I’ve never been all that good at predictions, especially when it comes to NBA rookies. Back in 1996 when I was at SLAM magazine and we did annual “Rookie Most Likely To…” pieces, I picked No. 5 overall pick Ray Allen as the player most likely to fade into obscurity. RAY ALLEN. He read it, then went on to play for something like 87 years and be a key championship piece for two separate franchises. I got a couple right here and there, but mostly I made myself look like an idiot. Sometimes, though, even an idiot can spot the truth. And, had I made any predictions this year, Minnesota Timberwolves center Karl-Anthony Towns for Rookie of the Year was a stone cold lock.
Towns was indeed honored as such today, the first unanimous selection since Damian Lillard in 2013. Knicks forward/center Kristaps Porzingis received nearly all the second-place votes, and everyone else who got a vote doesn’t matter. Towns was it. He started all 82 games for the Wolves, averaged 18.3 points, 10.4 rebounds, and 1.7 blocks. When it comes to young Wolves bigs, Towns has some big shoes to fill, but hey, he wears a size 22.
Kevin Garnett may be Towns’s direct predecessor, but a better comparison may reside in San Antonio. Call Towns the Bigger Fundamental. The 7’ Towns finished with a PER of 22.5, just a tenth of a point behind Tim Duncan’s rookie 22.6, and the fifth-highest rookie PER of the past 40 years. Duncan also started all 82 games as a rookie, finishing with a stat line of 21.1 points, 11.9 rebounds, and 2.5 blocks. He also got to play alongside David Robinson, a luxury that Towns did not share. True, Towns did benefit from Garnett’s presence, but the 39-year old essentially served as a coach who suited up, appearing in just 38 games.
Towns mostly had to figure things out on his own, following a single season at Kentucky where he played just 21 minutes a night for a stacked team that lost one game. Even in those limited minutes though, even before March, he was emerging as the likely No. 1 pick. It was Kentucky’s own roster—including fellow versatile hyphenated 7’ Willie Cauley-Stein—that pushed him the hardest. “At the University of Kentucky, practices were way harder than games,” he told me shortly before the draft. “You’re talking about playing the No. 1 team in the country every single day.”
As for going up against Cauley-Stein, Towns had nothing but praise. “It’s like playing a really quick guard, but a very explosive forward, and then also the the height of a true 7’1” center,” he said of his fellow soon-to-be lottery pick. “We all know, Willie ‘Trill’ Cauley-Stein is gonna go down as one of the best defenders in college basketball history and I was blessed and honored to play against him every day, and play with him every day.”
Towns wasn’t a one-and-done as much as he was a done-and-one, an NBA-bound big who used his required single year of college as a graduate course taught by Professors Calipari and Cauley-Stein, allowing him to expand his already expansive game. In the pre-age-limit days, Towns would have been the No. 1 pick out of high school, and would have no doubt excelled, although his first year in the NBA may have proven a bit rockier without those daily Cauley-Stein sessions. Perhaps his rookie year would have been more like Garnett’s.
If it seems somewhat odd to compare Towns, who spent one year in college, to Duncan, who stayed all four, it shouldn’t. They simply utilized different paths to arrive at the same place. If Duncan’s career is truly over, they only faced each other once, on Dec. 23 in Minnesota. Neither will remember the game terribly fondly, despite San Antonio’s 25-point win. Duncan shot just 1 for 6 in 24 minutes, Towns 4 for 12 in 34, although he did finish with a double-double. It will likely be remembered more as the last time Duncan faced Garnett, likely no matter what Duncan decides.
Towns has emerged as something of a blend of both Garnett and Duncan, a mix of the former’s fire and the latter’s ice. As two careers end, one begins. Towns is a fiercely motivated individual who is also cognizant and appreciative of the blessings he’s received on the way. “Blessed and honored” was a phrase he uttered often back in June. He hasn’t forgotten. "I wasn't born this way,” he said today as he received his Rookie of the Year award, “I was raised this way." From parents, to Cal, to KG, Towns has learned every step of the way.
His journey is only just beginning, even as Garnett’s and Duncan’s near their respective ends. No one knows this better than Towns, who won just 29 games with the Timberwolves a year removed from winning 38 as a Wildcat. Excellence is both the means and the end, something you do over and over and over again until you can’t do it anymore. Garnett and Duncan, as different as they were, both knew that, both lived that. There’s a reason they played 21 and 19 years—and counting—respectively. And while they had many battles over the years, their greatest opponents were always themselves. Even before he set foot in the NBA, Towns shared that feeling. Asked the toughest part of his pre-draft workouts, he pointed to himself: “I think the challenges I put on myself to how good I think I can be, just go in every day and try to fight that battle.”
The first NBA prize won, that battle continues. Anyone could have predicted this. Even me.