Karl Towns didn't possess the background that suggested he would help drive basketball toward a new era. An undersized 6'6" forward, he had been a clear-the-lane-by-the elbows brute who patrolled the paint at Monmouth University in the 1980s to become the school's leading rebounder.
When he became coach at Piscataway Vo-Tech High School, his son, Karl-Anthony, often tagged along and performed drills with the junior varsity team while his wife, Jacqueline Cruz, worked as a nurse. By the time Karl-Anthony Towns neared high school age, he stretched to nearly 6'10". In another time and another era, that would have made him a natural successor to his father's game, putting his sizable frame in the paint for unbothered rebounds and putbacks.
But Karl and his son had other plans. They involved academics more than athletics. "Being a parent who came from the inner city, we had other kids, we just wanted to give him the opportunity to showcase more of a game and get more interest from colleges, so he could get a free education," Karl said. "The dream was never to go to the NBA, but the dream was to make sure that he got a chance at a great education, become the kinesiologist he always dreamed of."
A routine developed. Karl-Anthony would shoot until he made a thousand jumpers every day but Sunday, stretching farther and farther from the rim until his jumper flicked off his hand like the ease of a layup for others. Mom and Dad would station themselves at both free-throw lines while Karl-Anthony ran and weaved through cones in agility drills. "It's amazing to say that everything I taught him is now the way the game is played today, and I think that's helped him in his evolution to become such a complete player," Karl said.
It took a while for the game to catch up. Parents at the courts where the Towns played in Piscataway, New Jersey, would gawk at the pair, wondering why Karl-Anthony wasn't practicing his post moves and thinking all that size would be underdeveloped. And when Karl-Anthony went on to Kentucky, John Calipari essentially banned him from taking threes during his lone season there. Now, those parents who ridiculed the pair occasionally approach Karl and apologize. "Now the game evolved around being able to shoot the three, handle the ball," Karl said. "Size doesn't matter, because at 7-feet, he's playing up there like a guard."
In an era dominated by the search for basketball unicorns, Karl-Anthony Towns may be the NBA's preeminent example of the form. He leads all centers this season in scoring and three-point shooting while ranking among the top five in assists and steals, the top 10 in rebounds and the top 15 in blocks.
"In my mind, he's the big of this generation," said Gersson Rosas, Minnesota's president of basketball operations. "What he does offensively is he allows us to play a modern NBA game, but with a twist that other teams can't replicate, which is we can play him on the inside on the post, where he's dominant, or we can lift him and put him on the perimeter, where he impacts the defense on a very high level. So, if you're going to guard him with a big, he has the ability to shoot over you or drive by you. If you put a small or a guard on him, then we can put him in the post and he can be very dominant and score.
"There's really nothing he can't do. He can shoot from three, can shoot from inside. He can attack the basket. He can draw fouls. He can pass. When you have a player like that in your system, it changes the way you are. That's why I think he's the prototypical big for the NBA."
For all Towns can do, his ability to stretch the floor like a guard has made him all but indefensible. Among the nearly 40 7-footers who have attempted at least 100 threes in their career, no one has shot them at a more prolific rate than Towns. This season, he has nearly doubled his three-point attempts (8.5 per game) from last year (4.6 per game) while sinking them at a 41.8 percent clip.
With a slight uptick in his numbers, he could join Steph Curry as the only players to make at least 3.5 three-pointers while shooting at least 43 percent over a full season.
"Everything just feels like if I flick it, it's in," Towns said of getting into a shooting rhythm. "When I'm in that zone, especially shooting wise, I feel like any time I touch the ball, it's like I'm a painter and I'm just waiting to make some great art. I just feel like Picasso up there, when I'm feeling that zone, and if I'm in that zone, ain't nothing going to stop me from putting the ball in the bucket."
It's a Friday afternoon, and the Minnesota Timberwolves are practicing the day before they host the Phoenix Suns. Towns steals the ball during a defensive drill and dribbles toward the opposite rim. Coach Ryan Saunders races to get in his path, feinting like he's a defender, before smiling and quickly sidestepping Towns.
The team advances onto offensive sets. "If you come off, you have a jump shot, great," Saunders instructs Towns at one point. "You come off, you have a drive to the basket, great."
