Karl-Anthony Towns has heard the question so many times over the past couple of months, at this point all he can do is laugh.
A chuckle. An eye roll. A pursed lip. They’re all outward expressions of what Towns knows to be true: He has plenty of experience playing next to another big man.
“The last time I had something like this, obviously I had Gorgui Dieng, I played [power forward] a lot of years in the NBA. Fans forgot that. It’s OK,” Towns told CBS Sports. “And go back to me in college. This is how I played in college. Willie Cauley-Stein is like 7-2. I don’t know what they’re missing in that.”
But wait, there’s more. During the 2017-18 season, the last time the Wolves made the playoffs before their three-year drought was broken last season, Towns played next to Taj Gibson for all 82 games. Technically Gibson was listed as the power forward, but he’s much more of a center than Towns. The Wolves had a plus-7.4 net rating with both of them on the floor.
With all due respect to Gibson, however, Gobert is a different animal. Trading for the three-time Defensive Player of the Year in exchange for a massive haul of four first-round picks, five players and a pick swap, Minnesota sent the message that it wasn’t going to wait around for its young core to develop any further. The time to win is now, a sentiment that Towns echoed earlier this summer when he said the upcoming season is “championship or bust,” and he feels that he and Gobert complement each other in all the right ways.
“I think that Rudy’s one of the best defensive players we’ve ever had in the NBA. He has the hardware to prove it,” Towns told CBS Sports. “I think I’m one of the best offensive players and talents the NBA has ever seen. So putting us together gives us really a whole spectrum of talent to use.”
Most agree that the addition of Gobert should result in regular-season improvement for the Wolves, who went 46-36 last season and earned the No. 7 seed in the Western Conference. They finished 13th in defensive rating, and putting a center of Gobert’s pedigree in the middle should at least get them into the top 10, possibly higher. But skeptics point to Gobert’s relative defensive struggles in previous postseason series when teams have elected to go small. Now Minnesota will have to figure out how to make it work not only with Gobert, but also with its 7-foot franchise player on the court.
It really boils down to whether Towns is able to consistently defend on the perimeter. Players like Kevin Durant, LeBron James and Jayson Tatum spend a lot of their time at power forward these days, and while there are defensive schemes to cover up for him, Towns is going to have to handle players like that in space.
“I’ve had a lot of fun playing on the perimeter and guarding on the perimeter,” Towns told CBS Sports. “Just really getting a chance to utilize what some of my strengths are defensively, which is switching and being able to guard one through five. I’m having fun going out there and being able to back Rudy up when he needs to muscle with fives or fours and we’re playing big lineups or whatever, and then if they go small ball I feel very comfortable with my chances of guarding guards and stuff like that, the wings.”
Towns is the first to point to statistics showing that he has fared well in isolation matchups against perimeter players over the last couple of seasons (“doesn’t really get talked about, but that’s just the data”), and his defensive improvement is one of the reasons the Wolves were able to go from the second-worst defensive rating in 2020-21 to above average last season.
Though he didn’t have a ton of defensive isolation opportunities last season, Towns has shown the ability to move laterally. Watch here as James Harden sizes him up, but Towns is able to stay in front of him and contest without fouling.
And really, with Gobert behind him, Towns can play up even more to defend against step-back 3-pointers and pull-up jumpers, knowing that he has one of the best rim protectors in NBA history covering for him.
Offensively, the fit between Towns and Gobert is much more apparent. Towns is a 40 percent 3-point shooter on high volume, in the 76th percentile in spot-up situations, according to Synergy Sports, so he’ll have no problem waiting for kick-outs behind the arc to help unclog the lane. He saw a lot of double-teams in the post during the 2020-21 season, so last year he operated much more as a driver from the perimeter. If he continues that approach, this year he’ll have Gobert waiting for him in the dunker spot for a dump-off or a lob — something Towns is used to from his time at Kentucky with Cauley-Stein.
“There’s aspects to his game that we can still unlock,” Wolves head coach Chris Finch said of Towns. “Move him to different spots on the floor, maybe put him in actions that people of his size generally are not in. That’s a luxury we have. That’s the fun part, when you think about what we might be able to do there.”
With the addition of an All-NBA player in Gobert to go along with a former All-Star in D’Angelo Russell and an emerging star in Anthony Edwards, the Wolves are going to have to figure out how to mesh both on and off the court. We’ve seen plenty of NBA teams that look good on paper, but for one reason or another things don’t translate onto the court.
So how are the Wolves going to figure out the time-old “there’s only one ball” conundrum?
“I definitely think that’s a question you need to forward to my co-worker in Chris Finch,” Towns told CBS Sports.
Towns has called Finch a “genius,” so he’s not worried about the X’s and O’s of putting himself and his teammates in position to succeed. But ultimately every player is going to have to sacrifice if the Wolves are going to grow from an exciting young team to a true contender, and it starts with their franchise cornerstone. Towns showed his commitment to the organization by signing a four-year, super max extension this summer, and he wants to deliver on his goal of bringing a title to Minnesota.
“I’ve sacrificed at every level. I’ve sacrificed narratives of me. I’ve sacrificed possibly being the No. 1 pick in college when I fully accepted the platoon system. You know, no one else does that,” Towns told CBS Sports. “I came to the NBA, I sacrificed everything I can, my body included, to try to get us to the playoffs. I sacrificed everything. I’ve sacrificed my life. I’ve sacrificed time with my mother. I’ve sacrificed public opinion of me. All for the betterment of my team, my teammates, their lives, what they’re trying to accomplish.”
While he’s ready for a potential breakout season for the Timberwolves, Towns has no choice but to keep things in perspective after a tragic couple of years on a personal level. His mother, Jacqueline, died in April 2020 from complications of COVID-19. Towns said he has lost six other family members to the virus, including his uncle, and that “it’s an everyday process” trying to maintain his mental health while also meeting the physical and psychological demands of being an NBA player expected to deliver greatness on a daily basis.
Towns now sees himself as a role model in his family, saying he went “from a boy to a man” the day his mother died. So to him, the pressure to win basketball games and perform on the court pales in comparison to what he now faces in his personal life.
“I’m not a parent yet, but my niece and nephew, they look at me as a father figure as well,” Towns told CBS Sports. “I feel more pressure going home, trying to make my nephew a man, a boy to a man, and making my niece an independent, strong woman. That’s pressure. Not making a jumper. I do this for a living. I’ve done this since I was young. That’s nothing to me. That’s another day at the job.
“My mental health is a daily process. I work on it. I get stronger every single day, and I thank God for giving me the strength every day to continue growing and continue making these strides as a man, and as a player.”