CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Karl-Anthony Towns sprinted from the Minnesota Timberwolves’ bench to snatch the game ball from the referee when the clock hit zeroes at Spectrum Center on Friday evening. Towns had 37 points, 15 rebounds, eight assists, four steals, two blocks and four made 3-pointers in the game. No player in NBA history had ever done that, so maybe he was commemorating a big night? That proved to not be his motivation.
Towns snuck the game ball to Robert Covington, who scurried off to the locker room while KAT did his postgame interview. The two had a discussion at the team hotel earlier in the day about the somber reality that Oct. 25, 2019 was the four-year anniversary of Ryan Saunders’ father’s passing. And they decided to do something about it.
“It was actually all KAT’s idea,” said Covington of the gesture to Flip Saunders in the locker room after the game. “Today was four years. Before the game, we was like, ‘we gotta get this one for Ryan.'”
The execution of getting “this one” was a little shaky to start, though. It certainly looked like nerves when the Wolves fell behind 19-4 to start the game. Towns’ shot wasn’t falling; he even missed his first four free throws. Covington was just blending in, missing two early 3s. And Saunders looked irritable as he paced the sidelines. But on those sidelines, Saunders found Josh Okogie — who injected energy immediately.
Saunders decided to roll with not only Okogie, but he left Towns in with him. It was Saunders’ initial plan to have Towns be the first player to sub out. But Saunders is a coach who relies on feel, and the vibe was there with Towns and Okogie. So far, for Saunders, his style is working. He’s connecting with the Timberwolves players, much as his father did decades ago.
“I know he’s smiling,” Towns said of the late Flip Saunders. “His son is doing really well. A tremendous job, and we’re following his lead.”
The Wolves definitely are following Ryan’s lead. The 33-year-old head coach has implemented a five-out offensive scheme that provides an infrastructure for his players to play with both pace and improved efficiency within their shot selection. But it also, perhaps most importantly, is a scheme that features Towns as its quarterback.
Towns said this summer that the way he was being used in previous seasons was only tapping into 40 percent of his potential. It was a statement that seemed a bit hyperbolic at the time. But given the way he is scoring, while also distributing this season, it certainly seems like Towns was limited by living on the block in past seasons.
The Wolves may be following Saunders lead, but they go as KAT goes. It is Towns who is the leader. His numbers have been absolutely filthy through two games.
“I think he would give credit to his teammates,” said Saunders after the game when I asked him what is different about this version of Towns. “He talks a lot about the vibe, and he’s a guy who likes to enjoy the group, and I think he’s comfortable, and I think it’s showing on the court.”
There certainly is a vibe among the group, but one player in particular sticks out as a skeleton key of sorts. Towns seems to have found the Kyle Lowry to his DeMar DeRozan. A teammate who is a little bit older. Someone who has been a leader before.
“When you got a guy like me that’s always on his head, it causes you to adjust,” says Covington. “I see the capabilities in him. We talked about stuff all summer. I know the type of leadership he has within him, he just needed the right person to bring it out. And I’m fortunate enough to be that guy.”
Covington and Towns have been friends since the summer of 2017 — a year-and-a-half before the two became teammates — when Covington signed with the same agent as Towns. The two worked out that summer and developed what I would best describe as a big brother-to-little brother relationship. Brothers who are friends but push each other’s buttons.
“I’m gonna tell him when he does something wrong,” Covington continued. “He expects that about me. Coming from another team and being a leader there, I’m bringing that same thing here and spreading it out to other people. That’s a big thing. I wanna be the best teammate I can possibly be, but I also wanna be the best leader. Some of that stuff has rubbed off on him.”
Karl-Anthony Towns has led the Minnesota Timberwolves to a 2-0 record. The last time the Wolves were 2-0 was Oct. 30, 2015 — five days after Flip passed away. Towns was 19 back then. He has a vibe about him that is similar to that 2015-16 where he played alongside Kevin Garnett. This time around, though, he has new people incubating his vibe; friends that are a little closer to him in age. Two guys that he has known for years — Robert Covington and Ryan Saunders.