Karl-Anthony Towns' superb rookie season preceded by grief
MINNEAPOLIS (AP) Karl-Anthony Towns climbed into his car after an August workout, less than six weeks before starting his first NBA training camp. As he started driving, an alert buzzed on his phone announcing the death of Darryl Dawkins.
The one-time backboard-breaking center was known as Chocolate Thunder or Dr. Dunkenstein during his days with the Philadelphia 76ers. Towns knew him as Uncle Darryl.
Dawkins and Towns' father, Karl, were friends for 20 years. So Karl-Anthony spent countless Sundays attending barbecues at Dawkins' home, with the loquacious former player helping the kid develop his game and goofy sense of humor. Now he was gone at 58.
''He called me from his car and said, `Dad, yes or no,''' Karl Towns said. ''I said, `Karl, Uncle Darryl just passed away.'''
''I almost crashed the car,'' Karl-Anthony Towns recalled. ''I had no idea. I called my dad and he was like, `Yeah, I got a call this morning about it.'''
It was the first of two crushing losses for Towns in the months leading to his rookie season. Just days before the season started, Flip Saunders, the Minnesota Timberwolves president and coach who picked Towns No. 1 overall in the June draft, died after a brief battle with Hodgkin lymphoma.
Before Towns embarked on one of the best rookie seasons the NBA has seen in decades, before he could team with Andrew Wiggins, Zach LaVine and Ricky Rubio to restore hope and faith in a franchise that has been bereft of both for a dozen years, he was a 19-year-old trying to balance the excitement of realizing a lifelong dream with the despair of losing two men who loomed so large in his development as a basketball player.
''To lose a person who has mostly been with me as I've been playing and teaching me little things here and there in my uncle Darryl, and to lose the person who gave me my NBA dream in Flip, it was hard,'' Karl-Anthony Towns said. ''But they both contributed to the way I've played this year. They've been able to help me even not being on this Earth anymore.''
Maybe he always would have been this good. Maybe it was his destiny to emerge as the prototype for the modern NBA big man - a versatile, two-way dynamo that can shoot the 3, run the floor, protect the paint and switch onto point guards in the pick-and-roll to force wild shots from the perimeter.
But the motivation of carrying on the legacy of Uncle Darryl while validating the faith that Flip showed in choosing the Kentucky center over several other high-profile options only added fuel to his quest for the perfect game.
''You lose somebody you really cared about who you consider family and then you lose another one, it was pretty hard on a 19-year-old kid,'' Karl Towns said. ''But he dealt with it. He dedicated the season to two people he really idolized and respected.''
Towns has put together the best rookie season in some time. His season averages of 18.2 points, 10.5 rebounds and 1.7 blocks haven't been achieved by a rookie since Shaquille O'Neal in 1993. His Player Efficiency Rating of 22.4 would be the highest for a rookie since Tim Duncan in 1997-98, and he's turned the Rookie of the Year competition into a coronation.
And it doesn't stop there.
Towns is also making a case for All-NBA consideration. Only Andre Drummond and DeAndre Jordan have grabbed more rebounds than Towns this season. He ranks sixth in blocks (133), eighth in field-goal percentage (.540) and enters the game at Portland on Saturday night with 14 straight double-doubles, the longest streak in the NBA this season.
''He's going to be a Hall of Famer in this league,'' Oklahoma City star Kevin Durant said.
And yet for Towns, this has been nowhere near enough. The Timberwolves have won just 27 games, a big step forward from the 16 they won last year but still far outside the playoff race. His individual season has earned him gushing praise that he has no interest in accepting.
After each game, he focuses on the shot that didn't fall, the rebound that was just out of his grasp, the defensive rotation he was late on that led to an open layup.
''I've never felt like I've had a good game,'' Karl-Anthony Towns said. ''It's hard to get me to even say I played good. That's just in me. I'm just never satisfied.
''A lot of my friends get annoyed by it. I'm never happy about anything, playing-wise. I always think there's things I messed up on, things I should've done differently that could've made us win or made the win easier.''
The perceived shortcomings are discussed at length in late-night telephone conversations between father and son. And every once in a while the star center will mention a promise he made to Saunders that he would end Minnesota's 12-year playoff drought.
''I'm in the search for the perfect game,'' Karl-Anthony said. ''I'm like an addict. I've got an addiction to this game. An addiction to being perfect.''
If there are dangers in setting the bar so high, the Towns family doesn't see them.
''He'll never say he played a great game until they make the playoffs,'' Karl Towns said. ''He'll never say he played a perfect game until they win the championship.''
Despite his superb first season, which has included being named Western Conference rookie of the month in all five months, there have been days where the title, the perfect game, even the playoffs seem light years away. On those days, Karl-Anthony will go to his phone and pull up a long text message he got from Saunders in July.
It's a blueprint for success in the NBA that Saunders sent him a couple months after he was diagnosed with lymphoma.
''I almost got it memorized in my head,'' he said. ''It's something that keeps me going and lets me know that I'm doing right, that I'm making this dream a reality. I'm just trying every day to make sure that I let people know the last decision he made for this organization was his best one.''
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