can shoot nearly as well from distance, which might be just as meaningful to the way teams game-plan around a star.

And that’s where this upcoming season gets interesting for the Wolves. This might just be the year the hype swings all the way back around for their franchise cornerstone. Towns will have not only a sense of continuity, but a sense of agency over the direction of the franchise. They’ve finally gone all in on the actual Karl-Anthony Towns. That’s the biggest change the team could have offered him.