Karl-Anthony Towns: The Perfect Storm

The year is 2008, and Karl Towns Sr, a varsity basketball coach at Piscataway Vocational Technical School in New Jersey, brings his daughter to Piscataway’s Day Park to work on her game. Karl-Anthony, Towns’ son, tags along, too. While Towns Sr and his daughter get shots up and run through drills, Karl-Anthony walks over to the court where the high school boys are playing and tries to get in a game.

Karl-Anthony was always tall—as a seventh grader he was already hovering around 6-5, requiring a special desk to sit at while the other students in school sat at a table as a group—but that didn’t help him get picked to play. In fact, it was the opposite. “The older kids considered him awkward and uncoordinated,” Towns Sr says. “They said, ‘He’s only in seventh grade.’ He was big and people would say, ‘Look at him—he can’t be coordinated. He’s got big shoes, big feet.’ He was always picked last.”

That was unwise. Because ever since his son was barely old enough to walk on his own, Towns Sr had him in the gym every day, be it to teach his son the game or to have him hang on the sidelines while Pops coached high schoolers.

KAT was indeed gangly, all arms and legs, and he did have massive feet—but the kid could hoop. His range extended out beyond the three-point line and he could handle the ball as well as the older kids at the park, regardless of height. “By the time games were over, everyone would be like, ‘Who picked this kid last?’” Towns Sr says. “They didn’t know that he was in the gym every day with me practicing—and practicing with high school kids every day. Nobody ever thought that.”

“I took [getting picked last] as a challenge to be better,” Karl-Anthony says. “I took that as motivation to keep striving.”

You know what happened over the next few years. The NJ native kept getting taller and kept getting better. He became one of the top recruits in the country. Played for the Dominican national team at the age of 16. Graduated high school in three years. Played at Kentucky for one.

Declared for the Draft. Got picked a little higher than he did back at the park.

Then he went on to have one of the best rookie seasons ever, averaging 18.3 points, 10.5 rebounds and 1.7 blocks per game for the young Minnesota Timberwolves. He became the fifth rook ever unanimously selected Rookie of the Year, earning all 130 first-place votes from the media.

Not a bad way to start a career.

It’s a gorgeous Los Angeles afternoon in August, as the 20-year-old strolls into the Bay Club in Thousand Oaks to take part in his first solo SLAM cover shoot. He arrives alone, rolling into the gym wearing a Like Mike-inspired Calvin Cambridge basketball jersey, light blue jorts and all-white Air Force 1s.

“What you guys do is art,” he tells SLAM photographer Atiba Jefferson, “and I could never rush art. I’ll be here for as long as you need me.”

It doesn’t take long for the energy in the room to pick up. “Let me put on something me and D’Angelo [Russell] listen to,” he says, taking control of the photographer’s iPhone and playing Logic’s “I’m Gone” on Spotify.

Then he begins simulating some in-game moves for the camera, and suddenly I understand why a bunch of foolish kids in a park once thought Towns was way less talented than he really is. It’s not that Towns doesn’t look like he can ball—dude is a legit 7-feet, after all—but his athleticism exceeds any expectations. As Jefferson snaps away, Karl-Anthony starts with lay-ups and finger rolls, then attempts a dunk, taking off from the baseline relatively softly and drifting into the air, seemingly set to fall a few feet short of the hoop. And then: bang! His arm go-go gadgets into the sky as he floats just longer than gravity typically allows, hammering the ball into the hoop with such force that the entire gym feels like it’s shaking as the boom ricochets off the surrounding walls. Then he does it again. And again. Each time from a different—and more impressive—angle.

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As a professional basketball media member, I probably should’ve known that he could pull off such maneuvers. But those kids at that Jersey park—they can be forgiven. Because while it’s a given now that KAT is on his way to becoming one of the best basketball players walking the planet, it was a little less apparent in the late ’00s. To most. But not Towns Sr.

Karl-Anthony’s dad played at Monmouth University in the mid-’80s and had plans to hoop overseas until an injury sustained in a park dashed those plans. He went into coaching, and as soon as his son hit about 3 years of age, Towns Sr was bringing the kid to his varsity practices every day.

