This is just the beginning for Karl-Anthony Towns.
With every soaring block, splashed jumper, and canny interior finish, it’s hard to believe that the Minnesota Timberwolves big man is just a rookie. He defies all expectations of what a first-year player should look like in the NBA. Towns, even more than his prodigious level of talent suggests, is a guy who plays and acts well beyond his years.
But even the most polished 20-year-old in the NBA isn’t above a bit of youthful fun.
In this Q&A with DIME, the Rookie of the Year frontrunner talks Call of Duty Black Ops 3; what he’s learned from playing with Kevin Garnett; the evolution of his ultra-versatile game; whether it’s difficult for he and his young teammates to remember that better times are ahead; and much more.
It’s a foregone conclusion by now that Towns will be a star. He already plays like one on an almost nightly basis, in fact. But the extent of his greatness still very much remains to be seen, just as the career trajectory of all players in their basketball infancy can’t be completely known until it’s over. After getting a first-person glimpse at his unceasing desire for success and obviously tireless drive to improve, though, let’s just say we’re more confident than ever that Towns will grow into the league’s next great big man – and that it could happen even sooner than many of his staunchest advocates are anticipating.
DIME: You’ve been playing Call of Duty since its first version came out all those years ago, and just finished livestreaming the new “Awakening” download for Black Ops 3 with Andrew Wiggins. Are there any specific advancements in this new release that has you, as a longtime gamer, especially excited?
Karl Anthony-Towns: The maps are amazing. They did a great job of making the maps very fun and enjoyable, and all the maps are different. It was a really, really fun map pack that I think the fans are really gonna love.
I was keeping an eye on Twitter as you guys were doing the livestream, and came across a tweet from Alan Horton, a Timberwolves radio broadcaster, that included Wiggins telling you that he was “a straight killer” and you have the “all-around game.” To non gamers, can you explain what Wiggins meant by that?
(laughs) Wiggins was talking more about how I was doing everything for my team – trying to clear objectives and everything. And that he was far more focused on trying to get kills. So, I more team-oriented than he was, I guess (laughs).
The Timberwolves are obviously a young team. Zach LaVine told me in the fall that you guys constantly play video games on the road and really whenever you get a chance. Are you comfortable calling your team the best gaming squad in the league?
Uhhh… I mean, I always have confidence in everything I do. But you might have to ask someone else on the team to get a better answer (laughs).
Switching gears to basketball now: How are you feeling? We’re just past the halfway point of the season; the time when a lot of rookies hit the proverbial “wall.” How’s your body holding up to this level and frequency of play?
My body’s holding up great. I worked so hard on my body in the offseason and preseason to make sure that I’m able to play at a high level night in and night out. So, I feel great. I actually feel really good.
A lot of young players talk about the biggest adjustment from lower levels of the game to the NBA is speed – how quickly players move and decisions are made. Is that one of the more glaring differences you’ve noticed in your first season as a pro?
You know, you’re talking about the greatest athletes in the world playing night in and night out. You definitely have to make decisions a bit faster, but it all comes with experience. And it’s something for a lot of us where we take extra time, work on our game, and get in the film room, and then it comes a little more naturally.
Obviously you have a really special relationship with Kevin Garnett. He’s taken you under his wing as the next great Minnesota big man, and consistently showered you with praise for your intelligence, work ethic, and overall ability. Is there anything specific about preparation, the game, or even general NBA life that sticks out more than anything else?
I mean, really just telling me to take my time and be patient more than anything else. Be patient in the gym, be patient on the court, be patient with everything. It’s something that when you’re on the court and you’re being patient and you’re breathing and you’re taking your time, it’s much easier to make the right plays. So, it’s mostly just taking my time and going from there.
I have to ask: Do you have any good tales from behind the scenes about KG that are fit to print?
I mean, I don’t know about any special stories. But people just don’t really realize how great of a teammate he is and all he does for us. Just being able to talk to us anytime and that every time we need anything he’s there. And you know, he’s still one of the hardest workers on the team, which really just shows you how great he is.
KG was a guy who could play both power forward and center in his prime. He was mostly a 4, but there were times when he slid down a spot that’s proven a big boon for his team. You’re playing both big slots for the ‘Wolves this season, but is there a position you feel most comfortable with at this point in your career?
No, I feel very comfortable playing both positions. I’ve been blessed with the God-given athleticism and ability to guard 3s, 4s, and 5, and also the height to play center for long stretches. But it’s just a testament to the level of work I’ve put into my career, especially in the offseason, but it’s also something I was just afforded the god-given ability to do.
What would you say is the most difficult aspect of defending at the NBA level? You have to deal with so many ball-screens on the perimeter as a big man, but are also tasked with fighting through off-ball picks to contest jumpers from interior players who can stretch the floor.
I think the biggest thing, especially for me, is that I take a lot of pride in people scoring. You have to understand that people are gonna hit some shots. Perfect defense can be played, but guys are good enough that they’re gonna make shots anyway. But even so, when my guy scores, I take that very personally. The important thing is continuing to remember that sometimes the best defense still isn’t good enough in the NBA.
You’re far more polished than most bigs in the NBA alone, but especially players your age. Scoring in the post, putting the ball on the floor, and trailing the play for threes are all things you do pretty easily – even as a rookie. As you continue getting better and envision your career unfolding in the future, will that versatility remain such a huge part of your game? Or might you focus on one aspect of offense and let the others become more supplementary?
I want to continue playing the game that I play and have always played, which is being as versatile and being the best I can be for my teammates. When I play that way, it just gives us the best chance to win and allows us to play at a much more steady, fluid pace.
These have been some tough times for you guys recently. You’ve made some noticeable improvement over the past few weeks, but that hasn’t been manifested in the win-loss column very often. Is it difficult sometimes for you guys to see the forest through the trees? And remember that you’re still such a young team and better times are definitely ahead even if these are especially difficult?
No. Not at all. The best thing about it is that we’re working every day and getting better every single day. I’m just very happy with the growth we’ve made, and really think we’re doing a great job.
You recently scored a career-high 32 points and grabbed 12 rebounds, but told the media afterwards that you played “played like crap today.” Coincidentally, you guys happened to lose that game. A couple days later, I saw a tweet in which you were quoted as saying you’ve only played three “exceptional” games in your career: the three New Jersey state title games you won in high school with St. Joseph. What would make an “exceptional” NBA game for you?
It’s gonna be more of winning a championship. Maybe Game 4, 5, 6, or 7 of a playoff series that we close out. In those games, stats don’t matter; it’s all about the win.
The playoffs are very unlikely for you guys this season, but the year is still barely half over. The Timberwolves’ definition of success isn’t what that of a contender would be, basically. With that in mind, is there anything you’re looking to improve upon individually or team-wise over these next 10 weeks or so?
Just continue to grow. We’ve been having such a steady and steady growth in our game, so I just want to see us continue to get better and be the team that we want to be. So, maybe we won’t make the playoffs this year, but if we do that, we’ll have a big head start on making the playoffs next year.