Saunders, who took over the team in the wake of Tom Thibodeau's firing in the middle of last season, overhauled and modernized Minnesota's priorities. Stickers showcasing expectant point values—the difference between a good shot like a corner three and an unfavorable one like a long two—dot the court as visual aids. Everything, Saunders said, is in a "youthful phase." That includes the roster. Minnesota entered this season with the league's fourth youngest roster with an average age of 24.91.
Practice concludes. The team celebrates at midcourt.
"We're not asking them to have fun here, but we're demanding that they have fun here," Towns said.
The statement seems to stem from a conscious effort to let past seasons stay in the past and empower Towns as the team's leader.
Before the 2016-17 NBA season, 48.3 percent of the league's general managers selected Towns as the first player they would want to build a franchise around. Kevin Durant landed second at 20.7 percent. Towns topped the list again the following season, when GMs picked him with 29 percent of the vote over Giannis Antetokounmpo (21 percent), LeBron James (18 percent) and Kawhi Leonard (14 percent).
But Towns did not appear among the six players named for the survey before the start of the 2018-19 season. The arrival of Jimmy Butler in a draft day trade in June 2017 had helped the Wolves reach the playoffs for the first time in more than a decade, but it had also brought turmoil. A Chicago Sun-Times report in the summer of 2018 noted Butler was "all but fed up with the nonchalant attitude" of some of his teammates. The air became even more polluted in training camp when Butler asked for a trade and refused to report.
With Butler alongside him, Towns became increasingly relegated to the fringes of the offense—the team's best three-point shooter often situated in the post with defenses collapsing on him.
The Wolves began last season 4-9 before trading Butler to Philadelphia for Robert Covington and Dario Saric. Thibodeau, whose relationship with Towns was also reported to be strained, couldn't turn the team around and was fired while it limped to a 36-46 season. With Saunders, however, Towns appeared to rediscover his game, averaging 28.1 points and 13.4 rebounds following the 2019 All-Star break.
"This organization has gone through a lot," Rosas said. "We've turned that page and it's been a clean start for everybody that we're building off of. The reality of who we are and what we're about is something that guys really embrace."
Rosas, hired over the summer from Houston, opted to retain Saunders, a decision that clearly pleased Towns. "I've known Ryan for so long, so it was kind of different," Towns said. "It was more not even a coach, it was just like one of your good friends got a dope job. ... It's just like when you were in class, and you were with your boys, and you were like, 'Yo, what class you got in your schedule?' And you both were in the same class at the same time. You both were hella excited. That's how I was, and he was as well."
At 33, Saunders is the NBA's youngest coach, but he's no novice. The son of the late Flip Saunders, he assumed the job on an interim basis almost a year ago. Saunders had joined Minnesota's staff in 2014 after spending five seasons in Washington with the Wizards. Towns arrived the following summer when he was drafted first overall. A big shouldn't be able to move like that, Saunders thought when watching Towns play. Occasionally, Towns broke out a step-back three in practice, a move that is fast becoming a staple today.
"For a big to be able to do that, at first as a coach, you kind of cringe because you haven't seen a big do that," Saunders said. "So you might think it's just an off-balance shot, but the fact that he works on it and then it's something that he's been able to do in games, as a coach, you love it."
Where once trade rumors floated around Towns, Rosas is clear that the opportunity to build around the 24-year-old is a large reason he chose Minnesota. "I've never had it, until this year, where you have an organization that's really behind you and has confidence in you," Towns said.
On offense, Towns is at the fulcrum of everything. "A lot of our offense initiates through him at the top of the key," Saunders said. "It depends on where he takes the ball, whether it is a dribble handoff, whether it's on the swing with a pass, and then where he ends up going. Does he pan away? Does he go into a pick-and-roll? He's a 40 percent three-point shooter at 7-feet, so if you can force some switches, too, having him shoot over a guy who's smaller, or having the option to roll down in the post is a big deal."
"I'm analyzing and dissecting a lot of things in real quick time, and the way the game goes, the flow of the game, the personnel out there, whatever the case may be, foul situations that's going to judge more if I'm going to try to mix it up more inside than outside," Towns said. "Outside, is obviously always an option, but there's great times when someone's in foul trouble, or personnel is shorter, and they're playing a shorter line-up, I could go inside and really punish them. Or at least open the game up for my teammates at the three-point line as well."
"I saw Kyrie and we grew up together, working out with each other and practicing with each other," Towns said of his fellow New Jersey native. "Me and Kyrie just looked at each other, like, the two Jersey boys going up against each other and who is better and we put on a show for our families."
