Karl-Anthony Towns was still in utero when Kevin Garnett first donned a Minnesota Timberwolves cap and, along with it, busted open the preps-to-pros pipeline into the NBA draft. In the 20 years since then, Garnett has become an MVP, won a championship and solidified himself as one of the greatest forwards of all time. Towns, meanwhile, has grown into one of basketball's most promising prospects.
In time, the 19-year-old New Jersey native could become the next KG: a skilled and intelligent big man, a force to be reckoned with on both ends of the floor, a franchise savior in the Land of 10,000 Lakes.
All the better, then, that Towns will be learning the tricks of his trade from the Big Ticket himself. T-Wolves head coach/president of basketball operations Flip Saunders acquired Garnett from the Brooklyn Nets at the trade deadline in February and inked him to a two-year, $16.5 million deal this past July.
With a little guidance from Garnett, Towns could eventually take up the mantle that his newest mentor once fashioned for himself, back when the new kid on the block was still in grade school.
Towns wasn't party to the destruction of any pre-existing paradigms by dint of getting picked in the NBA draft this year. He was the sixth straight No. 1 pick to be plucked from a pack of one-and-dones in the annual draft pool.
Garnett came into the league as a 7-footer whose all-around aptitude for basketball was exceeded only by his youth. The South Carolina native was known best for his ferocity at the rim, as both a finisher and a defender, but flashed a tantalizing proficiency from the perimeter during his time at the 1995 McDonald's High School All-American Game in St. Louis, Missouri.
In Towns' case, he hardly got to flash his outside game before crashing the draft. He shot just 2-of-8 from three-point range during his lone season in college.
Instead of firing away from deep, Towns spent most of his time at Kentucky close to the bucket, where his height, bulk and strength were best put to use on a squad loaded with perimeter-oriented talent. John Calipari's use of a platoon system, with three other eventual draftees (i.e. Willie Cauley-Stein, Trey Lyles and Dakari Johnson) in the frontcourt, limited the time that Towns spent anywhere on the court to begin with.
Dominating the interior won't be so easy for Towns in the NBA. He'll have to compete inside with grown men who can match (if not exceed) his profile in terms of size and skill four to five nights a week. Enter Garnett, who's still playing after 20 seasons thanks in large part to his understanding of how to succeed in the NBA without giving up his body on every play.
As Towns told the Washington Post's Michael Lee:
I used my body a lot in college, but here it’s more than just banging and see who’s stronger. It’s more of a crafty game. KG and me, we talked about instead of having me bang my body so much like I did in college and high school, I need to be a little more crafty and save my body for later in the game and later in the week. When you’re talking four games in seven days, you’ve really got to save your body. You can’t be going in there trying to bang all day.
Towns can do much more than that on the interior, even at the tender age of 19. Like Garnett, the Timberwolves' all-time leader in assists, Towns is already adept at drawing defensive attention and finding his teammates for easy opportunities.
"A big man that can pass like he passes, it helps everyone on the team," Andrew Wiggins said earlier this summer, via the Post. "He does it all. He can make plays for others, he can score the basketball, great rebounder."
And that's just what Towns can do in the paint. The kid may well have what it takes to hold his own out on the perimeter.
Per Lee, Towns grew up learning to play basketball as a guard from his father, Karl Sr. He held on to those skills as he shot up, even beating Wiggins, his new teammate, in a three-point contest after practice at the 2013 Nike Hoops Summit in Portland, Oregon.
Towns' shooting ability, once subjugated at Kentucky, could become a staple of his game at the next level. During an appearance on the CBS Sports Network's Boomer & Carton show, Towns said he sees LaMarcus Aldridge as his most uncanny comparison in the NBA.
From an offensive standpoint, Aldridge is about as close to a Garnett clone as there's been since KG came into the league. Both Aldridge and Garnett have proved to be superb mid-range shooters over the course of their respective careers.
While Aldridge has shot in much higher volume (and from further out) in recent years, Garnett set the standard for over-the-shoulder fadeaway jumpers in the post, on top of his usual flurry of long twos from inside the top of the arc.
Under the conventional wisdom of today's NBA, those types of shots are often eschewed in favor of three-pointers and looks right at the rim. Timberwolves coach Flip Saunders understands, though, that it won't behoove him to try to make his players shoot shots with which they aren't comfortable.
"The bottom line is, you have what you have," Saunders told Grantland's Zach Lowe. "If your best players aren’t three-point shooters, you can’t just make them three-point shooters. We need to build around them and get some other players who can stretch the floor.
"And here’s the big thing: Towns, KG and [Adreian] Payne are not post-up bigs. They knock down 18-footers with regularity. So it’s not like we’ll have no spacing."
The fact that Towns is capable of shooting from beyond that range should not only open up the floor for Minnesota, but may well set the rookie big man on a course to break the mold for players his size, just as Garnett once did. As SB Nation's Key Dae wrote:
Kevin Garnett set a unique standard for big men with his combination of rebounds and assists. Dirk [Nowitzki] set another with rebounds and threes. Towns could possibly be the one to invent the standard of threes and blocked shots. That would be a monumental deal in the NBA.
So, too, would Towns taking after the Big Ticket on the defensive end.
Garnett's laundry list of accolades, including 12 All-Defensive nods and the 2007-08 Defensive Player of the Year award, merely points to his superb understanding and execution of key defensive principles. In his heyday, he owned every inch of the court, using his length, lateral quickness, fleet footwork and keen understanding of time and space to shut off passing lanes, challenge shots and force opposing offenses into difficult, split-second decisions.
