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- Karl-Anthony Towns is ready to stand up for small markets and turn the Wolves into winners
- By Jon Krawczynski
- Karl-Anthony Towns leaned against the wall of the main gym at Providence Academy, a sprawling private school in the west metro that has hosted his youth basketball camp for the last three years, and took stock the changing environment around him.
- “Honored” and “blessed” are two of Towns’ favorite words, and those superlatives certainly applied as he considered how far his camp has come, the looks in the eyes of the youngsters who went wild when he drained a shot from the opposite 3-point line and where he stands in a Timberwolves franchise that has put him front and center in its latest remodel. But the niceties and politeness he leans on so heavily quickly dissipated as the conversation turned to the topic du jour in the NBA.
- The summer of 2019 has been dominated by power moves from power players. Kawhi Leonard and Paul George teaming up with the Clippers in Los Angeles. Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving pairing in Brooklyn. Anthony Davis forcing his way to the Lakers with LeBron. The Rockets reuniting James Harden and Russell Westbrook.
- And here stands Towns, a two-time All-Star who just missed out on $32 million by not making All-NBA in Minnesota, all on his own on a team that has so far to go. In the age of player empowerment, Timberwolves fans are already bracing for Towns to pull his own move.
- The Timberwolves are on the clock. They are another franchise in a B-list city that could get squeezed if they don’t do right by their star player. Or, in the case of Toronto and Oklahoma City, even if they do.
- Towns knows it’s out there and he just shakes his head. He hasn’t even received the first paycheck of a five-year max that starts next season yet, and the speculation is already surfacing. As the polish that shines up so much of his public comments is rubbed away, a tinge of rawness bubbles to the surface.
- “Game is game. Basketball is basketball. Competition is competition. It don’t matter where you at,” Towns said. “All of us were raised, regardless of where we’re at, playing in the park, playing in hot box rec gyms. You were competing. It don’t matter if you’re in Milwaukee, in Minnesota. It doesn’t matter if you’re in LA or New York, competition is competition. You have to come ready to play and kick some ass.
- “That’s how I approach it. I’m not afraid to play anywhere. I don’t care about where it’s at, who it’s against. I’m going to go out there and compete and try my best.”
- At this time last year, Towns was making his first public appearance in Minnesota in months. Contract negotiations were dragging on, there were concerns behind the scenes about the team’s overall chemistry and Jimmy Butler’s future here and as a result, there was virtually no communication between the organization and the majority of its players for the entire summer.
- Towns went through with his youth camp as planned, but reporters who showed up for the camp were told that he would only answer questions about the event and would not discuss the Timberwolves. It was awkward and only added to the perception that things were wrong in Wolves Land.
- Flash forward a year and there’s a completely different feeling between the franchise and its centerpiece. New President of Basketball Operations Gersson Rosas has made it clear at every turn that the priority is building around Towns. New coach Ryan Saunders has a close relationship with Towns and is fashioning the offense to take full advantage of his varied skill set.
- How different does it feel?
- “I’m here. That’s the answer. That’s the best answer I can give you,” Towns said. “I’m here. I’m actually in Minnesota. You can write about that what you want.”
- As The Athletic reported during All-Star weekend, the assumption that Towns was always going to sign the max contract offer from the Wolves last summer was misguided. He was concerned about the direction of the franchise, the way it was being led and who was doing the leading.
- I’m here implies there was a chance he wasn’t going to be.
- Through Butler’s exit, Thibodeau’s firing and all of the drama in between, Towns never engaged in the mess. In a league that has become as much about the off-court hijinks as it is the on-court results, he has worked hard to steer clear of it.
- “I go out there to do my job and do it better than everybody in this league. That’s what my focus is,” Towns said. “I’m not here to be a show.”
- He starts Year 5 with a feeling of serenity that hasn’t been there before. The man who drafted him first overall, Flip Saunders, died before Towns ever played a game. Sam Mitchell’s lone season as coach was a volatile one and Thibodeau’s vision of a Butler-Towns-Wiggins trio went down in flames when Butler forced his way out.
- Now Towns has a coach he trusts unconditionally in Ryan Saunders and has quickly forged a connection and belief in Rosas. Towns has been active in recruiting free agents, including his friend D’Angelo Russell, and has been much more of an advocate for the franchise this summer than at any point in recent memory.
- “Karl-Anthony Towns deserves a lot of credit,” Rosas said. “Because as your best player, great players want to play with him. He’s a modern NBA big who can play inside and outside, who can score and be a playmaker. Guys want to play with a guy like that.”
- “I’m glad to have stability,” Towns said. “I know who my head coach is and who my president is. Some of it was just ownership making decisions. Some of it is things we can’t control in life in losing Flip.
- “The way the business is, this is just how business works in the league. It’s unforgiving. It’s not fair. It’s never been fair. I know that first-hand. I’ve got to go out there and just continue to compete at a high level and do my part.”
- As he prepares to begin the first season of a max contract, the Timberwolves are unequivocally Towns’ team. Many of the veterans who provided leadership in recent years — Taj Gibson, Derrick Rose, Tyus Jones — are gone. There is no Kevin Garnett, Tayshaun Prince or Andre Miller to handle the locker room like there was in Towns’ rookie season.
- Wiggins is quiet by nature. So is Jeff Teague. Robert Covington will be coming back from a knee injury, first-round pick Jarrett Culver will be finding his way and summer signings Noah Vonleh, Jordan Bell and Jake Layman are unproven role players.
