clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Karl-Anthony Towns Changed His Tone — And The Timberwolves’ Trajectory Along With It

The Three-Time All-Star heard all the noise. Now, it’s shaping up to be a thing of the past.

Portland Trail Blazers v Minnesota Timberwolves Photo by David Sherman/NBAE via Getty Images

Karl-Anthony Towns has heard all the noise.

“He’s an empty calories guy.”

“He’s a whiner.”

“He’s all bark and no bite.”

“He’s soft.”

“He’s not a leader.”

“He’ll never win in Minnesota.”

Los Angeles Lakers v Minnesota Timberwolves Photo by David Sherman/NBAE via Getty Images

This year, the engine driving the Minnesota Timberwolves is coming for it all, putting that noise in the background and his generational game center stage.

Perhaps the NBA superstar most under-appreciated by his own market and fan base, Towns has for years served an indefinite sentence as the punching bag for the organization’s ineptitude to build a winning team around him.

After all he’s persevered through, he doesn’t owe the Minnesota Timberwolves organization — or frankly its fan base — a damn thing.

For nearly seven years, Towns has stood by a franchise and community that hasn’t always loved him back not only in the way most NBA franchises and communities throw their arms around No. 1 picks, but also in the way he deserves for the energy he has poured into them.

Towns made a promise to the late, great Flip Saunders that he would end the drought, win in Minnesota, and take the franchise, now partly synonymous with Saunders’ name, back where it should be — the NBA Playoffs.

Given the happenings of the last three seasons, the 2018 gentlemen’s sweep at the hands of the Houston Rockets feels no different a five-minute drizzle in the dead of a desert.

But this season, now surrounded by the best supporting cast (on and off the court) he has ever had, the seven-footer has dug into previously untapped parts of his soul to unlock an ascension many in Minnesota never thought was possible.

Last week, Towns eclipsed the Timberwolves’ franchise record — and his own personal best — of 56 points with record-setting 60 burger that held a different tasted than any 30-, 40-, or 50-piece Chicken McNugget of years past.

“Just two totally different vibes when I got it,” Towns said of his performance, comparing it to his 56-point game in 2018. “I’ve told these guys before, I appreciate it so much, because I ain’t ever been celebrated. I don’t know how that feels. So to have people do that when I got 60 was a crazy feeling... They make these moments special.”

That treatment is the fruit of Towns’ labor.

The 26-year-old unicorn flashed the same excellence in the early part of this season that he has in each of the previous six seasons of his career, but it felt different. Towns looked meaner and more composed, carrying the confidence a man with nothing to lose, eager to prove that he wouldn’t let his teammates carry the same taste of last season into this one.

Houston Rockets v Minnesota Timberwolves Photo by Harrison Barden/Getty Images

When I watched Towns hop off his middle seat on the bench during introductions before a season-opening throttling of the Rockets in October, he looked happy to be bouncing up and walking into the middle of a surrounded by teammates that overflowed with joy and positivity. That, of course, is undoubtedly runoff from Anthony Edwards, the most effervescent and charmingly magnetizing 20-year-old Minnesota has ever known.

It didn’t take long for the Wolves to show off an unselfishly connected, fearless, and tenacious brand of basketball we’ve grown accustomed to in Minnesota. (I can’t believe I typed that as a true statement).

But, that statement is true because of Karl-Anthony Towns.

All he needed was to be surrounded by a group that has as much belief in him as Towns has in himself.

Minnesota head coach Chris Finch spearheads that group. Finch knows how to best communicate with Towns — from a place of love with equal parts appreciation, empowerment, honesty and accountability. Finch’s players, led by Patrick Beverley and Edwards, have followed his lead, with a clear understanding that the Jimmy Butler/Tom Thibodeau accosting leadership style doesn’t work for anyone.

San Antonio Spurs v Minnesota Timberwolves Photo by Jordan Johnson/NBAE via Getty Images

The resulting culture and environment from the partnership between Finch, Towns, and his teammates has fueled the success of every single player on the roster — with Towns chief among them.

