Karl-Anthony Towns just finished one of the greatest rookie seasons in modern NBA history. Whenever the voting results are announced, Towns is likely to run away with the Rookie of the Year Award, if not win it unanimously.
Taken with the No. 1 overall pick in the 2015 NBA draft by the Minnesota Timberwolves, Towns averaged 18.3 points, 10.4 rebounds, 2.0 assists and 1.7 blocks per game on his way to a 22.5 player efficiency rating (PER), the seventh-highest for any rookie since the ABA-NBA merger in 1976.
He wasn't just the league's best rookie during the 2015-16 season; he was already one of its best overall players—the rare first-year player to establish himself as a legitimate two-way star. At 20 years old, he's already on the cusp of superstar-level production. By next season, Towns could be a top-10 player in the NBA.
He's that talented, and his team just hired a coach—former Chicago Bulls head coach Tom Thibodeau—who should push him to new heights on both sides of the ball.
Towns recently sat down with Bleacher Report to discuss Thibodeau, apprenticing under Kevin Garnett, why so many future NBA stars choose to go to Kentucky, his imaginary friend, Karlito—who has his own bobblehead—and more. What follows is a lightly edited transcript of our chat.
Bleacher Report: Something that seems likely to be relegated to a footnote by the time your career is over, especially because of who your next coach is, is that Sam Mitchell was your coach as a rookie. Just as an example, few people would remember Paul Silas coached LeBron for the first year and a half of his career. What’s something you learned from Sam’s coaching this year that you’ll carry with you for the rest of your career?
Karl-Anthony Towns: Sam Mitchell really taught me how to be a professional. I came in with a great mindset, a great mentality about the game of basketball, how to conduct myself; and Coach [John] Calipari did that. But it's different when you come in the league, him teaching me how to do certain things: how to talk to people, how to talk to officials, how to do this and that. He taught me so much about how to be an NBA professional. Him coaching me, being a former player, it had a huge effect on me. It allowed me to have a much easier transition into the role that I was given.
B/R: There were a couple of things he took heat for throughout the year. Early in the season, you weren't playing as much, weren't playing in crunch time. Zach LaVine was playing off the bench as a backup point guard rather than next to Ricky Rubio. But then by the end of the season, when you guys were all starting together along with Andrew Wiggins, you kind of took off a little bit, showed us flashes of what we all expect to see over the next five to 10 years. Do you think that early-season strategy helped you reach the level you reached both personally and as a team over the second half of the season?
KAT: Everything has a reason. We did that, and at the end of the day, like he said, he didn't want to wear me out. You don't want to wear me out. As a rookie, you've got to take extra precautions. Who knew I was going to play 82 straight games and not get injured and have a setback or anything? You've got to prepare for things even when they're not happening yet. It's just like an alarm system. You buy an alarm system before an accident happens and after it, you're happy. It's one of those things. Everything had a purpose. I fully trusted him, fully believed in him, fully bought into what he said. And whatever he said, it went.
B/R: The workload thing lets us transition to your next coach pretty nicely. Tom Thibodeau, he rides his top guys for a lot of minutes. And it's not just in games. He has these legendarily tough and taxing practices too. Are you excited for that, dreading it, some sort of emotion I haven't thought of?
KAT: I went to the University of Kentucky, so I don't think anything could beat a Coach Calipari practice. I'm OK with it. I'm going to go in, and I'm going to work my tail off and see where that gets me.
B/R: Obviously, you know Thibs as one of the best coaches in the NBA, but did you know any of the details of the "Thibodeau defense" before he came on?
KAT: No. I knew a little bit about it, but not enough to say that "I know it." A little bit, just because of experience and being on the playground and being at the University of Kentucky; I learned a little bit. I just can't wait to learn the way he plays defense and have a whole 'nother playbook and philosophy in my mind for the rest of my career.
B/R: How hard are you lobbying Kevin Garnett to come back and give you one more year of Thibodeau-specific teachings because of his experience with Thibs?
KAT: We all love KG. We all love KG. We loved his presence on the court. But that's not my job. He deserves to do whatever he wants to do in his career. He's earned that right. He's earned his Hall of Fame status. Whatever he chooses, we're going to support him, and we're going to love him no matter what he does.
