How Will Karl-Anthony Towns Respond to Timberwolves' Tumultuous Year?

Maurice Bobb@@ReeseReportFeatured ColumnistJuly 22, 2019

MINNEAPOLIS, MN -  APRIL 7 : Karl-Anthony Towns #32 of the Minnesota Timberwolves shoots a free throw during the game against the Oklahoma City Thunder on April 7, 2019 at Target Center in Minneapolis, Minnesota. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this Photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2019 NBAE (Photo by Jordan Johnson/NBAE via Getty Images)
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The start of the 2018-19 NBA season hit Minnesota Timberwolves center Karl-Anthony Towns hard like an uppercut to the chin from "Iron" Mike Tyson circa 1985.

First, there was the abrupt trade request by Jimmy Butler. Then there was the heated and controversial practice ignited by his distaste that Towns and Andrew Wiggins' effort and passion didn't match their God-given talent.

Before the disgruntled four-time All-Star was finally traded to the Philadelphia 76ers, he lobbed numerous verbal grenades at the 7'0" big man, making the rest of the league hyperaware of their flaws. Not long afterward, head coach Tom Thibodeau was ousted. 

And there was Towns, Minnesota's $158 million man, taking a standing eight-count.

But once the dust settled, he began to shake off the fog and throw some hard-hitting shots of his own.

While Butler's bitter exit projected the team's inner turmoil to the world with the rancor of a bullhorn, Towns operated in measured silence, choosing to instead handle the noise in-house.

He reached for the safe space of what he could control on the court and recovered nicely, making the All-Star team and forging ahead with a new stoicism, averaging an impressive 28.1 points, 13.4 rebounds, 3.8 assists and 1.2 blocks over his last 20 games of the season.

The Wolves failed to make the playoffs, but Towns had managed to get his team off the ropes and on the path toward clearing the rubble left from the early part of the season. Now, armed with a new head coach, new team president and new system, he has his eyes on building a new winning culture in Minnesota and becoming the leader and franchise cornerstone he was projected to be when he was taken No. 1 overall in the 2015 draft.

He'd hoped that a major part of the Wolves' long-term rewiring would include the addition of close friend and first-time All-Star D'Angelo Russell, but that idea was thwarted by the Golden State Warriors, who acquired him in a sign-and-trade with the Brooklyn Nets in exchange for Kevin Durant and a first-round pick.

Towns wears the disappointment of losing out on Russell on his sleeve, but he finds solace in the fact that the former Ohio State standout went to a good team.

"Obviously, you would love to have a talent and good person on the team when it comes to D'Angelo," Towns told Bleacher Report. "But I'm just happy for him because my brother got exactly what he wanted."

Chris Pizzello/Associated Press

With no major offseason acquisitions to speak of outside of signing No. 6 overall pick Jarrett Culver, the Wolves have a tough road. But this summer's seismic free-agency moves weakened the Warriors' stronghold on the NBA and effectively made winning the championship next season a very real possibility for a number of teams.

Now, instead of the Warriors holding court as the perennial favorites, a handful of teams are armed with dynamic duos, such as Brooklyn's Durant and Kyrie Irving, L.A.'s Leonard and George (Clippers) and LeBron James and Anthony Davis (Lakers) and Houston's James Harden and Russell Westbrook.

With no major offseason moves to speak of outside of drafting Jarrett Culver with the No. 6 overall pick, the Wolves best-case scenario is just to compete in the loaded West.

Unsurprisingly, though, the challenge of it all excites Towns.

"I thrive on competition—I live for it," Towns said. "I love being in the West. I love the fact that every night I get to go out there and have a challenge and I get to compete against the best of the best every single night.

"I'm excited and everyone is giving their tidbits about the West getting stronger and the West obviously being what it's been during this free agency. But I'm very excited that I get to now have more people to compete against on a nightly basis."

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New team president Gersson Rosas knighted Towns as the team's "biggest driver to winning" and continues to pour confidence in him as the Wolves' franchise player, a weight that Towns is embracing as he swerves into his new role as the team's leader.

"I think it's huge that he looks at me in that way," Towns said. "It's a great thing when you have the support of a person like Gersson behind you. He's been amazing and absolutely fantastic and he's definitely been doing all the amazing things he talks about and he backs it up with action, so his actions speak louder than his words."

Towns is a supremely talented player, but the question he'll have to answer moving forward is, can he lead a franchise to contention?

Can he be the catalyst that drives Minnesota to the playoffs every year instead of early summer vacations?

In this era of position-less basketball, KAT still needs to play to his strengths and continue to develop as a back-to-the-basket scorer.  A career 39.2 percent from deep, he has the ability to stretch the floor with his outside shot. But if he loses his low-post arsenal, he won't take advantage of mismatches to set up his teammates for open shots, a key component to a team's offensive efficiency.

Last season, the Wolves' offensive rating wasn't terrible (110.6), but if they want to become a postseason threat, they'll need to improve their inside-out game. And he'll need a partner-in-crime. Minny whiffed on Russell, who would have flourished in the pick-and-roll with Towns.

Wiggins, who signed a five-year, $147.7 million extension before last season, has yet to live up to the expectations heaped on him when he was drafted first overall in 2014. Culver didn't play in summer league, so he's a mystery going into his rookie campaign. For his part, Towns has focused on leading team-bonding exercises, including working out with his new rook and Wiggins this offseason.

"It's about building a culture that is world class," Towns said. "It's about building that connection. That is a big part of being a leader, and that kind of winning culture hasn't been here in years. And it starts with coming together and doing what we've done recently with all of us at summer league, all of us really supporting each other, just knowing that your presence is felt. So we're building a very unified team, and the goal is that we find players that match the culture that we're building."

In addition to trying to use the example set by Kevin Garnett and his new head coach's late father Flip Saunders, Towns takes his winning cues from his years as an ambassador for the Gatorade Player of the Year awards.

Towns won the Gatorade High School Male Athlete of the Year award in 2014 and has been back every year since to honor the program's cadre of impressive male and female student-athletes.

"This award is about more than just talent," Towns said. "It's more about what's inside your chest, your heart; it's talking about who you are as a character and as a person, so that's why this award to me is the most important award you can win in high school sports. It's an award that truly shows who you are as a whole and not just the little part of you as an athlete."

The league's biggest superstars also give their team, city and fans a piece of themselves, but Towns was thrust into that spotlight perhaps sooner than he wanted and has had to adjust and recalibrate under that vulnerability. This coming season, he'll have to show significant growth from last year's tumultuous team drama and approach his responsibilities as the team's leader and best player with the kind of passion and intensity that Butler, for whatever reason, didn't see.

It's up to Towns to prove Butler and all other doubters wrong.

"I'm working tremendously hard to make sure I'm the best teammate and leader for my team," Towns said.


Follow Maurice Bobb on Twitter, @ReeseReport

Statistics obtained from NBA.com

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