“We tell him [how special he is] every day. ... I tell him all the time, ‘Bruh you can average 40!’ I ain’t never played with a big this good,” Edwards said after last week’s win over the Los Angeles Lakers. “You can average 40 points. Like, he can shoot the 3 as good as anybody in the world, and you can put it on the floor and get to the rim. I just ask him one thing. To go quick so they can’t double. And he been doing it and he been killin’.”

Towns so strongly believes in his teammates and himself that he didn’t let a skid featuring seven losses in nine games early in the season deter him. After eating some punches on the chin, he and the Wolves got off the canvas throwing major haymakers to the tune of five straight wins, culminating with a change in the air at Target Center the night before Thanksgiving.

While many in the Twin Cities were busy celebrating Drunksgiving at their favorite bar, Towns’ Wolves celebrated with an emotionally thorough bludgeoning of Butler’s Miami Heat, a clear signal to the old guard Butler/Thibodeau apologists that there was a new crew in the 612, ready to build something lasting.

Once Towns tasted what it was like to finally break through in games like that, with a supportive team that trusted at his back, he had the blueprint for what it would take to make a loud, we-have-arrived type of run to make the playoffs.

Miami Heat v Minnesota Timberwolves Photo by David Berding/Getty Images

After a stretch mired by injuries and COVID-19, the Wolves shot of the New Year like a cannon looking like a completely different team, led by Towns.

Towns dropped 40 in an inspiring performance against the Rockets that evidently helped him come to a potentially franchise-altering realization:

When Towns steps on the floor, he can be better than everyone on the court each and every night.

While the ascendant star wouldn’t admit it, it has never felt like he truly felt that way. For years, we’ve heard Towns talk about not shooting more because “I have to get my teammates involved,” or “I let the game come to me.”

Now, the Edison, New Jersey native is coming at the jugular every night with a palpable feeling that no one in his path can stop him. That feeling is bolstered by Towns’ stylistic changes.

He is putting it on the deck and attacking more instead of posting up, driving 7.8 times per game and getting to the line for 6.5 free throw attempts per game, both career-highs. Only two-time MVP and 2021 Finals MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo putting up numbers similar to what Towns is doing on the drive among scoring bigs. But, Giannis isn’t capable of driving how KAT does because even though he is more explosive than Towns, he doesn’t have the same perimeter handle or interior touch that Towns possesses. (Not to mention Giannis can’t hold a candle to Towns’ shotmaking ability).

Here are just a few of the drives Towns has converted on since the All-Star Break.

That last clip is a far cry from where some were sixth months ago, considering the prospect of a Towns trade to once again “reset” a franchise that hasn’t known how to operate outside of a reset for the last two decades.

While Wolves fans felt the impact of his game sooner than the league at large may have, it latter is crucial to validating how transcendent Towns’ play has proven to be.

I started to feel the tide of KAT’s league-wide perception turning on a chilly yet pivotal February night in Cleveland, Ohio.

During his third trip to the All-Star game, Towns stamped himself as one of the league’s premier players in a brilliant display of shooting greatness en route to winning the All-Star Weekend 3-Point Content with record-setting score of 29 in the final round.

Towns’ performance had the league buzzing with praise. Ultimately, because of lackluster team performance that his generational talent couldn’t overcome, the sound of KAT’s play never made waves in national media.

But, with the Timberwolves’ record sitting at 31-28 — the No. 7 seed in the West at the time — largely because of Towns’ play on both ends, the 3-Point Contest turned up the volume on that sound. The league started to take notice.

KAT’s play has undoubtedly turned even his loudest critics into believers. He has the attention of the entire league as a serious problem on a nightly basis, which never truly felt to be the case in years prior.

Since the break, the former Kentucky standout is averaging 25.6 points per game on 54.5/40.4/82.6 shooting splits, 10.4 rebounds, 4.0 assists, and 2.1 stocks per game, while leading his team to a 23-11 record.