B/R: Something that was always noticeable watching your games on TV was how much KG would talk to you when you guys were on the bench together. He was always in your ear. You'd see Vines and tweets and all this stuff.
KAT: [Laughing] It was both ways, man. It's both ways.
B/R: What were those conversations like? Was it always basketball, or was it other stuff too?
KAT: [laughing] Me and him talked about basketball, but we had other conversations where we were out there. Just joking around, being funny to him, and we're just laughing about it during the middle of the game. Like I said, he's like an older brother to me. And I was his younger brother. We just always tried to find ways to be doing something with each other or just laugh about something or just talk. We had that kind of rapport. We had that kind of trust and feeling for each other.
B/R: No judgment, but were you ever close to a Big Baby (Glen Davis) moment where he was bringing you to tears?
KAT: Oh, no. Not really. If it was anything with tears, it was laughter. KG is a personality, but he's a great friend of mine.
B/R: The mix you guys had in the locker room is really interesting. You had all the young guys the team expects to be really good eventually, and then you had the three older heads in KG, Tayshaun Prince and Andre Miller. It even seemed like it was intentional on (former president of basketball operations and head coach) Flip Saunders' part that there was a point guard, a wing and a big. What was that locker room dynamic like with the age gap and the life experience gap between the young core and the vets Flip brought in?
KAT: It's amazing the veterans that we had, how Flip's vision of having veterans not only included having very talented and Hall of Fame-ballot veterans, but having veterans that had great personalities. And their personalities meshed in completely well with ours, and that's why we were so successful at getting better and progressing so quickly to the team that we wanted to be. Tayshaun, Andre Miller, KG...they meshed with us so well, personally, and in our lives and everything. Our locker room—other than Kentucky—was the best I've ever been a part of, and that's a testament to Flip's vision.
B/R: With Kentucky, so many future NBA guys go there. What is it about Cal, other than the fact he consistently puts guys into the NBA, that draws so many good players there?
KAT: I think they feel the vibe. I think it's all about a vibe. It's like a house. You know if it's the house for you and your family or if it's not within the first few seconds of being there. And I think when I went to Kentucky, I just felt like I was home. I knew that was gonna be the place that I was going to play my collegiate career at.
B/R: Something else on the court: When you guys played Golden State at the end of the year and beat them at their place, you did a better job of taking Stephen Curry on switches than almost any big man in the league throughout this season. What was the strategy you had when you got switched into that matchup?
KAT: Be very competitive. Make it very hard for him to even get a look at the basket. Using my length, my size, my quickness against him and make it very difficult. I'm a competitor. I love to play against the best of the best. When you're playing against the MVP, and to possibly guard him, I tell everyone I want to guard the best of the best. I wanted those switches. I wanted to go against him one-on-one on an island and to go out there and compete. I'm glad that I was able to help my teammates in that way and help my team win the game.
B/R: After having such a great and such an acclaimed rookie year—Western Conference Rookie of the Month every month, probable Rookie of the Year, people talking about All-NBA teams, throwing around things like "the best rookie big man since Tim Duncan," things like that—how do you pinpoint which areas of your game to improve over the summer? Is it just a general "I have to get better" type of thing, or do you have specific areas you want to work on?
KAT: I've always been a big philosopher of in the offseason you work on every single facet of your game. Don't pinpoint something. Because you limit yourself if you specialize in something, and I'm not a specialist in anything. I'm a person and a player who bases off of versatility, trying to do every single thing really well. That's what I'm going to do this summer. I'm going to do everything I can to my body, to my physical skill set, even adding some components that I feel I can add. I'm just going to do that to be the most complete player I can be.
B/R: And I have to ask about Karlito. Obviously, everybody knows Karl-Anthony had a great rookie season, but what was Karlito's like? What's he working on this summer? What are his life plans?
(Note: Karlito is Towns' imaginary friend. He sits on Towns' shoulder and gives Towns advice. He also has his own Twitter and Instagram accounts with over 22,000 combined followers, as well as his own bobblehead and logo-printed golf balls. You can't make this stuff up.)
KAT: I think Karlito had a quiet rookie year. I think he was letting me do more of the talking. And I think after letting me do what I can do, I think next year he'll be a big part of the year, and I think you'll see a lot more of him.
B/R: Is he going to start talking more, like going all Draymond Green on everyone?
KAT: Like a Lil' Penny (Penny Hardaway).