As KAT got older—and taller—he played with the high school kids, learning to hold his own around more mature, more talented players than those his peers were practicing against. Perhaps because he was practically raised with a ball in his hand, or perhaps because of some innate ability, Karl-Anthony had a knack for the game, able to dribble like a guard and shoot like a wing, despite his height.

He attended high school at St. Joseph in Jersey, playing for head coach Dave Turco. By the time KAT was in ninth grade, he stood 6-9, but Turco didn’t pressure him to stay close to the hoop. Instead, Karl-Anthony led the team in three-pointers through his high school career. “People would come to games and be like, ‘Why do they have that big kid out on the wing?’” Turco says. “At the time we had a kid named Quenton DeCosey who was very good at getting to the rim. So Karl was on the perimeter, because if the [opposing team’s] big man stayed inside, we’d get Karl the ball and he’d knock down threes, and if he went outside then Q would get to the rim pretty easily.”

As a 16-year-old high school freshman, Karl-Anthony decided he wanted to play for the Dominican Republic national team—his mother is from the DR, so he was eligible—and the family traveled to NYC for tryouts on a weekly basis. “We were traveling to New York every weekend for, like, two months,” his mother, Jacqueline Cruz, remembers. “Elimination. Elimination. Tryout. Tryout. And Karl was still, still there. Everyone got eliminated but him. A month had gone by—from thousands of kids, now to a hundred. He said, ‘Mom, I’m gonna do better next tryout. Better. And better.’ And he got it.”

With the Dominican national team, Towns played and practiced alongside NBA players Al Horford and Francisco Garcia, and faced up against Team USA (and was guarded by Anthony Davis) in an Olympic qualifying game in 2012. “When I spent time with the Dominican national team, I think that’s where I really took that next step,” Towns says. “You know, learning to be a professional, learning how to treat my body, learning those little tips and tricks and different skill sets that I had never been introduced to.”

University of Kentucky coach John Calipari famously coached that Dominican team, which is where he met KAT, a point critics of Cal have often noted as evidence of the coach’s sneaky recruiting tactics. “Come on. I didn’t know who he was,” Cal says now. “Found out on a fluke who he was and when I watched him, it was like, Wait a minute, this is the kid you’re telling me about? He wanted to be a guard.”

Following three straight state titles, KAT was off to Lexington, where he was a member of a stacked Kentucky team that platooned two groups of five guys in shifts throughout each game. Cal claims he was only able to coach like that—a method that worked, as the team went undefeated during the regular season, eventually falling to Wisconsin in the Final Four—because KAT bought in. “Think about it: Should Karl have played 35 minutes a game?” Cal asks. “Yeah. He played 20, 21, so Dakari [Johnson] could get 18-19 minutes. If I couldn’t get through to Karl and couldn’t coach him hard, how was I gonna get anyone else to do it? We had to be able to coach him.”

KAT’s college coach had a markedly different strategy for helping him get ready for the L than his high school one, though: “I did not let him shoot three-point shots,” Cal says. “You gotta understand, he led his high school team in three-point shooting attempts. [At UK], he was gonna get next to that basket and every day he was gonna get better.”

Timberwolves president Flip Saunders—who passed away shortly before the 2015-16 NBA season—selected Karl-Anthony No. 1 in the ’15 Draft, pairing him with veteran Kevin Garnett, as decorated an NBA big man as there is, to learn the ins and outs of the League. They set up a group text with Flip, KG and the rest of the team to help Karl-Anthony become familiar with his surroundings and make him feel comfortable, and to this day KAT says he plays to make Flip proud that he drafted him and entrusted the future of the organization in him.

KG remains KAT’s primary mentor. “Every time I’m with KG, it feels like, in my opinion, like I’m looking at myself in a mirror,” Towns says. “We have that same drive, passion, determination—that same fire.”

Though KG was always more of a forward (especially early in his career) than a true center, the two share a common, if broad, on-court trait: versatility. When Garnett entered the League and made a splash during those first few seasons, it was because of his ability to do…well, everything.