That includes a Western Conference-best 11-3 stretch since the All-Star Break, during which the Wolves have the league’s No. 3 offense, No. 5 defense, and No. 2 net rating (+11.8).

In that span, Towns is driving 8.1 times per game and scoring more points per drive than any player in the league at his volume or higher. He is making defenses feel him by drawing the entire defense’s attention, and as a result simplifying everything for his teammates.

Minnesota Timberwolves v Dallas Mavericks Photo by Ron Jenkins/Getty Images

The tone of his game has changed.

Towns has left a passive, “let the game come to me” default in the rearview in exchange for asserting dominance early, often, and repeatedly.

His teammates understand that this is a different version of Karl-Anthony Towns than they have seen in years past.

“I thought my biggest task when I came here was going to be KAT and it’s not. It’s been great,” Beverley said after the win over the Lakers. “Man, of course you hear all those stories about different players before you meet them. Guys, they tell me this, they tell me that about KAT and just seeing him up personal, it’s totally the opposite of everything I’ve heard.”

Edwards credits Towns’ edge to the team’s collective swag rubbing off on the big fella.

That swag was on full display against the Lakers. He made sure everyone knows, including the all-time greats, that he is not a player you can talk trash to without catching some action in return.

I’ll let you do the lip reading, but there is no way KAT is doing (or saying) that in years past. We’re seeing a different beast come out of the same animal and it has to be terrifying for opposing defenses.

Minnesota sat at 4-9 when Towns went to bed on November 15th — his 26th birthday — after dropping 35 points and 13 rebounds in a three-point home loss to the Phoenix Suns. Exactly four months later, he laid his head down after dropping 60 points in perfect breakthrough exhibition of how his mindset — and his game — has evolved.

“I feel like anytime I touch the ball, I’m unstoppable. I don’t think anyone in this league can guard me one-on-one,” Towns said after his 60-point performance. “I feel like every time I touch the ball, any shot I shot tonight, I feel like that every single night against everybody. ... My confidence is not built off voice and just fakeness, my confidence is built off the work that I put in. It’s not fake confidence.”

There’s nothing fake about a 60-ball.

But, there’s still more work to be done and levels to unlock for Towns — he’s not infallible.

A good example of this came in the team’s next game. KAT had to sit in the third quarter because of foul trouble and was on the bench voicing his frustrations about the officiating, before Beverley stepped in.

Towns responded to Beverley’s challenge by dropping 16 points as part of a dominant fourth quarter scoring performance to put away the Lakers.

Instead of KAT fizzling out, and being swept away into a rough sea of emotion, he is refusing to stay down. The All-NBA talent is responding to challenges from his teammates — who hold him accountable every step of the way — and, in doing so, driving winning.

In the words of Beverley: “He’s the engine of this team and we can only go as far as he can take us.”

The constant edge Towns now carries has breathed new life into his game, but perhaps more importantly into the Timberwolves’ franchise trajectory moving forward.

The key question about the franchise has changed.

For years the question has been been some form of “Should their Wolves hitch their wagon to a player like Karl-Anthony Towns?” Now, the realistic question Sachin Gupta, the Timberwolves, and the league at large are asking is “How far can this Karl-Anthony Towns take the Timberwolves?”

Now surrounded by a young superstar in the making in Edwards and a point guard in Russell that accentuates his strengths, Towns’ game on both ends shines in a way it never has before on its own.

For his efforts, Towns is in line to earn his second All-NBA selection, which would make him eligible to sign a four-year, ~$201.3 million extension that would make Minnesota his home for six seasons beyond this one.

That, combined with Towns finally feeling empowered, supported, and loved in a way he never has before in Minnesota has created a special opportunity.

The Wolves are on the verge of bringing NBA Playoff basketball back to a city that now fully embraces its reformed leader, Towns, who is ready to make good on a promise to the man that made it all possible for him in Minnesota.