Having gone a woeful 16-66 in the 2014-15 season, the Minnesota Timberwolves drafted highly recruited Karl-Anthony Towns out of Kentucky with the No.1 pick in the 2015 NBA Draft. Towns justified Minnesota’s faith in him by picking up the Rookie of the Year honors that very year.
Towns averaged 18.3 points and 10.5 rebounds in his rookie campaign, pulling the Timberwolves up to a 29-53 record, 13 more wins than the previous year.
But it’s not been very much better thereafter for the Timberwolves. Although Karl-Anthony Towns exploded for 25.1 points and 12.3 rebounds per game in his second year with Minnesota, he hasn’t really proved to be the franchise player for the team. Barring the 2017-18 season, the Timberwolves have endured losing records in the four other seasons that Towns has been in Minnesota. Their 19-45 record in the 2019-20 season had a win percentage of under 30%.
The Jimmy Butler fracas
The only season the Timberwolves did well, even making it to the playoffs, was in 2017-18. That was the season Jimmy Butler came to Minnesota and the team posted a 47-35 record.
Karl-Anthony Towns averaged 21.3 points and 12.3 rebounds per game, only behind Butler’s 22.2 points, but good enough to make his first All-Star Game appearance. The Timberwolves, nonetheless, had to suffer a first-round exit, losing to the No.1 ranked Houston Rockets in five games in the 2018 postseason.
It was pretty much downhill from thereon for Minnesota as Butler clashed with the young Minnesota stars, including Karl-Anthony Towns. Butler requested a trade from Minnesota before the 2018-19 season. He then held out of training camp, giving Rachel Nichols an interview blasting Towns and Andrew Wiggins. According to Butler, winning wasn’t a priority with some of the Timberwolves, whom he refused to name.
But Butler did explicitly pull up Karl-Anthony Towns and Wiggins for their lack of work ethic compared to his own in the same interview. “Who’s the most talented player on our team? KAT. Who’s the most god-gifted player on our team? Wigs [Wiggins]… But like who plays the hardest? Me. I play hard. I play really hard. I put my body on the line every damn practice. Every day in the games. That’s my passion. That’s how I give to the game. That’s how I give to you guys.”
That beef between Butler and Karl-Anthony Towns continued into the 2020-21 season as Butler called Towns “a loser” in a regular-season game between the Miami Heat and the Timberwolves. Butler told Towns, “I already punked you once” and that Towns was “soft as baby sh*t”.
A difficult year for Karl-Anthony Towns
Is there a lot of truth in what Butler said about Towns? We can’t say for sure. The two spent only a year together in Minnesota and it’s hard to say how the Timberwolves would have fared if Towns himself hadn’t posted a 21-point, 12-rebound season in 2017-18.
As for last year, when Butler called Karl-Anthony Towns “soft”, that was probably unfair. Towns was dealing with devastating grief in his personal life in the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic. He lost as many as seven family members, including his mother, to the Coronavirus illness, a debilitating situation for anyone to cope with. Karl-Anthony Towns admitted to having immense difficulty heading into the 2020-21 season in the backdrop of the deaths that had occurred in his family.
“It's going to be difficult to say this is therapy,” Karl-Anthony Towns said. “I don't think this will ever be therapy for me again. But it gives me a chance to relive good memories I had.”
Towns was immensely close to his mother Jacqueline Cruz-Towns, who had been suffering from COVID-19 for more than a month before passing away.
Karl-Anthony Towns can do it
Karl-Anthony Towns came into the NBA with several of his Kentucky teammates, including Dakari Johnson, Willie Cauley-Stein and Trey Lyles. The best of the Kentucky Wildcats class of 2014-15 is no longer Towns, but a guy called Devin Booker.
Booker was an overall 15th pick in the same draft class as Towns but has leapfrogged Towns in stardom. A 2021 NBA Finals appearance and a US Olympic Men’s Gold medal in Tokyo are vindications of Booker’s achievements relevant to Towns'.
Before Towns’ own draft class, two big men, Giannis Antetokounmpo (from the 2013 class) and Nikola Jokic (class of 2014) have won successive regular-season MVP trophies. Another big man, the No.1 pick from the 2012 Draft Class, Anthony Davis, has already tasted championship success with the LA Lakers in 2020.
Karl-Anthony Towns certainly has the potential to emulate all three big men: Giannis, Jokic and Davis. Towns is certainly a better shooter from downtown (39.4% career three-point shooter) compared to all the other three men. He's a double-double machine with 293 double-doubles in 408 games, making it an average of roughly three double-doubles for every four regular-season games.
Davis, in contrast, has 311 double-doubles, despite having played 150 more career games than Towns. Giannis and Jokic, both of whom debuted before Karl-Anthony Towns, have fewer double-doubles.
Karl-Anthony Towns’ time is now
Karl-Anthony Towns will turn 26 in a few months’ time, which means he is heading towards the best years of his career. He needs to play better defense and assert himself more as the floor leader for the Timberwolves. The double-doubles and the stats will keep coming if KAT plays like a cat.
Minnesota hit a good groove as well towards the end of the 2020-21 season, winning seven of their last 12 games. They have a good young core in D’Angelo Russell and Anthony Edwards to complement Karl-Anthony Towns. The Timberwolves have also made a new coaching decision, announcing Chris Finch as the new head coach of the franchise.
All the signals are pointing to the Timberwolves moving on from the Jimmy Butler saga. But for Minnesota to truly become a perennial playoff contender, Karl-Anthony Towns has to play big. His time has come. His time is now.
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