Not to mention all Garnett did (and still does) to intimidate his foes whenever possible.
What's more important now is his willingness and ability to impart his hard-won wisdom upon his younger peers, Towns included.
"I'm trying to bring some communication and some things that I've been successful throughout my journey and hope that they pick up on it," Garnett said shortly after returning to Minnesota in February, via the St. Paul Pioneer Press's Andy Greder.
Towns seems likely to do so. Every indicator points to his being an eager student, a sponge for sopping up basketball knowledge from those who would offer it. Per Sports Reference, Towns ranked among the top 20 in the nation in total blocks and block percentage, the top 10 in defensive win shares and at the top in defensive rating.
|Karl-Anthony Towns' Defensive Ranks at Kentucky|
|Total Blocks||Block %||Defensive Rating||Defensive Win Shares|
But as far as his own merits are concerned, Towns has the tools to be a terrifying presence in the paint, if not all over the floor. At 6'11" and 250 pounds, with a wingspan north of 7'3" and the ability to leap more than three feet off the ground, Towns is physically capable of covering sizable swaths of hardwood at any given moment.
Before Towns can take off as a defensive dynamo, though, he'll have to figure out how to defend without fouling. According to Sports Reference, he racked up an average of 5.6 fouls per 40 minutes. In college basketball, that would've been enough to earn a disqualification every time out.
If the Wolves are going to win with Towns in the middle, they'll need him to stay out of foul trouble. That will be no easy task as Towns adjusts to the speed, athleticism and physicality of the NBA game, all of which will make it harder for him to not foul.
Fortunately for Towns, Garnett, his newest tutor, happens to be one of the most foul-averse defenders of all time. According to Basketball Reference, Garnett has averaged a mere 2.5 fouls per 36 minutes over the course of his Hall of Fame-bound career. Among past Defensive Player of the Year honorees, only Michael Jordan, Ben Wallace and Kawhi Leonard have done a better job of dodging infractions.
|Career Fouls/36 Minutes Among DPOY Winners|
|Name||Won DPOY...||Career Fouls/36 mins|
|Ben Wallace||2002, 2003, 2005, 2006||2.3|
|Sidney Moncrief||1983, 1984||2.5|
|Metta World Peace||2004||2.9|
|Dwight Howard||2009, 2010, 2011||3.3|
|Dikembe Mutombo||1995, 1997, 1998, 2001||3.3|
|Dennis Rodman||1990, 1991||3.5|
|Hakeem Olajuwon||1993, 1994||3.6|
|Alonzo Mourning||1999, 2000||3.9|
|Mark Eaton||1985, 1989||4.2|
Even with a teacher of Garnett's caliber in his ear, Towns won't become a maestro on either end of an NBA floor overnight. It's not as though Garnett can simply download all of his knowledge into his newest pupil's brain like Morpheus teaching Neo kung fu. If he could, the Wolves would really be on to something
In the absence of that dystopian technology, Towns will have to learn the ropes of the NBA the hard way: through first-hand experience and, despite all the preparation in the world, trial and error. He'll have to endure the same frustrations that plague every rookie, in addition to all the pressures particular to No. 1 picks tapped as saviors of sunken franchises.
When he was Towns' age, Garnett didn't have to worry quite so much about the outsized expectations and constant criticism that are part and parcel of the social media age. That doesn't mean, though, that he wasn't the center of unwanted attention.
Garnett had to play the part of pioneer. As the No. 5 pick in the 1995 draft, Garnett became the first player to go straight from high school to the NBA in 20 years. On top of that, he was charged with carrying Minnesota, which had averaged fewer than 19 wins over the four seasons prior to his arrival, to the first playoff appearance in franchise history.
All at a rail-thin 6'11" and 217 pounds, no less.
Towns was a bit meatier (6'11" and 250 pounds) when he turned pro and won't have to blaze as many trails as his predecessor once did. For one, Towns will debut in the NBA not as a fresh-faced kid straight out of the prep ranks but rather as the sixth straight No. 1 pick to have been a one-and-done phenom in college. And while the T-Wolves haven't tasted postseason play since Garnett hit his absolute peak in 2004, Towns can at least point to a blueprint for doing so in the North Star State.
"We got the tools needed to be a playoff team," Towns told Lee. "We just need to go out there and execute."
That'll be easier said than done, with a roster populated with players who, like Towns, are still getting a feel for what NBA basketball is and what they're each capable of within it. For these Timberpups, there will be bad possessions, bad quarters, bad games, bad weeks and, perhaps, bad months. The losses will pile up at times—something that Towns, a winner at every level to date, admitted he isn't used to.
"I can’t lie to you. I haven’t lost. Every loss is hard," Towns said to Lee. "Losing always gives you a lot of things to learn from. I think KG is actually one who talked about it the most, that he’s never taken a loss as a loss. It’s always been a win of some sort. He’s learned from every loss. He’s learned from everything."
Garnett took plenty of lumps during his earliest days in the NBA. The Wolves finished his rookie season with an abysmal record of 26-56. The next year, they improved to 40-42—still sub-.500 but good enough to crack the Western Conference playoffs as the No. 6 seed.
If Towns needs that kind of time to taste success as a pro, it'll only make him more closely resemble the man he can now call his mentor.
Josh Martin covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter.