Q&A: Towns emerges as leader for changed Wolves
Minnesota big man helps guide team through post-Butler trade days
In addition to dismantling the Miami Heat Sunday with 34 points, 18 rebounds, seven assists and six blocked shots, Karl-Anthony Towns sent the number-crunchers scurrying for comps. Turns no one had, per Elias Sports Bureau and NBA.com/Stats.
Towns’ big night helped the Timberwolves win their third consecutive road game, after a 2-13 road start. It capped a run of three performances by the Wolves center in which he totaled 85 points, 57 rebounds, 16 assists and nine blocks.
Towns’ uptick in play pre-dates the holidays. Since Nov. 12 — the date Minnesota traded unhappy All-Star Jimmy Butler to Philadelphia — Towns has averaged nearly 23 points and 13 rebounds, while shooting better than 50 percent. While Butler still was a Timberwolf, Towns averaged 19.9 points and 10.8 rebounds while making 45 percent of his shots.
Since Butler has been gone, Towns has been more relaxed and more productive.
“He’s doing great,” teammate Taj Gibson said. “He’s taken a leadership role. More vocal. We’re doing more and more team activities and he’s one of the main catalysts to that. We’re talking to him, he’s listening. And he wants to win. He wants to do right by the team. We’ve been going to him late in the fourth and he’s been handling it well.”
In his fourth NBA season, Towns is back on track. He’s putting up numbers to match his All-Star season in 2018, his defensive work is improving and he has a five-year, $157 million contract extension in his pocket that kicks in come 2019-20. With teammate Andrew Wiggins still confounding fans and critics with his inconsistent effort, Towns is Minnesota’s best player and budding leader, taking baby steps into Butler’s self-proclaimed role.
He spoke with NBA.com’s Steve Aschburner on the Wolves’ recent stop in Chicago:
Steve Aschburner: The Wolves didn’t play on Christmas but you guys traveled to Chicago that night. How do you carve out holiday time when you’re getting squeezed by the schedule?
Karl-Anthony Towns: It’s always about the family time. I’m not a guy who’s about the material things. Just having my sister in and her two kids and my mom and dad there. Nice having my niece and nephew around. I told them they didn’t have to come see me, it was only going to be the day. I was planning to wake up late, watch some TV, maybe cook myself and then leave for Chicago. But they came in and wanted to spend some time with me.
We’re working on the fly right now. But we’re doing a great job. Even the games we’ve lost, I felt we’ve played well and garnered something. We haven’t taken any steps back. We just have to continue to grind out the season. It’s 82 games for a reason.”
SA: How do you feel about your team? After a 4-9 start before the Butler trade, you’ve played above .500 ball but still are digging out in the West.
KAT: I mean, we’re a team that’s developing still. When you make a trade like we did, obviously, at that point of the season, it hasn’t been that long. Stuff like that happens when you have a training camp, you have time to work on chemistry, everything like that. We’re working on the fly right now. But we’re doing a great job. Even the games we’ve lost, I felt we’ve played well and garnered something. We haven’t taken any steps back. We just have to continue to grind out the season. It’s 82 games for a reason.
SA: What did it mean to beat the Thunder in Oklahoma City [114-112 on Dec. 23].
KAT: That we grinded it [out]. On the road, it wasn’t like we had a good day and the other team had a bad day. We had to grind it to the last second. Especially being at OKC of all places, a team that’s rolling. Gave us a lot of confidence for the road. Learned a lot from that game.
SA: Learned what?
KAT: It was all about getting one out of the way. We’d been struggling to find one. To be able to go out there and get the one, now we can finally start to see some wins pile up.
SA: How have you guys done at getting Dario Saric and Robert Covington acclimated to their new team?
KAT: That’s the thing about Dario and Robert — they’re such high-character guys, they will always put the team first. Match that with the skill they possess, we’re very happy to have them, very blessed to have ‘em. What they bring to the table is more than what’s on the stat sheet.
SA: It’s got to be difficult, getting air-dropped into a team during the season.
KAT: The thing about it is, when you come in, you’re learning a new offensive and defensive scheme, everything. Just having those conversations and people being in their ears about it. But like I said, they’re so possessed with skill, there are times they can get away with winging it.
I’ve tried to stay more within, mentally. Be a better person. Be a better leader. I’d say that’s the biggest thing I took away from this summer, working on myself.”
