MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — The audacious experiment of pairing two big men together turned into a false start for the Minnesota Timberwolves last season when Karl-Anthony Towns missed 52 games because of a strained calf muscle during Rudy Gobert’s debut with the team.
“I think it’s always a work in progress,” Gobert said. “You can’t get enough.”
The assessment was finally revived when Towns returned for the playoffs. Now the Timberwolves are banking on Gobert being more comfortable in his second year and Towns staying healthy, bringing back the same starting lineup and almost the entire rotation for another try after losing in the first round to eventual NBA champion Denver.
“Me and Rudy needed more time,” Towns said. “Obviously my injury didn’t help, so it will be good to be out there with him and be healthy doing it and just get right to it.”
Gobert’s integration was far from smooth with the burden of the high price Minnesota paid in the trade with Utah — the equivalent of five first-round picks, including 2022 draftee Walker Kessler — hovering over his every move.
Gobert’s shooting percentage on 2-pointers was his lowest in five years, his rebounding average his lowest in four. He averaged fewer than 2 blocks per game for the first time since he was a rookie in 2013-14.
The chemistry on the court was often clunky on both ends as the Timberwolves tried to adjust to his rim-protection strength on defense and his pick-and-roll game on offense. Then he lost his cool in the tense final regular season game, taking a swing at teammate Kyle Anderson that got him sent home at halftime and suspended for their first play-in game.
There were signs of promise during the first-round series against the Nuggets, as coach Chris Finch tried to play him both with Towns and without. President of basketball operations Tim Connelly, at his preseason news conference at Target Center on Thursday, said he expected the pairing to be initially clunky and credited Finch for his deft touch.
“He was dealt a tough hand to try to make that work,” Connelly said.
Gobert played for France’s national team at the World Cup. He said he felt the “best I’ve ever felt” at the end of June during the training process. Now he’s eager for restart with Minnesota.
“I think we’ve grown a lot individually and collectively, and now I feel really excited being back here with this group,” Gobert said. “I can feel their energy. I can feel that it’s going to be a good year for us.”
When training camp starts Friday, the Gobert-Towns pairing will again be high on the to-do list for Finch and the staff. Refining their connection with star guard Anthony Edwards is probably above that.
“We’ll do a lot of work with those guys together — player-development, small group work for sure,” Finch said. “I think through the season last year, Ant and Rudy had a better understanding. It’s not the finished product by any stretch of the imagination, but you felt it getting better and better. I think the key for us is to recapture the chemistry that Ant and KAT have always had.”
Edwards flourished during the World Cup with the U.S. team and enters his fourth season with a maximum contract extension in hand — and even higher expectations. He shrugged that off Thursday, calling forward Jaden McDaniels the most important player on the team for his potential and trying to turn the spotlight on ninth-year veteran Towns.
“Big KAT’s a superstar, man. He’s going to be like one of the best players in the league this year,” Edwards said. “He’s going to take a lot of pressure off me, so, yeah, I’m putting a lot of pressure on him.”
Another key player back for the Timberwolves is Anderson, their versatile forward and glue guy whose defense, leadership and hustle are exactly the type of needs for this team to make it out of the first round of the playoffs. Anderson suffered an eye injury against Denver that kept him out of the decisive Game 5 and required surgery, and he revealed Thursday that, while he’s fine now, there were some concerning times for him during the offseason about the viability of his career.
“I’m playing pickup in these small New Jersey gyms. It’s dark and I can’t see a thing, but it’s gotten a lot better now. I’m sure an NBA arena with great lighting, it should be fine,” Anderson said. “I think everybody in my family was kind of spooked, and I didn’t want to show them that I was spooked. But it was definitely tough.”