Thursday October 29th, 2015

LOS ANGELES – Although his Timberwolves squeaked out a come-from-behind victory over the Lakers on Wednesday, Karl-Anthony Towns won his showdown with D'Angelo Russell in blowout fashion.

The made-for-TV opening night match-up—2015’s No. 1 pick Towns vs. No. 2 Russell—was a reminder that top draft selections shouldn’t assume that they will be top priorities. With the game on the line, Towns found himself in the middle of the action, switching onto Lou Williams as the slippery guard drove towards the hoop for a potential game-winning runner at the buzzer. Russell, by contrast, watched from the bench as Williams’s shot rimmed off, preserving a 112-111 Minnesota win.

Towns, who finished with 14 points and 12 rebounds, joined a number of lottery picks making strong first impressions Wednesday. Philadelphia’s Jahlil Okafor scored the most points (26) by a center in an NBA debut since Kareem Abdul-Jabbar in 1969. New York’s Kristaps Porzingis outscored All-Star teammate Carmelo Anthony in a 25-point victory. Denver’s Emmanuel Mudiay put up 17 points and nine assists in a 20-point win over Houston. None of those performances were flawless, to be sure, but all were notable.

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Russell’s debut was simply forgettable. He started the evening off the ball, with second-year guard Jordan Clarkson running the show, and he ended it off the court, pinned to the bench for the entire fourth quarter as coach Byron Scott turned to Williams and Marcelo Huertas.

In a pre-game address to a fired-up Staples Center crowd, Kobe Bryant touted his team’s “youth” and pledged that the Lakers were “[looking] forward to making the city of Los Angeles proud, the way it should be.” And then youth proceeded to collide with pride all night.

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Bryant launched a team-high 24 shots, including 13 three-pointers, while dishing just one assist in 29 minutes. In the closing seconds, Bryant stepped in to call timeout as second-year forward Julius Randle was charging down the court in search of a potential game-winning layup or trip to the foul line. On the final play, Scott put the game in Williams’s hands because he had “just hit one.” Williams’s three-pointer on the previous possession was, in fact, his only made field goal in six fourth-quarter attempts. At least Williams was going to the basket: 20 of Bryant’s 24 shots came from outside the paint.

The rebuilding Lakers have every reason to let Russell get his feet wet right now, so his bystander status at the end of the game was frustrating. The larger disappointment, however, was his subordinate role throughout. Before the Lakers blew a 16-point lead down the stretch, there were moments of excitement and extended applause. Bryant drew his typical oohs and aahs when he hit multiple jumpers in a row, Nick Young brought down the house with a quarter-closing three-pointer, and Randle went nose-to-nose with Kevin Garnett in a confidence-boosting exchange that helped reintroduce the 20-year-old to a national audience.

That story, nearly a winning one, hardly depended on Russell, who finished with four points, two assists and three turnovers, hitting just two of his seven shots in 26 minutes. The Ohio State product didn’t score until shortly before halftime and he never truly succeeded in breaking down the Timberwolves’ defense off the dribble. He generated four points all night—one long two for himself and one assist—in pick-and-roll situations. Both of his attempts at his signature no-look, thread-the-needle passes ended in turnovers.

“It was OK,” Scott said dismissively, when asked about Russell’s play. “Could have been better.”

Perhaps Russell wouldn’t have seemed quite so marginalized if he wasn’t standing in direct comparison to Towns, who was praised repeatedly by Timberwolves interim coach Sam Mitchell before the game and who was involved early and often once the action commenced.

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Towns’s first points came on a dunk gift-wrapped for him by a Lakers turnover in the backcourt, but he consistently received assistance from Ricky Rubio all night. Rubio collapsed the defense and found him with a dump-off pass for a dunk midway through the second quarter. Then, a few minutes later, Rubio fed him for a post-up isolation that led to a pretty turnaround jumper. A few minutes after that, Rubio found him near the top of the key on a pick-and-pop, and Towns broke down the defense for a runner.

The hits kept coming in the second half. Rubio dished behind his back to a popping Towns for a jumper in the third quarter, and then he fed him for another turnaround jumper from the block midway through the fourth.

Garnett has received significant credit for easing Towns’s entry to the NBA, and certainly he is a boisterous cheerleader and knowledgeable mentor. That said, overlooking Rubio’s crucial role here, both on Wednesday and in the bigger picture, would be a mistake. In game one, the Spanish point guard set up Towns for 10 of his 14 points, and he scored a game-high 28 points of his own to lead Minnesota’s comeback. Encouragement and life advice matter to developing players. Basketball support—in the form of regular touches, consistent offensive opportunities and continual engagement—matters more.

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Afterwards, Towns and Russell were speaking different languages. Towns, understandably emotional following the death of Timberwolves president and coach Flip Saunders earlier this week, let it all out. He credited Saunders as the Timberwolves’ “sixth man on the floor” during the decisive final play, and he recounted time spent in his hotel bathroom’s shower on Wednesday afternoon, reflecting on his path to the league.

“I was so elated to be out there,” he said. “It was just awesome to see my NBA dream come true. … I just sat there for 20 minutes with water hitting me, and I’m just thinking about how much work I’ve put into this moment. Just to be here wearing this jersey, to be part of this fraternity. It wasn’t tears coming down or anything. I was just smiling. I just never thought that I could find a blueprint to make it to…this spot in life. It seems like the blueprint found me.”

Russell, meanwhile, sounded like his blueprint was etched in yet-to-be-deciphered hieroglyphics. 

“It’s still an adjustment for me,” he said. “We have a great team and a lot of great weapons. It’s just a matter of me figuring out where my spots are. Trying to get guys involved and trying to stay involved at the same time. I’m just trying to adjust to that.”

Both the Timberwolves and Lakers are embarking on what will be long and loss-heavy seasons, and both Towns and Russell will face plenty of growing pains, just as Bryant, Garnett and other talented teenagers did before them. But this first encounter between prospective franchise players will be remembered as a one-sided affair won by the player whose franchise was truly ready for him. 

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