Karl-Anthony Towns has struggled to translate his individual success into wins for the Minnesota Timberwolves throughout his career, but that’s slowly starting to change. After making the playoffs only once in his first six seasons, Towns has led Minnesota to wins in seven of its past eight games and the sixth-best record (11-10) in the Western Conference. The Timberwolves rank No. 6 in the NBA on defense, by far their best mark since drafting Towns in 2015, and he leads the team with 23.5 points per game. The season is still young, but thus far, this has perhaps been the best overall stretch of Towns’ career.
And it came only after one of the most difficult years of his life. He lost his mother to COVID-19 early in the pandemic, and by December 2020, six more of his family members were killed by the disease. In January, he caught the virus himself and lost 50 pounds in the process. Now Towns has become not just an advocate for the COVID-19 vaccine, but for vaccination in general. He is currently working with Walgreens on a campaign to promote flu shots and help ensure access to anyone who wants one. Towns spoke to CBS Sports about that campaign, Minnesota’s breakthrough season and much more.
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(The following interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.)
CBS Sports: This is obviously a pretty personal campaign for you. How did you get involved with Walgreens in promoting flu shots?
Karl-Anthony Towns: My mom worked in a medical field. She was always big to us about the medical field. Vaccines and flus were big for us, and especially for me right now, the vaccine for COVID is obviously something that I’m fully aboard because of my experiences with COVID and my family, so I thought this partnership with Walgreens was perfect because it gave me the chance to tell my story a little bit. But also the real reason that I love this partnership is that we’re able to give back and help people have the resources and the choice to either get the vaccine or not, but at least they’ll have the choice with the supply being available.
CBS: There has been some hesitance among high-profile NBA players toward the COVID vaccine. Have you experienced similar hesitance when it comes to flu shots?
KAT: I just feel like, flu shots are just like the COVID shot. They’re a choice. I’ve heard a lot of people don’t really like to get the flu shot, but I’m a believer in the flu shot. I think it’s something that helps keep everyone’s families safer and healthier, and it helps keep my teammates healthier as well. Even for us right now, going through a little sick bug as a team, it’s always just about finding any simple way we can keep each other healthy.
CBS: You’ve won seven of your last eight games, and a lot of that has been because of your defense. You’ve been playing less drop-coverage this year and spending more time defending the perimeter. Has that always been a better fit for your skill set, or does that have more to do with the players you have around you?
KAT: I just think having a great game plan, coach ET [Elston Turner] is amazing with our defense. He’s a huge part of why our defense is great. He’s just putting me in positions where I can succeed and also utilizing some of my athletic ability as well. It also helps when you have teammates that are so able to make those plays and be in those coverages and play defense the way that we play. You asked if it’s one or the other. I think it’s a perfect storm of both. I think it’s the personnel mixed in the game plan and me being in the best shape that I can be.
CBS: Is Jarred Vanderbilt an All-Defense candidate?
KAT: He’s for sure made his case. I think it’s something that he should’ve been noticed for for years. I think this is the perfect year for him to show exactly how valuable he is, not only to this team but in the NBA. I think he can definitely see himself being an All-Defense candidate this year, and I wouldn’t be surprised if First Team was in his crosshairs if we keep playing the way we’re playing.
CBS: You’ve had a lot of turnover in your starting lineup, especially in the frontcourt, throughout your career. Now it seems as though your team has settled on a core. How helpful is that stability?
KAT: I just think stability makes better chemistry. Just the fact that we’ve had time to really get to know each other and really get to understand each other’s characters and playing styles, little things that you would recognize that comes with time and experience with each other is something that we’re having a little bit right now. I think that Pat [Patrick Beverley], who’s new to our team, he’s seamlessly integrated into our locker room and basketball team so easily that it feels like he’s been here for years. Being able to have last year with Ant [Anthony Edwards] was really helpful. D-Lo [D’Angelo Russell] as well. It built a lot of chemistry and it gave us a lot of time to figure stuff out. Usually when you’re dealing with so many new teammates, you’re trying to figure each other out, find out how you can put each other in the best possible position to succeed. That’s something that comes with time. It doesn’t just happen right away, but I’m very blessed to be able to have all of us really sacrificing for each other and buying into each other.
CBS: Speaking of Pat, we’ve heard of his impact on team culture throughout his career. What does that look like on a day-to-day basis?
KAT: I think the biggest thing about Pat is that he just comes in and drives competition up. I think when you drive competition up, everyone wants to get more fundamentally great, be more into a better stance, I think he just drives competition. He’s just one of those guys that raises up the morale and the energy of the group, of anyone he’s around. When Pat’s around we all feel great, even the older players. We love talking to him, when you have someone like him you love hearing the mind he has for the game of basketball. Like I just said, it’s just him. Him being him is more than enough to help a team win.
