Talking Towns, Rubio, Wiggins

“I’ve had thirty years of NBA experience. I’ve seen guys come and go. This guy, to me, looks like he’s special. He’s the real deal.”

–Jim Petersen, on Karl-Anthony Towns, during the 3rd Quarter of last night’s telecast.

In previewing this Wolves season, I posed questions about each player, and finished with perhaps the most important franchise question about the most important player on the team:

Is Karl-Anthony Towns the real deal?

He was the player they selected with the first overall draft pick, for the first time ever. With a semblance of a young Timberwolves nucleus forming, Towns figures to be in the middle of it, next to Andrew Wiggins. If the Wolves are going to succeed in their Thunder Model rebuild, Towns needs to be an all-around force; the kind of player that can put a team on his back and carry them to some wins.

For the first time in his two-games-long career, we saw evidence of this last night in Denver. The stats tell most of the story: KAT had 28 points, 14 rebounds, 2 assists, and 4 blocks in 33 minutes of +15 basketball. His team won easily (in a game that Vegas pegged them as underdogs) and he was by far the biggest reason why. Towns looked comfortable shooting or driving, as the situation required. When an interior defender was out of position, Towns initiated the precise amount of contact to both draw the foul and maintain balance to finish the play and make the shot. His awareness might have been highlighted best by a play that didn’t register a stat: in the post, he head-faked, drew extra defenders, pivoted out of the defense and kicked out a perfect pass to Ricky Rubio at the top of the key. Ricky’s shot rimmed out — so no assist for Towns — but it was a helluva play; one that demonstrated poise and awareness befitting a player way older than 19.

On defense, Towns was very good. He had those 4 blocks and 14 rebounds (11 of them defensive) and goes after defensive boards with the same type of urgency that Kevin Garnett and Kevin Love do. When Towns senses an opponent’s hand creeping in to poke the rebounded ball away, he promptly flares out his elbows and looks for Ricky Rubio to push the ball.

This was just one game, but it seemed almost unbelievable that a 19-year old rookie could look so good in his second professional game. Fans should be excited about this player.

Ricky Rubio did not continue his hot shooting from LA (where he scored a career-high 28 points in the season opener) but he played a very good game nonetheless. He drew an assortment of fouls to grind out 12 points despite shooting just 2-8 from the field. (He was 8-9 from the foul line.) He played his usual brand of intense, effective defense. He also threw a bunch of great passes that led to open shots, sometimes easy layups. Point guard defense is an interesting, maybe under-explored part of the modern NBA so it’s fun to see how Rubio manages to have success in a league increasingly dominated by players at his position. He obviously knows positioning, and has awareness of when and where screens are coming from, but sometimes I think I lose sight of just how much effort Ricky expends during a game. Watch how much he moves when bothering his opponent, and then compare it to other point guards in the NBA. He’s a great role model for a lot of basketball traits, and pure effort is one of them.

The other player being discussed after two games is Andrew Wiggins. He had a poor game against the Lakers, and it was revealed that he has had some back pain or spasms that may be limiting his performance. Last night at Denver, he played a better game, but not necessarily a good one. The Wolves go-to remedy for Wiggins struggles is to isolate him outside the block for post-up action. He had some success with this last year, but it is not efficient enough for almost all NBA players in 2015 to make good sense as a primary set. Wiggins is 7-23 from the field through two games, and a big cause of that inefficiency is the type of shots that he shoots, and this seems to be by design.

Wiggins has had more success on plays where: 1) Rubio is handling the ball; and 2) Wiggins dives down the baseline when Ricky is moving to find an open teammate. He has scored on this action, he’s been fouled on it, and — when Ricky shot and missed a jumper last night — rebounded a miss for a put-back bucket. It’s just one little play that sort of symbolizes how the approach could be tweaked to “get him going,” as they often say. Also, Wiggins needs to shoot more threes. Nothing will hurt his back more than grit-and-grinding in the post all night. Why not shoot better shots that cause less physical stress? He was 0-2 from downtown in LA and just 0-1 last night. Hopefully, over time, he’ll shoot more threes and fewer heavily-contested shots out of the post.

All in all, that road trip was a big success. The Wolves return to Target Center on Monday night. They play the Blazers. There will be a tribute to the late Flip Saunders at about 7:00, before the game.

Until then.

Season Record: 2-0

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