Towns, on what he worked on last summer
KAT: It will come with time. Their understanding, us getting more used to them. Great teams, you see players working off of wavelengths. Telepathic, not even actual physical things. We’re not at that point yet but we’re working every day to get there.
SA: We always hear about the best players adding something to their games each offseason. What did you bring back from summer?
KAT: More just mental than anything. I’ve tried to stay more within, mentally. Be a better person. Be a better leader. I’d say that’s the biggest thing I took away from this summer, working on myself.
SA: How much are you trying to assert yourself as a leader here, fours years in?
KAT: I’m not as much of a vet as a lot of these guys here. But seeing how hard it was to get to the playoffs last year, seeing what a playoff atmosphere is. Everything like that and seeing what I have in my time playing basketball, it’s more about going out there and … I think everyone has a hand in leadership. Just accountability. Being there when people count on you the most. And for me, it’s making sure every single day my teammates know I’m here for them, no matter what the case is. Good or bad, I’m going to be on their side regardless.
SA: Have you turned up the volume to make your points?
KAT: Absolutely. That’s happened multiple times this year. It’s always out of love and respect, but that’s the thing sometimes. Especially when you’re a leader, you have to do the things that aren’t the popular choice. But that’s fine, you have to be able to make those decisions, without a doubt.
SA: Is your team looking for you more early in games now, to get you opportunities?
KAT: I don’t know. I take what the game gives me. I just go by how the game flows. I want to be aggressive all the time. And do what I can to help us win.
SA: There was plenty of focus on the former Bulls — Derrick Rose, Taj Gibson, coach Tom Thibodeau — on the Minnesota roster. But you went against a pair of ex-teammates, Zach LaVine and Kris Dunn. How was that?
KAT: It’s always a reminder that this is a business. There’s a little more emotion to see those guys you got so close with, and now they’re on another team. You always wish the best for ‘em. With Kris, with Zach, you want the best for them. You can’t worry about what might have been, though. Whatever’s going to happen is going to happen.
The thing is, a lot of people look at basketball players as gods, but we’re regular people having everyday struggles like the fans. For me, I want to challenge myself more off the court. It’s about being a better man, more than anything.”
SA: Let’s run through some lighter stuff. Tell me about your first dunk.
KAT: I was in sixth grade. It was the summer, going into seventh grade. I was 6-foot-something and I’d been playing a lot — and had gotten close for a couple weeks, I remember vividly. I got out there and thought, “I feel like I’ve got a chance today.” I went up there and dunked it. My dad went crazy. We had practice later that day, and I couldn’t wait to show how much more I could jump now. I did it again — once I broke the seal, it was fun.
SA: And your first car?
KAT: My first car was the only car I’ve got right now. A Range Rover. Why? It’s very snowy in Minnesota.
SA: What song do you need to hear at least once a week?
KAT: “Best Day Ever” by Mac Miller. Yeah. I was real close to Mac Miller who died this summer. So I listen to his music, or a song, before every game. He’s been my favorite artist since I was younger. And obviously being close friends with him later in life, his music means more to me than ever. So “Best Day Ever.” BDE. I remember listening to that before every single game in middle school and high school, even in college.
SA: Where is your favorite place to go?
KAT: Wherever my family is at. My family brings me great energy.
SA: What’s the best advice you ever got?
KAT: That was from [Kentucky] coach [John] Calipari actually. It’s what he told our team when we were undefeated. He kept stressing — and put a big sign in our theater room — and it was about living in the present. Enjoy this moment, cherish this moment, it will never happen again. For us, our team, we knew we were so good, so talented, one of the best college teams that ever put jerseys on, that we knew it would never happen again. I remember that – really cherish these moments. Every single day, I try to remember that and conquer every single challenge, relish every single second.
SA: This Q&A is posting on New Year’s Eve. So what sort of resolutions have you made or plan to make?
KAT: I’ve always tried to make resolutions. Last year I wanted to be mentally stronger. Be more religious, get closer to God, so that was one of my bigger things — work on things that are bigger than basketball. I wanted to challenge myself to be even more active in communities and charities. That was last year too. I did pretty well — I can look myself in the mirror and be pretty happy. The thing is, a lot of people look at basketball players as gods, but we’re regular people having everyday struggles like the fans. For me, I want to challenge myself more off the court. It’s about being a better man, more than anything.
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