Karl-Anthony Towns had perhaps the best season of his NBA career. Although it was not a statistical peak in any way, it was the first year of his career where he took a team to the playoffs as the best player and clear leader of the group. Towns’ performance in the series against the Memphis Grizzlies was inconsistent. Minnesota’s play often mirrored his performance. The Wolves blew multiple double-digit leads in part because Towns was unable to make shots or even get touches down the stretch.
So what will Towns do to improve his game over the offseason? He’s got to work on his defense. When he is locked in, he can be a quality defender. But, again, there is that lack of consistency. Towns can work on better ball control. This season he had one of the worst assist-to-turnover ratios of his career, partially because he likes to make flashy passes that often end in disaster. But I think the biggest thing that Towns has to work on this offseason has more to do with his mind than his basketball skills.
See, Big KAT is one of the most talented players in the league. On any given night, he can look like a top-10 NBA player. However, he has shown this season that he can be game-planned out of the action at times. Memphis’ general plan was similar to what we’ve seen teams like the Los Angeles Clippers, Indiana Pacers, and Utah Jazz do against Towns: primarily defend him with a wing, hit him as soon as he crosses the 3-point line, and send a hard double on the catch if he touches the paint. It was like a script you could almost predict every time the Wolves had the ball against the Grizz, and yet it worked. It certainly didn’t work all the time, but it worked enough to send the Timberwolves packing.
As the Wolves continue to get better, there will increasingly be more eyes on Towns and his game. He is good enough to beat any look that the defense throws at him, but it seems like he gets in his own way from a mental standpoint. Towns will have to match his high skill level with an equally high level of composure and awareness if he wants to lead the Wolves to the next level.
Before I get too in the weeds, I want to acknowledge that when I talk about composure, I’m not leaning into the narrative about Towns or the Wolves celebrating too much or not having what it takes to compete. Talking trash is cool. Celebrating mid-game is normal. You know that is just part of the game if you’ve ever played basketball at any level — pee-wee, varsity, pick-up. Don’t buy into the BS.
When I talk about composure, it’s about not letting the game get you down. Towns has shown more than once that he can let things that are out of his control get him frustrated, and it affects his performance. Most notably, his rapport with the refs. Towns’ complaining to the referees has been a big focus of the media this season because it seems like he did it more than ever. Anecdotally, it seemed like Towns was late to get back on defense dozens of times each game because he was talking to the referees about a missed call. Dozens feels like a big number, but I’m sure if someone put together a montage of Towns complaining to the refs, it would be quite long.
Does Towns complain more than other players? I’m not sure. Truthfully, I don’t think so. But it does seem like he lets it get into his head more. How many times have we seen him frustrated by a call, and then the next play gets called for a foul? Like it or not, the narrative surrounding Towns has become focused on his relationships with the referees in a way that influences how we perceive his game. Whether or not he is getting fewer or more calls is irrelevant because the narrative is set. It’s up to Towns to keep composure moving forward and change how people view him.
Not only is it important for him to focus on composure for his own sake, but as the leader of the team, he’s got to bear the weight of helping maintain the team’s composure. Towns spoke during his exit press conference as though he has a clear understanding of what his position as leader of the team entails.
I’ve just always felt my leadership style was actions over words. Imma show you how I lead. Be the first one in the gym putting that work in. Always going tremendously hard in practices, showing how important shootarounds can be, the right demeanor. I think all that stuff is where I lead the most. Just being a consummate professional. Showing what it is to be a professional. Taking care of my body, showing them how I take care of my body. I just think those are things young guys feed off of that when they see their vets doing that every single day. They’re gonna wanna start doing that because they’re gonna feel like they’re behind the eight-ball.
If Towns really believes those words, we should start seeing it on the court. Again, though, there is more to growing as a basketball player this offseason than what we see on the court. As the Wolves continue to grow, the relationship between the big three — Towns, Anthony Edwards and D’Angelo Russell — will be both a strategic puzzle to solve on the court and a delicate interpersonal dynamic they will have to balance.
As Edwards continues his ascent into stardom, the dynamic between the two will be worth watching. This year, Towns was undoubtedly The Guy on the Timberwolves. It’s an honor that he has earned. He has put in his time and has committed to the franchise for the long haul. In many ways, this team was built for him. Since he entered the league, the Wolves have been trying to construct something around Towns that could compete. Now they have, but how long until it’s no longer clear that Towns is the No. 1 guy?
That’s not to say that the Wolves can’t have two pillars of their franchise to build around. They can. Any franchise in the league would love to have two legitimate All-NBA-caliber guys, which the Timberwolves might have in Towns and Edwards. But will Towns have to transition back to playing second-fiddle? Ant certainly isn’t the domineering personality that Jimmy Butler was, but it’s worth mentioning that KAT hasn’t spent very much time in his career as a secondary option.
The biggest elephant in the Timberwolves’ locker room is the relationship between Towns and Russell and how that will affect the Wolves’ decision-making moving forward. Russell was brought to Minnesota in no small part because he and Towns have a strong friendship. Not only does the personal relationship bear weight, but the Wolves gave up a lot to get Russell: All-Star starter Andrew Wiggins and a first-round pick that became Jonathan Kuminga, who recently became the youngest player to start a playoff game. There is a lot invested in DLo, and how the Wolves handle this offseason will greatly impact both the team’s and Towns’ futures.
Russell had a disappointing playoffs. When asked about his performance in his exit press conference, he avoided the question and focused on regular-season success.
As far as the season go, I try to separate the season from the playoffs. It’s kind of hard to remember how good of a season we had with a playoff series or whatnot not going the way you want it. I don’t want to get up here and say nothing that’s gonna stick, or give you guys a headline speaking on the playoffs or my performance. I haven’t really had time to think about it so I’m gonna save my piece on that.
Russell’s season ended with him being benched in the win-or-go-home Game 6 against the Grizzlies. DLo spent the last five minutes of the game on the bench watching Jordan McLaughlin try to help lead the team to victory. When asked if he was “okay with that,” DLo was clear that he was not.
“No, not at all,” he said. “Do you wanna do your job right now? You wanna tweet about it? You wanna create a news report on it? You wanna do all that, right? I’m not coming at you. I’m just saying, of course.”
It became clear that, down the stretch, Finch did not trust Russell to help the Wolves win the game. Russell could be up for a pretty hefty extension, but if Finch, Towns, Russell, and Timberwolves’ management aren’t on the same page about his value, things could get sticky.
Towns’ relationship with Russell will be at the forefront of many of these conversations. Will Towns value friendship over on-court success? Should he? Can he and DLo succeed at the highest level together? All these questions and more will way on KAT as he heads into next season.
With success comes pressure. Will Towns be able to maintain his composure under the heavy weight of expectations, or will his ability to lead a team continue to be questioned? As the leader of this team, it’s up to him to navigate all of this and come back next season as a more complete basketball player on the court and in his head.