Karl-Anthony Towns is ahead of schedule by even the highest of expectations.
Yes, he led the University of Kentucky to a 38-1 record and the Final Four, became the No. 1 pick in the 2015 NBA draft and earned Rookie of the Year honors last season. But at 21, he could have flamed equally quickly.
Instead, Towns has emerged as one of the league’s premier big men.
The Minnesota Timberwolves center is both humble and quick to deflect praise. He gives much of the credit to his coaches. And he thanks former T-Wolves teammate and now Los Angeles Clippers consultant Kevin Garnett, whom he keeps in close contact with.
“KG talks a lot about accountability,” Towns told HuffPost about the man he calls “such a legend.”
“When he does something, right away you pay attention,” Towns added. “If you make a mistake, he’s all about holding you accountable.”
Towns, to be sure, has done his part.
He’s averaged 24 points, 12 rebounds and 3 assists, according to ESPN.com. No other player in the league boasts such numbers this season. He also ranks 13th in overall efficiency: His 24.55 rating slots him ahead of Stephen Curry, Blake Griffin, DeMar DeRozan, Hassan Whiteside, Marc Gasol and John Wall.
Few players in just their second season have made such drastic improvements to their skill set as Towns has.
One skill that doesn’t necessarily reflect in the box score is Towns’ superior footwork around the basket. His dexterity and his ability to let a defender encroach on his hip and air space have driven up his free-throw opportunities from year one to year two. At the All-Star break, Towns’ 302 free-throw attempts had already surpassed the 275 he managed over his entire rookie season.
Of course, getting to the line and actually converting at the line are two very different things, particularly for centers. Just ask Shaquille O’Neal about that.
Towns converts 83 percent from the stripe ― an outrageously high rate, better even than that of most guards and such well-known shooters as Carmelo Anthony and Kristaps Porzingis. He’s also surpassing fellow emerging big men like Anthony Davis and Joel Embiid.
Towns’ silky shooting is what makes him such a dynamic offensive player. He converts a respectable 34 percent from the 3-point distance and is even more effective from 16 to 18 feet, where he asserts himself in three distinct ways: the pick-and-roll, the pick-and-pop and as a slip man.
“I’m very comfortable in the pick-and-roll,” he said. “I like to do it. I’ve grown as a player, I’m glad to say that.”
Towns’ rapid development stems in part from T-Wolves head coach Tom Thibodeau, who embraces the versatility of his young star.
“His skill set is so unique for a 7-footer,” Thibodeau told ESPN.com in November. “He can shoot the 3 with ease from all over the floor ― from the corners, from above the break, from the top of the key. He can put it on the floor. He can change direction. He can Euro-step. He can play back to the basket. He can play a face-up combo game. You can pick-and-roll with him where he’s the screener. You can pick-and-roll with him where he’s the ball handler. He has guard-like skills. He has great vision. He has playmaking ability.”
Towns appreciates that his coach lets him be himself, but also that Thibodeau insists the young T-Wolves follow the program.
“He’s given us a lot,” Towns said of his coach, who took the Minnesota job last August. “Taking accountability ... we are more responsible and even tighter knit as a group.”
Before he was drafted, the New Jersey native told HuffPost that he was “not just a basketball player” ― he likes playing golf and baseball, too. More recently, he has been bitten by the acting bug, something he hasn’t done since an assortment of church plays as a kid.
In a recent ad for Jack Link’s beef jerky, he worked out with Sasquatch. “I kind of pinched myself,” Towns said. “I love acting and being able to show my personality.”
This is all what makes Towns such an intriguing young star. He desperately wants to be great, but only within the framework of the team. He wants more opportunities like the Jack Link’s spot, but only when that doesn’t get in the way of his athletic development. He prizes everything about basketball, but he enjoys being well rounded as well.
“I just find ways to take time,” Towns said. “Enjoying little things like being home, talking to family and seeing family grow up.”