LAS VEGAS — It looked like just another broken possession in a game full of them.
The shot clock ticked down under 10 seconds, Minnesota’s Karl-Anthony Towns kept getting bumped out toward the three-point line, and the entry pass still wasn’t coming. Finally, Adreian Payne tossed a lazy one-handed pass in Towns’ direction, but it was deflected before it reached its target.
Towns, this year’s No. 1 pick, was the first to the loose ball, but the pressure was coming. The dripping shot clock and Towns’ positioning in no man’s land—by himself on the left wing with his back to the hoop—begged for a double team from Utah’s defenders.
Sure enough, Towns faced four waving arms as the three remaining Jazz defenders cheated into the paint, daring him to make a crosscourt pass and daring one of Minnesota’s shooters to launch from deep on a night the Timberwolves, without second-year guard Zach LaVine, managed to shoot just 5-for-18 on three-pointers.
Although the defensive approach was sound, Towns unlocked it. The 6'11" big man—who believes he’s capable of playing small forward, power forward and center when the need arises and credits his father for instilling guard skills into his early basketball learning—whipped the ball over his shoulder, behind his head, and between the arms of Jack Cooley to hit a cutting Payne perfectly in stride. With Towns helping to suck Utah’s interior defenders out of the paint, Payne converted an easy layup with five seconds still left on the shot clock.
Towns, at least for one play, had turned lemons into lemonade. Zooming out, that’s the big-picture task: Towns must team with Andrew Wiggins, last year’s No. 1 pick and the reigning Rookie of the Year, to transform the Timberwolves from a losing situation into a winning one.
Ending an 11-year run of lottery trips won’t be an overnight process, and the short-term expectations are fairly minimal for a rebuilding Minnesota team that won just 16 games last season. Still, the Wiggins/Towns duo already represents—without playing a single regular season game together—the brightest hope for Minnesota basketball in a decade.
Already, Towns is getting a taste for just how difficult that process will be. In high school, he won three straight championships in New Jersey, and his biggest concern was moving on to the next level as quickly as possible. In college at Kentucky, coach John Calipari’s toughest task was finding enough playing time for all of his future pros as the Wildcats blitzed to a 38-1 record.
In Minnesota, the problems are different: the offense ranked in the bottom-five last year, the defense ranked dead last, injuries decimated the roster, and there remains a bit of a generational tension between the younger Timberwolves’ core and a few remaining veterans. There’s also the losing, which Towns is tasting at the Las Vegas Summer League this week. On Monday, the Jazz beat the Timberwolves 91-82, dropping Minnesota to 1-2.
“It’s hard,” Towns said after Monday’s loss. “I was talking about it with my dad after we lost to the Chicago Bulls on Saturday. That was my seventh game lost in five years, including high school. Every loss is hard. You can see it on my face a little bit, I’m a little bit hurt today by losing.”
That brilliant pass was the clear highlight from a frustrating night that saw Towns post 14 points (on 4-for-15 shooting), 10 rebounds, and five turnovers while committing nine fouls. (Summer League rules allow 10 fouls before disqualification.)
Against Cooley, Towns conceded ground in the post too easily, and his teammates compounded the problem by struggling to feed him early in the clock. The result was a perimeter-dominated approach on offense that saw him settle for, and miss, a number of clean looks. Ryan Saunders, the Timberwolves’ Summer League coach, acknowledged that Towns is still adjusting to the “lower-body physicality” of NBA-quality players, and that he’s getting “pushed off of his spots.”
Drifting is a natural response, and Towns’ potential as both a shooter and passing playmaker make it a reasonable compromise. On Monday, though, it wasn’t working. One of Towns’ pet moves—a turn-and-face mid-range jumper that goes up before the defense can react—just wasn’t quite on, and he pressed a little as the game continued. A second-half airball drew scattered catcalls from various corners of the Thomas & Mack Center as Towns scolded himself with a frustrated shout, noting later that he was going through “a little slump” with his shooting.
Rocky transitions are part of the deal for top selections, and Towns's situation could easily be worse. He doesn’t face the health and weight concerns that plagued 2013 No. 1 pick Anthony Bennett during his rookie year, and he doesn’t need to worry about the trade rumors that engulfed Wiggins before he was shipped from Cleveland to Minnesota last summer.
Indeed, Towns’s main concerns are about basketball. How does he react when teams send a hard double team at him? How should he balance his interior and perimeter games on offense? What can he do to defend the paint without fouling? How will he handle the mental hurdles that are sure to come this season?
Minnesota has enlisted franchise icon Kevin Garnett to help. The future Hall of Famer was at the Timberwolves’ practice in Las Vegas on Monday, getting into Towns’s ear.
“We talked about me not banging my body as much, being a little more crafty,” Towns recalled. “Saving my body for later in the game, and later in the week. [When there’s] four games in seven days, you’ve really got to be saving your body. You can’t be going in there banging all day. “
Garnett knows a little something about maximizing longevity: despite a wiry frame, the 39-year-old has logged nearly 50,000 minutes and earned more than $327 million since entering the NBA in the 1995 draft. Remarkably, Garnett made his NBA debut 12 days before Towns was born.
“When you have a legend on your team, it makes all the difference,” Towns said. “It allows me to get have experience I couldn’t get from anyone but him. [I’m] picking his brain and educating myself.”
There will be other sources of assistance. The Towns-centric offensive approach, where he regularly received the ball in isolation facing a wall of five defenders, clearly isn’t going to be the norm during the regular season. Point guard Ricky Rubio is a skilled initiator, and Wiggins will command plenty of defensive attention. Minnesota will also likely put Towns into more pick-and-pop and pick-and-roll situations, so that he’s not stuck attacking a set defense like he so often is in Las Vegas. In sum, the Timberwolves should be able to give Towns significant responsibility without asking too much of him.
“We use this time to learn what he’s going to be successful in in-game situations,” Saunders said, praising Towns’s “composure” and “exceptional” passing ability. “We like him to post up on the block, but we draw up some things where he does pop out and get a little more freedom. We’re learning with him.”
Monday's lesson came in that flash pass over Cooley, an instinctual read that led to two points and left five defenders bamboozled. On off nights and in trying circumstances, true talent refuses to be suppressed.