A word to the wise: fear the Minnesota Timberwolves.
Truth be told, I made a similar declaration about the Milwaukee Bucks not too long ago, and collectively, they certainly took a step back this season. But individually, Giannis Antetokounmpo has proven himself to be as unique of a player we have seen enter the National Basketball Association in a long, long time. With a little more seasoning, the Bucks will be ready to cook.
As for the Timberwolves, by adding Tom Thibodeau to their bench (and front office), they have certainly added leadership and a brilliant basketball mind who specializes in accountability and getting the most with the least. The franchise also boasts an impressive core featuring the likes of the 2015 Rookie of the Year in Andrew Wiggins, phenoms Shabazz Muhammad and Zach LaVine and the young veteran Ricky Rubio.
And, of course, the Timberwolves boast Karl-Anthony Towns, a player who just put together one of the best rookie campaigns we have even seen.
Remember back when Anthony Davis was entering the league and coaches and scouts were salivating over him and his potential? After just three seasons in the league, Davis had earned consideration for Most Valuable Player and seemed to have turned the New Orleans Pelicans around.
His growth over their first three seasons was impressive, especially considering that his rookie averages weren’t necessarily anything to write home about (13.5 points, 8.2 rebounds, one assist and 1.8 blocks).
Towns, on the other hand, just gave us a superior rookie season, is better than advertised at taking defenders off the dribble, shot 34 percent from the three-point line and now has one of the finer head coaches in all the league.
Forget two or three years from now, imagine what Towns and the Timberwolves will look like next season.
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What has been most disappointing as it relates to Anthony Davis has been his inability to stay healthy. For that reason, we caveat all predictions and prognostications by acknowledging that health is everything. The human body wasn’t made to play 100 basketball games over the course of a six-month season. Some guys are able to withstand that punishment while others are not. The fact that Towns was able to play all 82 games in his rookie year, though, is a major positive that should be acknowledged. If a young big man has brittle bones, that will usually reveal itself quickly after he begins taking grown man punishment at the hands of NBA veterans.
What also should be acknowledged about young big men is this: they usually start slow and take time to develop into dependable, everyday players. This season, though, Towns joins a short list of big men who scored at least 18 points, grabbed at least 10 rebounds, dished out at least two assists and blocked at least 1.5 shots per game in their rookie seasons.
The list includes 14 different players, including Blake Griffin, Elton Brand, Tim Duncan, Shaquille O’Neal and Larry Johnson, but of all of the players that have accomplished this feat, only three of them did so while shooting at least 34 percent from the three-point line: Derrick Coleman, Larry Bird and Karl-Anthony Towns.
What makes Towns even more impressive, though, is further extrapolating the numbers. The 20-year-old phenom is the only player of the three to both shooting 34 percent from the three-point line and shoot over 50 percent from the field.
Put differently, Towns is the only rookie in NBA history to turn in per-game averages of 18 points, 10 rebounds, two assists and 1.5 blocks while shooting at least 50 percent from the field and at least 34 percent from the three-point line. The fact that he converted 81 percent of his three-throws pretty much reveals a player whose game has no discernible weakness.
As he prepared to enter the league, Towns was known to be a difference maker on the defensive side of the basketball. Offensively, though, his ceiling was difficult to determine. The soft touch from midrange was evident, but there were concerns about his willingness and ability to operate from the low post and taking the pounding that this would require. At times, Towns looked a bit like Andrew Bynum. Bynum was similar in that he was a very long and very rangy prospect who never seemed to fully grow into his body. Although he was able to be effective as an offensive player, his movements never seemed fluid and he never seemed to have the balance, poise or body control of a dominant post player like Tim Duncan, Kevin Garnett or even Marc Gasol.
Over the course of his rookie year, we saw Towns make significant strides operating from both the high and low post, and the Timberwolves often ran their offense through him. He has the ability to see the floor and make good decisions when presented with a tough choice.
Back on April 5, when the Timberwolves pulled off a monumental upset over at the Warriors, Towns tirelessly chased Stephen Curry around screens and made his life difficult by not giving up on plays, but offensively, Towns did his best impersonation of Draymond Green, catching outlet passes at the top of the key and driving to the rim. Once there, Towns made strong finishes or crisp passes. He wasn’t the game-high scorer for the Timberwolves, but he was the standout player. It was one of his finer performances, but certainly not an aberration. In the end, Towns turned in 20 points, 12 rebounds, four assists and two blocks.
Because the Timberwolves managed to win just 29 games, Towns and his immense contributions got lost in some of the bigger story lines that dominated the season: the Warriors making history, Kobe Bryant retiring and the surprising seasons turned in by the Chicago Bulls, Houston Rockets and Washington Wizards.
As always, next season, there will be a few more surprises. Among them will be the Timberwolves.
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We often overlook the extent to which coaching and culture impact the development of a young player. Tim Duncan and Kobe Bryant would not have become who they were had it not been for the influence and teaching of Gregg Popovich and Phil Jackson, respectively. It should come as no surprise that Rajon Rondo and Lance Stephenson enjoyed their best seasons under the guidance of leaders such as Doc Rivers and Frank Vogel, and it is that reason more than any other than Karl-Anthony Towns will likely surpass every expectation that we had of him.
A brief look at the players who Thibodeau has maximized will reveal that he is a coach who makes the most from the least. The more appropriation question today, though, and one which the entire Western Conference should be asking is what Thibodeau will be able to make out of one of the most promising rookies that this league has ever seen.
I don’t know, but I can’t wait to find out.
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