He reminded me a lot of K.G., the way that he’s loud. I love it. It’s something that he’s just driving competition. I love competing, that’s literally my favorite thing in life to do is compete. When he’s in the gym and driving competition higher and higher, I love it. It gives me an energy boost, it gives all of us an energy boost. It makes practices even better. We get even more out of our practices and out of our 5-on-5 practices or scrimmages or whatever the case may be. He makes all of us play a little harder. I love it.
CBS: Anthony Edwards is looking like a future star, if he’s not one already. How much does having another player like that affect the organization’s outlook? Are you starting to think about championships at all yet?
KAT: For me personally, I think we take it step by step. The first step is putting ourselves in a position to make the playoffs. Right now we’re doing a great job of that, but that step hasn’t been completed yet. We have to get to the playoffs and make that happen. I think right now we’re in a great position. There’s no reason to put any pressure on ourselves to do anything. We know what we want to do. We know the attention we want to draw. We know how we want to get the job done. So we’re gonna get it done the way our vision and game plan has been since Day 1: to make the playoffs. Right now, when we make the playoffs, we’ll make even more noise like we’re making now when we’re there. I think we have to focus on step one now before we start jumping to step 10 or 11.
CBS: What is Edwards’ ceiling as a player?
KAT: He can be as great as he wants to be. Truthfully he has the talent. He’s getting better every day. He’s a sponge for the game. He has high character. I think he can be as great as he wants to be. I wouldn’t be surprised if MVP was in his future, or multiple First-Team All-NBAs are in his future. I wouldn’t doubt it. I think that he has the talent and the character to get it done. I say the character because that’s a big part of how you get it done, it’s how you hold yourself. I think he can do it. I don’t doubt it at all. My job is to help him reach that kind of potential to be as great as I think he can be.
CBS: Your shot attempts have been down a bit this year. Has part of that been adjusting to him and having another high-volume scoring teammate?
KAT: If you want to win, you have to be willing to sacrifice. Knowing the type of talent that we have around not only them, but Beasley, Jaylen Nowell, we have a lot of great shooters. Jaden McDaniels, too, who’s blossoming into another star in this league. Everyone has to be willing to sacrifice, and that’s including me. We have such great offensive talent that I want to be able to get everyone involved. I think we’re even a more impactful team when we’re all hitting on all cylinders. It comes at the expense of losing some shot attempts, but if it translates to the wins we’ve been having? I mean, seven out of the last eight games we’ve won in this last stretch, so I think I’ll take that any day of the week. I think it would be foolish of me not to take those results.
CBS: We recently learned that he has a flip phone. Do you guys joke around with him about that in the locker room?
KAT: I think it’s great. I just think that it’s been hilarious to see him with it because it brings back memories. He has a great charisma about him. He’s just a great locker-room presence. I think it’s just one of those times when we’re gonna bring back all of these stories like, “I remember walking in and seeing this NBA player do this, or seeing him with that,” it’s gonna be one of those moments you talk about. Anthony Edwards with the flip phone. He’s a TV show every day.
CBS: Having someone like that in the locker room must be very helpful as far as getting through the grind of an 82-game season.
KAT: Yea I think it makes it easier. Winning makes it easier as well. Winning makes everything taste better and things easier. But I also think, not to discredit Ant — Ant is obviously an amazing human — but everyone on this team, Jaylen Nowell, even the people on this team that don’t get enough media coverage, Nathanial Wrights, the Jake Laymans, the Jordan McLaughlins, these people are huge backbones to our locker room and to our culture and the way we perceive this team to be. Their character, their humor and also their willingness to do whatever it takes to benefit the team is what becomes infectious to everyone even at the top, when you’re talking about the Anthony Edwards, D’Angelo Russell … it’s every single person on the roster buying into a culture. I would be remiss not to mention the impact they’ve made on this team without actually picking a basketball up.
CBS: You’ve brought up Jaylen Nowell a few times now. What is it about a player who hardly plays that makes him so promising to you?
KAT: It’s what we know he can do, and what we know he does when he gets the chance to play in the game. He’s a bucket. He’s always been a bucket. Preseason vs. Denver I think it showed the value he has. He came in the game and did everything you could ask for, including hitting the clutch shots over some very, very tough defenders. So he’s special. I think that if we go up and down the list of our roster, we could talk about how special everyone is and there would be no lying in there. These guys are special and they’ve worked tremendously hard to make their games the best that they can and I think it started with all of us in the preseason and training camp just buying into, we want to be great. We’re willing to do whatever it takes and I think we’ve shown that to the league and to ourselves that we are men with integrity because we stand behind the words we say.