And now KAT is doing the same. He can score both inside the paint and outside toward—and beyond—the three-point line. (That Turco-Calipari combo prepped him well.) He can defend both inside and out, too—he holds his own against big men in the paint and is quick enough to help on pick-and-roll switches. The analytics heads love him; his true shooting percentage (59.0) and effective field-goal percentage (55.5) stack up well. He passes every eye test, too. He provides literally everything you could possibly ask for in an NBA big man. “I try to be the best in the League at every single aspect, whether it may be three-point shooting like Stephen Curry, rebounding like Andre Drummond or blocking shots like Hassan Whiteside,” he says. “I’m trying to strive to be at the head of those categories—in all of them.”

Off the court, Garnett isn’t really a fair comparison. Towns is a little more…let’s say…personable. Kinda like a class president. Wait, no: an actual class president. KAT held that title throughout his entire high school tenure, which, if you know him whatsoever, is probably the least surprising thing you could ever learn.

Last May, SLAM held a video shoot with UK point guard Tyler Ulis as he readied for the 2016 Draft in Lexington. Towns, back in Kentucky for an autograph signing, stopped by the practice facility to say what’s up to Coach Cal, Ulis and some UK staffers. On the way out, he approached Ulis and let him know to holler at him if he needs anything at all as he prepared for the next step. Altogether a pretty casual move, but a notable one coming from a 20-year-old speaking to another 20-year-old. (Ulis had stayed in college an extra year.)

“You think he’s fake, because you can’t be that nice a guy,” Cal says. “I know when you first meet him and you’re around him and you’re with him for a few days, [you think] this isn’t real stuff, like, He’s the best BSer I’ve ever seen. Then after being around him you’re just like, ‘Holy Jesus, this is who this kid is.’”

The best possible news for Wolves fans is there’s zero reason to believe the franchise isn’t going to continue to build on its Towns-based foundation. Also on the roster are 21-year-old swingman Andrew Wiggins (2015’s Rookie of the Year), 21-year-old high-flying guard Zach LaVine and newly drafted 22-year-old PG Kris Dunn, who very well could give Minnesota its third consecutive ROY.

“We’re all just doing it together,” Wiggins tells us. “We’re all around the same age, with the same goals, and we like similar stuff. We all want to score, we all want to win and we all take pride in what we do. We know we’re in it together—we know what the future can hold if we stay together and stay on top of our game.”

Towns spent the summer doing exactly the types of things he should be doing—hanging at the ESPYs, rooting on his teammates at Summer League, making appearances on children’s TV shows, attending Cal’s celebrity softball game—all while working out in L.A. and elsewhere. Right before training camp, he’ll perform his annual ritual of unplugging from the internet for a few days as he holes up in Agoura Hills, CA, clearing his mind before the season tips.

“I always think that if I’m not doing something that somebody else is, that they’re trying to take my spot, or take my job, or just get better than me,” he says. “I can’t let that happen, so I look at every single minute, second, hour, day, as an opportunity to be better than the person that’s chasing me. I’ve always said that I want to leave the game on my own terms, finish as the best player that’s ever lived, and do it my own way—never a version two of someone else, but the first version of myself, and I strive every day and continue to work on my game so I can be the best player possible, so I can leave my legacy as that. I’m not gonna stop until I’ve accomplished that goal, until I have absolutely nothing to give to the game of basketball.”

Cal tells a story that he thinks sums up Towns’ rise pretty well. When KAT first got to Kentucky in the summer of 2014, former UK big men DeMarcus Cousins and Anthony Davis were hanging around campus. Cal asked them what they thought of Towns’ talent, the obvious context being that this kid was set to be the next iteration of gifted UK-produced centers like DMC and AD. “‘Man, that kid? He ain’t shit,’” Cal says the guys told him. “I said, guys, he’s really good. They said, ‘What? Coach, man, stop.’”

“I saw them at the end of this year and I looked at both of them: ‘What you think?’”

“‘He’s way better than I thought.’”

Leave it to Karl-Anthony Towns to turn two of the best centers in the NBA into those same kids in Piscataway who didn’t realize the lanky seventh grader could really play.

Adam Figman is the Editor-in-Chief at SLAM. Follow him on Twitter @afigman.

Portraits by Atiba Jefferson