LONG BEACH, Cali. – Karl-Anthony Towns knows what it feels like to hit a big shot in a crucial moment, or how to handle the pressure of a sold out arena watching his every move. He’s used to camera flashes, cell phones tracking him, Instagram comments, and eyes following him everywhere he goes. He can’t hide in plain sight, even when people don’t know who he is, they know he could or should be someone, and that someone is likely a basketball player.
Was at equinox here in the bay , enjoying my açaí bowl, and was asked if I would join a basketball league because I was “tall”. I told him “I’m out” and he said I look like I at least tried basketball in high school. In actuality, he was right 🤷🏽♂️.
— Karl-Anthony Towns (@KarlTowns) October 9, 2019
Towns has been in the league for what feels like an eternity, but is entering just his fifth year as a pro. If he’s expected to know exactly who he wants to be, those expectations aren’t coming internally, but rather from those projecting their thoughts and opinions onto him. He’s 23, an age where it’s completely natural to still find one’s place in the world, but in pro sports, players don’t often have the luxury of “figuring it out” along the way. There’s always a steep learning curve, one where everyone is watching, and even through dominance and natural ability, there are those who want Towns to be something else, to be something more, to be moving at a speed that’s on their terms, not his.
Is it fair to say Towns is underrated among his peers, especially in the Western Conference? Absolutely. If anything he takes after another post player who toiled away among the Wolves, never quite occupying one specific skillset, never quite getting the attention or acclaim he deserved. And while it took Kevin Love moving to Cleveland to get a ring and secure a legacy, Towns seems apt to play it out Minnesota, signing a max extension prior to last season.
While the team looks – and feels – a lot different than it did heading into preseason a season ago, it’s somewhat hard to believe it’s only been a year since Jimmy Butler demanded a trade and played in one of the most famous intersquad scrimmages in recent memory. For all that, the 2019-20 Timberwolves are KAT’s team, fully and undoubtably. He’s embracing that role, following a year that saw him average 24.4 points and 12.4 rebounds, and shoot 40 percent on three-pointers on a career high 4.6 attempts per game.
What Towns isn’t used to was the scene following a win in the Mtn Dew Amp Game Fuel Call of Duty Pro Am in late September. The avid gamer was in his element trying out the new Modern Warfare maps and toggles, and seemed to lose himself in the game as the day wore on. Each round he showcased a bit more: skill, personality, trash talk. By the time he reached the championship round against T-Pain, there was no more doubt about whether he belonged in this competition; rather there was an expectation that the seven-footer should win this thing. He already believed he could beat just about any NBA player in Call of Duty; now he knew he could beat other celebrity gamers, and some pros, when given the chance.
When KAT and teammate Scump closed it out, with confetti popping, Towns let out a yell and sprinted to the middle of the soundstage. He grabbed the winner’s bomber jacket and put it on, despite the fact it was at least two sizes too small. And with a bit of Tommy Boy “little coat” humor, modeled it for photos, opting to leave it on a bit longer than necessary. Despite the obvious branding on the jacket, he asked if it was possible to get one in his size. He wasn’t going to leave without knowing he could collect his hardware to showcase the win.
This was Towns in his element, at his most comfortable, and it was hard not to see the power in that. He wasn’t worried about anything; as loose as he’d be streaming the game at home on Twitch or shooting in an empty gym. Tapping into that on the court could help unlock even more of his potential. If this is the version of KAT the NBA is getting in year five, he won’t just be an All-Star; he’ll be a viable MVP candidate.