While Irving dropped 50 points, Towns collected 36 points, including seven threes, 14 rebounds and an overtime win. Just as important, Saunders and Rosas believe the game helped Towns set a franchise tone.
He followed that up with 37 points and 15 rebounds against Charlotte before helping nudge Minnesota to a 3-0 start with a win over Miami. A matchup with Philadelphia saw Minnesota lose both its first game and Towns, who was suspended for two games after getting into a scrap with Philadelphia's Joel Embiid.
"Without getting into detail, it was a physical game and he wanted to make sure that he wasn't going to be—I don't know if you want to use the word, but—pushed around," Saunders said. "He was going to stand his ground. And we support Karl and we want him for every game. We don't want him to sit out games, but he's coming back and he's playing with a little more of an edge, too."
Saunders receives analytical reports every game, including notes that specifically highlight Towns—where his points are coming from, where he is most efficient, where advantages can be most highly utilized.
"When you can try to help a guy like Karl, who you learned can do something new every day, and then you're able to have analytics and statistics back that up and actually challenge him to do other things, like, 'Hey, let's see how you are in a pick-and-roll,'" Saunders said "We ran it once two games ago. Let's try it out and see if the efficiency ... as we get a higher sample size, let's see how that works.
"We've done that some, where ... our point guard sets the ball screen and Karl's the guy handling [the ball]. Bigs love to play like guards, and guards love to play like bigs sometimes."
The result has been an offense that tries to find the efficient play in the inefficiencies of opposing defenses.
"When we're having our greatest offensive games is when we're doing not even the hardest things, but we're doing the most simple things, allowing the defense to make the mistake and then we capitalize off of it," Towns said. "Everyone thinks about the shooter. Shooting comes off a mistake. Obviously sometimes, I'm going to get away with talent shots. The very contested, hard, difficult shots that only certain people could make, but most of the time it's about being patient and accepting whatever the defense gives you, and wherever the hole in their game plan is."
At 10-15, it's clear there are still plenty of issues to sort through—passes not made, openings not exploited, like this interaction between Towns and point guard Jeff Teague.
"He's doing a better job," Teague said of Towns. "He's trying to be a leader. He's still the young guy. What is he 23, 24, whatever? He's just really becoming himself, starting to get a little more comfortable with everybody and him playing hard on both ends."
No matter the growing pains, Towns' teammates knows what he's capable of, even if they don't always see it.
Covington remembers the first time he worked out with Towns a couple years ago.
"I've never seen someone go through a full workout that didn't drink an ounce of water," Covington said. "But it just shows that if he wants to push himself to his limit, he wants to be great, and he wants to go the extra edge, he wants that extra give. Before I came to the team, [Karl-Anthony and I] talked about the potential, what if he had a guy like me on his team, what it could do. ... We've been a year together now, and I've seen growth within him, just as far as like how he's carried himself and everything he does on the court, that's what you want your superstar to do."
Covington said he's challenged Towns to be a force on both ends of the court. "Because it's not on one side of the ball and he's accepted that," he added. "So he's become a much better defender. He was already a good defender, but having a guy like me on his side that's going to always stay on his ass about pick-and-rolls, guarding the ball ... I always talk to him about various aspects of the game about certain things just to keep him more mindful and not to get into bad habits. So he's done a lot, he's grown a lot."
Towns insists he has only brushed against his potential.
"There's still so much [Saunders] has left to get out of me, and my talents," Towns said. "And he's everyday learning for ways to utilize me. There's some things that he knows that we could do, and he's just waiting to pull it out. So, we've had great times. In training camp, we've exposed some secrets, and it's worked out tremendously well. So, I guess he's just saving it for the right moment."
Meanwhile, a father who just wanted to position his son for a scholarship to become a kinesiologist looks on, having molded today's ideal big. "After all the years, I finally get a chance to see all the hard work we put in in the gym throughout the years, that I was teaching him," Karl Towns said. "It's good to see that he could finally use other aspects of his game. I'm very proud of him, that he's taking his game to the level that I thought he could."
Jonathan Abrams is a senior writer for B/R Mag. A former staff writer at Grantland and sports reporter at the New York Times and Los Angeles Times, Abrams is also the best-selling author of All the Pieces Matter: The Inside Story of The Wire—available right here, right now. Follow him on Twitter, @jpdabrams.