One of the things we often do is look back at players’ careers and discuss the defining moments in which they appeared to take the “leap” into superstardom. We think of Dwyane Wade leading the Heat to the 2006 title or Kevin Durant leading the Thunder to a 20 game improvement and the playoffs for the first time while leading the league in scoring in his third season in 2009-10.
The reality is this is usually just historical revisionism that conveniently fits a narrative. These guys were great before their teams caught up with them, and most of what we think of as a “leap” is actually the culmination of steady improvement.
Which brings us to today’s subject: Karl-Anthony Towns.
There are countless ways to parse how good Karl-Anthony Towns has been over his first three seasons. We like to make groups: How many players have done X-Y-Z? Usually, when you do that with Towns, he winds up in groups with guys like Shaquille O’Neal and David Robinson, some of the best big men in the history of the NBA.
Here’s one, just from this season: Players who have posted a true shooting percentage over .625, a defensive rebounding percentage over 30 percent, and assist percentage over 10 percent. Here’s the list since they have been measuring those things:
Karl-Anthony Towns, 2017-18.
As far as I can tell, Wilt also did it once. I can’t find anybody else.
So whatever happens over the next week, or month, is unlikely to mean much over the arc of what is shaping up to be an incredible career.
But now, after two years of being buried early, we are rushing toward the end of a meaningful Wolves season. With four games left, the Wolves sit seventh in the Western Conference, amid a large group of teams vying for playoff spots and better seeds. The Wolves have been up and down over much of the year, and have been hanging precariously onto their spot since Jimmy Butler was injured just after the All-Star break.
After being embarrassed on their home floor by the Utah Jazz in what was a monster game on Sunday, they are in Denver tonight to face a resurgent Nuggets team that is snapping at their heels, currently in the ninth spot one game behind the Wolves. The Nuggets have won three in a row, with two of those wins coming in overtime. They are making their final push, and two of each team’s remaining games are against each other.
Which means two more matchups between Towns and one of the other great young bigs in the NBA, Nikola Jokic. Jokic is not the otherworldly scoring talent that Towns is, but is one of the best passing bigs in the NBA, and the Nuggets run much of their offense through him, so much so that they don’t need to start a true point guard, instead letting shooter Jamal Murray occupy that spot.
So this is Towns’ moment. Is he ready to step forward and lead the Wolves into the playoffs? In the first two meetings between these teams, the Wolves were able to come away with wins, but in both they had Jimmy Butler, while the Nuggets were missing their big off-season acquisition, Paul Millsap. Now the shoe is on the other foot, as it appears unlikely Butler will make his return from meniscus surgery tonight, and Millsap has been working his way back into the Nuggets lineup.
In the first meeting, Towns went for 25 and 10 and was a big force including scoring the Wolves’ first 11 points in a 32-20 fourth quarter that led to the victory. Jokic scored 22, but also committed 10 turnovers, which were a big factor in the game.
In the second meeting, an overtime Wolves win after they were up 13 at halftime, Towns posted 14-13-6 with 4 blocks, but fouled out in just 30 minutes.
In both games, Jimmy Butler was a monster down the stretch. The Wolves will not have that luxury tonight, and so it falls on Towns, clearly their best available player, to have an even bigger impact on proceedings.
The question looms whether he will step-up and lead this team to where it wants to go. Like the rest of the squad, he’s been up and down recently. Towns was completely dominated by Joel Embiid and Philadelphia’s front line, struggled against the Grizzlies and Marc Gasol, responded with a career-high 56 against the Hawks, had a 20-20 game in a tight win over the Mavericks, and ultimately was not a big factor against Rudy Gobert and the Jazz.
But now the Wolves need him to emerge as a true superstar. Their playoff hopes are on the line over the next week, and much of it rests on Towns’ shoulders. He is fully capable of dominating games and leading the Wolves to wins, and he must show that starting tonight if they are to reach the goal he personally set before the season started: Making the playoffs.
While the fate of his career clearly does not rest with the next week of basketball, it would be a huge gift to see our young and hyper-talented star grab this stretch by the scruff of the neck and drag the Wolves over the finish line.
Karl-Anthony Towns is the guy who can do it. It’s been a long time since we’ve enjoyed the satisfaction of watching big wins at crucial moments. The last time was when the Wolves were led by another supremely talented big man. Towns has the capability of returning that level of excitement to the fanbase, and this week would be a fantastic time to do it.