A little more than a year ago, Jimmy Butler thought it would be fun to go into a Minnesota Timberwolves practice and raise hell. Butler, who was under contract with the team at the time but had requested a trade a month prior, went to practice and challenged some of his fellow teammates, taking on the starters with the third-string group and apparently dominating.
Butler claimed in the immediate aftermath that he was being honest with his teammates, and in one report that came out in the aftermath, the two that drew his ire the most were Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins. Towns especially got it bad, with Chris Haynes of Yahoo Sports saying he was “distraught and speechless” after the entire spectacle. Butler eventually got traded, the head coach who oversaw all of this, Tom Thibodeau, was fired after 40 games, and Towns had something of an empty calories season — he averaged 24.4 points, 12.4 rebounds, 3.4 assists, and 1.6 blocks in 33.1 minutes per game and was named an All-Star while the Wolves finished 11th in the Western Conference with a 36-46 record.
Never before has the question with Towns been his talent. Dating back to his days in high school, Towns has usually been the most talented player on the floor whenever he’s played a basketball game. The big question, upon getting into the NBA, was his ability to contribute to winning basketball. His first two years in the league saw him put up good-to-great numbers on squads that didn’t even sniff the postseason, and while Minnesota made the postseason in his third year, the acquisition of Butler was viewed as the thing that got the Wolves over the top.
Last season, Minnesota was put into a weird spot. The Butler saga happened, but after he was traded to the Philadelphia 76ers, the team was still coached by Thibodeau, a noted Jimmy G. Buckets fan who has never exactly had a reputation for being great with younger players or guys who don’t thrive under an iron fist. He was replaced mid-season with an interim coach, 33-year-old Timberwolves assistant Ryan Saunders, with whom Towns has a good relationship. As an aside, look at what Towns’ scoring numbers looked like under both coaches:
As a second aside, here is something Towns said during an offseason interview with Cory Heploa of WCCO about the Saunders regime in Minnesota.
I think that I’m very blessed to have a great front office like I do. I have a great coaching staff. I think we have the best coaching staff possibly in the game right now from a talent, experience, and just culture standpoint. And the culture we’re building here is something special. So I’m very happy, I’m very glad that we’re introducing Culver and Noel to a culture that we possess now. You know, I don’t think the situation before would’ve been very beneficial for them.
And that’s a disrespect and a slap in the face to their development, you know, and I want to make sure that they develop not only as players, but as human beings and as men. And you know, that’s what we’re here to do in Minnesota. One of the biggest things with Ryan and with me is like, we have to make sure our culture is not based on just basketball. This is a family atmosphere. Everything we do here in Minnesota has to be able to have a family backing and a family thought process, and building people’s personalities, characters and showing them more of themselves.
None of this is to say that Thibodeau is a bad coach — he’s actually a pretty good one! — but it’s probably not a stretch to say that Saunders is a much better coach for Towns than Thibs was. It’s a simple thing, but as anyone who has ever been in a professional situation they did not enjoy knows, the circumstances that surround a person can prevent them from doing their job to the best of their abilities. Minnesota realized this with Towns, installed a coach he trusted, and saw it pay off.
So far this season, the decision to strip Saunders of his interim tag has paid off beautifully. The sample size is an incredibly small three games, but Towns, through the first week of the year, has put up the gaudiest numbers in the league. He’s second in scoring (32 points per game), tied for third in rebounding (13.3 a night), and is atop the league in steals (2.67) and three pointers made (five) per game. His five assists every night is a career-best mark. An effective mid-range shooter, Towns has more or less cut those out of his game — he’s opting to do most of his work at the rim (32.8 percent of his shot attempts) or from behind the three-point line (47.5 percent of his attempts). Seeing as how he’s a monster in the paint and hitting on a ludicrous 51.7(!!!) percent of his threes, this has been a wise idea.
As a result, Towns has been instrumental to the fact that Minnesota is 3-0 to start the year. There is, of course, a major question about how sustainable this is. Towns is probably not going to hit 51.7 percent of his 9.7 attempts from three per game this year, and while he will assuredly improve on hitting 63 percent of his free throws, his effective field goal percentage (64.8 percent) is 5.2 percentage points higher than his previous career best.
The answer to those sustainability questions, very simply, is who cares? Right now, he is playing basketball like the best version of Karl-Anthony Towns, someone who has learned from the first few years of his NBA career — the rough first few years, his time under Thibodeau, making headlines for Butler challenging him as a player — and is playing like he understands the circumstances around him are as good as they’ve ever been. Because, once more, Towns has been the most talented basketball player on 99 percent of floors on which he’s stepped since he was a kid, the thought of him being himself to the best of his abilities in the NBA is cause for joy.
His next challenge comes on Wednesday night, when he’ll square off against the toughest test yet. Towns and the Timberwolves will travel to Philadelphia to take on the 76ers, meaning he’ll probably spend all of his time going against a pair of defensive aces in the frontcourt: Joel Embiid, who has historically done well against Towns when they’ve faced off, and Al Horford. The former is an exciting matchup, because Embiid is one of the few big men who is just as talented as Towns and is the rare defender who blends the speed, strength, and instincts to check him 1-on-1 with some success.
With all due respect to guys like Nikola Jokic and Rudy Gobert, it has the potential to be the single best matchup between two centers we will see this year. And who knows? Maybe playing a big man the caliber of Embiid will cause Towns to take his game to another level, and if not, he seems to be comfortable enough now to shake it off and move on. The level he’s playing at now is worthy enough of celebration.