The expectations were always unreasonable. Regardless of how good Karl-Anthony Towns played as a 20-year-old rookie, nobody—not Michael Jordan, Shaquille O’Neal or LeBron James—ascends to the NBA’s summit in their second year without a few significant hiccups along the way.
And at only 21 years old, with the attention of every opponent full bore on making each possession as uncomfortable as possible, Towns hasn't been ready for a Most Valuable Player campaign or, as it’ll most likely turn out, leading his Minnesota Timberwolves to the postseason.
“I never fooled myself into thinking it was something other than what it was,” first-year Timberwolves head coach Tom Thibodeau said when asked about preseason expectations. “If you took a hard look at the numbers, and you dive into the games, and you see how they unfolded from a year ago, you knew you weren’t close to winning.”
In having the youngest roster in the league, Minnesota had to learn the hard way how quickly a sizable third-quarter lead can evaporate. Passing lanes that were just wide enough to fit a smart car will tighten up in the final 12 minutes. Missed rotations are less forgiving and every possession is more physical than the last.
And so the second year of Towns’ boundless career has been more mistake-riddled learning experience than red-carpet rollout. The Timberwolves didn’t win two games in a row until December 21, an eight-point victory against an Atlanta Hawks team that didn’t have Dwight Howard.
Almost every sign of progress has immediately led to a sobering misstep. That win in Atlanta brought them to 9-19. Towns had 17 points, 18 rebounds and five assists. The numbers have always been there, but winning basketball has only recently showed up to the party.
That's OK, because all that trial and error in November, December and January has started to pay off. Since February 1, Towns has played the part of a top-five player. He’s averaging 28.4 points (fourth behind Russell Westbrook, James Harden and Isaiah Thomas) and 13.2 rebounds (third behind Hassan Whiteside and Andre Drummond) per game, shooting 60.8 percent from the floor and 40.4 percent from behind the three-point line.
Depending on what you want in a big man, “best center in basketball” debates can be superfluous in a league that prioritizes so many different qualities out of that position. But there’s no point in arguing who’s most impressive right now. Towns’ in-season growth on both ends of the floor has been remarkable to watch.
“I’ve gotten smarter, you know? I’m able to understand defenses better and I’m able to understand our scheme better,” Towns said at Minnesota’s morning shootaround. “So when you understand the scheme, I’m able to take chances because I know where I can take my chances at. I’ve just gotten better, understanding the system better, understanding where my spots are better, anticipating better.”
The Timberwolves have been a bad defensive team with Towns on the floor this season. While he leads all centers in Offensive Real Plus-Minus, he also ranks 66th out of 68 players in Defensive Real Plus-Minus. But since the All-Star break, they’ve allowed just 99.9 points per 100 possessions when he plays, good for second best in the league.
“I just think, overall, experience teaches you a lot,” Thibodeau said. “He wants to be great. You never fight him to be in the gym, to study, to work. And I think he and Wig have really taken on more of a leadership role in how we’re doing things...they understand for us to win they have to play defense. They have to set the tone for that. They can’t rest on defense.”
There are still instances where he leaps at pump fakes and commits needless fouls, but he’s growing on that side of the ball at an irreversible rate.
“He’s playing really good defense,” Shabazz Muhammad told Bleacher Report. “That’s something he’s really been struggling with his past year in the league. I’ve seen a lot of improvements. Just him blocking shots, being active, being in the paint. He’s such a big body.”
Other teammates echoed that thought.
“Defensively he can be better. A lot better,” Jordan Hill said. “It’s not that he just fouls a lot, it’s like he tries not to foul. Like he’s kind of afraid to play too aggressive on the defensive end because he doesn’t want to get fouls.
“As a guy that age, he just came out of college, that’s how it was in college. You couldn’t put your hands on them in college. You’ve gotta use your body, and it’s hard. But now we can put our hands on them, so now he’s just gotta get that down pat, knowing he can put his hands on a big man now. He’s blocking shots, he definitely comes from the weak side to block shots. But one-on-one defense, he’s getting better, but he can do a lot better.”
It’s a work in progress, but Towns has the tools to handle undersized forwards, wings and some guards on the perimeter. Sometimes, he’ll turn the paint into a choreographed demolition derby whenever he sniffs a potential rebound.
He’s a velvet bowling ball on offense, with one of the most effective and physical post games in the league going hand in hand with effortless outside touch. Towns has attempted more contested shots than any other player by a hefty margin, and (somehow) it’s an efficient option.
“I’m finding new things, knicks and knacks in my game, that I’m able to unleash,” Towns said. “Every year I’m able to let more things out in my tool bag...I think that just came with experience and understanding where I can find my spots and pick my spots.”
Towns can space the floor—as he does from time to time in the weak-side corner while Andrew Wiggins or Ricky Rubio runs a high pick-and-roll—and his volume of mid-range attempts has plunged compared to last year.
“He’s been a joke since he got in the league, in my opinion,” Celtics head coach Brad Stevens said. “He can score with his back to the basket, he can score facing up, he can score off the dribble, he can catch and shoot. They run actions for him running off screens to shoot threes. I mean, he’s talented.”
Even on off nights, which are already nearing extinction, Towns carries himself like a franchise player whose destiny is tenured face-of-the-league-level superstardom. How high he climbs is anybody’s guess, but the evolution that’s currently taking place on a month-to-month, week-to-week and day-to-day basis almost disallows hyperbole.
A couple of months ago, he was flustered by double-teams, and he still gets frustrated in clutch situations (where his effective field-goal percentage and usage rate are both lower than his season average), but the evolutionary process takes time for someone whose body and skill set still have so much room to grow.
Him already approaching the verge of unstoppable is just a footnote on his path to greatness. Towns doesn’t rule the league quite yet, but it’s already clear that his prime will be apocalyptic for everyone and anyone who dares try to slow him down.