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FIBA World Cup Day 1: KAT Shines; NAW, Canada Defeat Gobert, France

Towns led the Dominican Republic to a win over the Philippines with 26 points and 10 rebounds, while Alexander-Walker and Canada blew out Gobert and France.

Dominican Republic v Philippines: Group A - FIBA World Cup Photo by Yong Teck Lim/Getty Images

Four of the six Minnesota Timberwolves competing in the 2023 FIBA World Cup took the floor for the opening day of action in southeast Asia: Karl-Anthony Towns (Dominican Republic), Rudy Gobert (France), Nickeil Alexander-Walker (Canada) and Matteo Spagnolo (Italy).

No matter the results of the games, Day 1 was a success — no one got hurt.

Dominican Republic v Philippines: Group A - FIBA World Cup Photo by Yong Teck Lim/Getty Images

Karl-Anthony Towns (Dominican Republic)

Towns headlined the Wolves tipping off their tournament quests for gold, as he and his Dominican Republic squad took on Utah Jazz guard Jordan Clarkson and host country the Philippines in Manila. The three-time All-Star dropped 26 points, grabbed 10 rebounds, turned it over five times without recording an assist, and was a +9 in 35 minutes. Although he shot it inefficiently (5/16; 4/11 2PT and 1/5 3PT), Towns remained productive by doing most of his work from the free throw line, where he shot 15/16 (93.8%).

KAT earned Player of the Game honors as his team’s leading scorer and the game’s leading rebounder.

The big fella certainly understands that he is the team’s best player, as he has been very willing to get aggressive as a scorer and keep his foot on the gas pedal for all 40 minutes. Towns sensed that the Philippines couldn’t stay with him off the dribble, as most of the free throws he earned came by way of tough drives that started above the break — much like we saw down the stretch of the 2021-22 season, en route to Towns earning Third Team All-NBA.

When Towns didn’t drive, he wasn’t afraid to let it rip from behind the arc, either. We saw KAT put up some ambitious, wing-like 3-point shots in the D.R.’s tune-up games, and today was no different. He only connected on one 3-pointer in Friday’s win, but it came on a step-back shot, something Wolves fans near and far have — for years — been calling for more of.

While Towns’ 26 points and 10 rebounds look good on the surface, he’d surely be the first to say that he could play a much cleaner game. Turning it over five times without recording an assist is a poor outcome for someone with his playmaking talent, no matter how capable the players are around him. With that said, three of Towns’ five turnovers were not his fault. This pass in particular was awesome, and a play KAT will hit Jaden McDaniels and Anthony Edwards on plenty this coming season.

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The shooting numbers will come and go, especially with how zeroed in on Towns opposing defenses will be, but taking better care of the ball will be an important focus.

All in all, it was a good start to Towns’ run with the Dominican Republic, and Wolves fans should be extremely excited both by how quick and explosive KAT looked off the bounce and how he consistently drew fouls without committing offensive fouls of his own on the drive. Towns’ burst was understandably not there after he returned late in the season from a Grade 3 calf strain that caused him to miss 51 games. But his athleticism certainly looks to be back in peak form, which will only help him on both ends of the floor as a more full-time 4 in the Timberwolves lineup this coming season.

Next up for KAT and the Dominican Republic is a battle with Italy on Sunday morning at 3:00 AM CT.

Here are the highlights from his opening game:

France v Australia Photo by Takashi Aoyama/Getty Images

Rudy Gobert (France)

Gobert has seen better days while repping Les Blues. Canada destroyed France 95-65 in the two teams’ opening game of Group H play, perhaps the most anticipated Group Stage game of the whole tournament.

The three-time Defensive Player of the Year scored eight points on 4/9 shooting, grabbed nine rebounds, blocked one shot, dropped a dime, and turned it over four times, while registering a -17 in 27 minutes. After a tight first half in which France led for most of, Canada exploded in the third quarter, winning the frame 25-8 on the back of Oklahoma City Thunder star Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and eventually winning by 30 points.

In Gobert’s defense, the French perimeter players didn’t do much to help him all game long; Nando De Colo, Elie Okobo and Evan Fournier had a combined six turnovers and struggled to find Gobert on the roll, or when he sealed inside.

Canada did much of their damage outside the paint while in the half-court, primarily getting buckets at the rim in transition or when Gobert was off the floor.

Next up for the French will be a matchup on Sunday at 8:30 AM CT with Latvia, who destroyed Lebanon 109-70 in their opening game.

Canada - Germany Photo by Daniel Reinhardt/picture alliance via Getty Images

Nickeil Alexander-Walker (Canada)

When the Wolves acquired Alexander-Walker last February, he was seen as salary filler, a thrown in necessary to make the money match for all teams involved the three-team deadline deal that also brought Mike Conley to Minnesota.

Since then, NAW has proven to be anything but. The wiry guard displayed excellent on-ball defense down the stretch of the season, important ancillary scoring around Edwards, Towns and Gobert, and admirably filled in for McDaniels in the role of perimeter stopper in the playoffs.

At the end of the season, many thought (myself among them) the next step for Alexander-Walker was to become a more proficient 3-point shooter. He shot only 35.8% (29/81) on catch-and-shoot 3-pointers after arriving in Minneapolis. Broken down further, NAW connected on 10 of his 38 guarded attempts (26.3%) and 19 of his 43 unguarded looks (44.2%).

In his opening Group State game for Canada, Alexander-Walker’s 3-point shooting shined, as he drained four of his eight looks from beyond the arc while looking as confident as I’ve ever seen him shoot it from distance. His mechanics look a little cleaner, as his finish wasn’t as unorthodox at the top as it appeared at times during the NBA season.

Alexander-Walker finished with 12 points on 4/9 shooting, two rebounds, two assists to two turnovers, and a steal, registering a +17 in 21 minutes played — a really strong performance he will look to build on as one of the key cogs in what looks to be a primed Canadian basketball machine. NAW and Canada will next play Sunday morning at 4:45 AM CT against Lebanon.

Greece v Italy - International Friendly Photo by Stefanos Kyriazis/NurPhoto via Getty Images

Matteo Spagnolo (Italy)

2022 second-round draft pick Matteo Spagnolo and Italy took the floor to battle Angola in the first game of the tournament. Playing alongside NBA talent in Jazz forward Simone Fontecchio, former New Orleans Pelicans forward Nicolo Melli, and his new Alba Berlin teammate and Detroit Pistons draftee Gabriele Procida, Spagnolo didn’t play much, recording a pair of rebounds, 0 assists and two turnovers in just 7:41 of game action.

Next up for Italy is a matchup with Towns and the Dominican Republic at 3:00 AM CT on Sunday.