- If the Timberwolves are going to surprise next season and push for a playoff spot in a conference that is as loaded as ever, Towns will have to lead the way.
- “Everyone approaches it differently, seeing what has worked and what hasn’t,” he said. “Experience teaches a lot and I sure as hell have been through enough experiences to know what I need to do and how to get it done.”
- So how will he lead? How will he get the rest of a young, unproven and vastly made over roster to follow him? Last season he started organizing team outings on the road and has taken the rookies out for dinner at Summer League the last two years to start building a rapport. He cares about the environment they walk into and believes that an inclusive, family setting is the best way to develop their talents.
- “True leaders are able to converse with everyone, be able to adjust the conversation to the personality of everyone and be able to show through action,” Towns said.
- He also isn’t crying over lost money. Towns finished last season on a remarkable statistical run, averaging 28.1 points, 13.4 rebounds and shooting 43 percent from 3-point range after the All-Star break. But the Wolves were ravaged by injuries and finished with just 36 wins. When it came time for All-NBA voting, Utah Jazz center Rudy Gobert was chosen over Towns by a wide margin.
- The voting cost Towns about $32 million over the life of his five-year contract and started concerns from Wolves fans over his willingness to stay in Minnesota for the long term. But while those around him worried, Towns brushed it aside, telling those close to him that he wasn’t worried about the money.
- No one could blame him for being ticked about it. That’s a lot of money to lose out on. But if he is truly going to be the leader of this team, the quickest way to asserting himself is to dismiss the slights that affect him and him alone.
- “It’s a great thing for me because I laugh about it,” Towns said. “When you’re doing something so well for so long, it gets boring. I guess I’m a boring guy now.
- “It’s never been about the individual awards. It’s about the team success. I’ve got to do better of getting my team in a better position to win. Obviously, it’s going to be fun this year to have the kind of group I have.”
- From a financial aspect, Towns is doing just fine. He not only has the big contract from the Wolves, but his agency (CAA) has helped him build an impressive stable of endorsements to supplement his on-court income. He’s been in movies and on television shows, giving him the kind of exposure usually afforded to stars in much bigger markets. Towns and his friend Chucky Anthony are building a following through their YouTube channel as well, and he hangs out with superstars like Travis Scott.
- “I thought when you were in Minnesota, you would have less opportunities. I’ve seemed to have only grown with my opportunities,” Towns said. “The idea of it being because of my market or where I’m at is a false narrative that’s written by people who want to keep big cities’ talent pool larger than others. It’s just not true.
- “We’re in a digital age. Talent is talent wherever you are. We find it through social media and the markets and the companies know who they want to work with. It doesn’t matter where.”
- But can he win here?
- The modern NBA is about two things: stars and infrastructure. Top-end talent supported by a sharp front office and an accomplished coaching staff. Rosas and Saunders have a long way to go to show that they’re capable of building a top-flight team around him, but they have Towns’ faith.
- They went looking for a running mate in Russell this summer and missed, but Towns walked away from the meeting encouraged that there would be more opportunities like it in the future.
- “We have such a great game plan going in,” Towns said. “We have such a great front office and coaching staff. Everyone is so great at what they do and we’re so connected. It’s amazing when not only are the players so connected, but the whole organization on the back end is connected.”
- It doesn’t mean that will happen overnight. While the rest of the West loaded up this summer, the Wolves can only count Culver as a marquee addition. But just as the urgency seems to be ramping up, Towns is preaching patience.
- “We all can’t rush in and think we’re going to win 75 games right now,” he said. “We have to take it day by day. We have to be patient with the process and accept the process and go through the cycles. I think we’re going to have a really good team and we have to go out there every single night and try to accomplish it. My job as a leader, I’ve got to get the best out of every single player.”
- Including the one wearing No. 32. He has to be better defensively, both individually and in the team concept for the Wolves to have a chance. Part of that will be toning down his interactions with officials, which sometimes took his mind out of games. He can also be better as a passer and cut down on his turnovers while being more involved in the playmaking end of the offense.
- He won’t turn 24 until November, and he sees plenty of room to grow.
- Giannis Antetokounmpo raised eyebrows earlier this month when he said at an event celebrating his MVP award that has only reached 60 percent of his full potential. So it was only natural to ask Towns how much more he has left to give.
- “I think I’ve been held back to 40 percent of my talent,” Towns said. “It’s going to be fun to be able to tap into a little more with Ryan Saunders at the helm. I’m going to have a lot of fun being able to play more freely and be able to do things I’ve been doing my whole life that I’ve been held back from doing in the NBA so far.”
- What has held him back?
- “Situational things,” he said.
- It’s as close as Towns will get to truly laying it all out there. And in reality, that’s all that needs to be said. There is no sense for him in rehashing what went wrong in the past when such an enormous challenge is waiting for them just around the corner.
- In this transaction-drunk NBA rumor mill, everyone is looking for the next big star that will be on the move. The cover the contract provides the Timberwolves when it comes to Towns will only last so long. To ensure a long and healthy partnership that is more Damian Lillard than Kawhi Leonard, the Timberwolves will have to make a gigantic leap forward in the next two to three years.
- As far as Towns is concerned, the leap has already started.
- “The biggest thing when you have that conversation is you say, ‘Is he happy here?'” Towns said. “I’m tremendously happy. I love my front office. I love my coaching staff. I think we’ve made great moves and great changes. I love the culture we have here. If you want to leave, you have to be miserable somewhere. I am not there. I’m planning to be in Minnesota for a long time.”
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