Karl-Anthony Towns was just a bit intimidated one of the first times he hung out with Andrew Wiggins.
The two were still in high school, long before their fates intertwined as the young cornerstones of the Timberwolves franchise. At this event, a Nike Hoops Summit, Towns said Wiggins had the biggest reputation in the gym.
“Who would’ve thought years later we’d be teammates, seeing each other on a daily basis?” Towns said.
It will continue like that for at least the next five years with Wiggins signed through the 2022-23 season on a maximum contract that pays him nearly $150 million and Towns just signing a five-year max extension that will kick in next season worth up to $190 million.
When the cliffhanger that is Jimmy Butler’s trade request finally resolves itself, Butler is unlikely to be around — whether the Wolves trade him soon, later or he eventually walks in free agency.
They will be left with Towns, 22, and Wiggins, 23, the two teammates Butler says don’t work as hard as he does — but who currently have bigger guaranteed contracts than he does. Like the contracts or not, this is a union that won’t dissolve any time soon.
You might think that in putting pen to paper on those deals the two would feel a fair amount of pressure. That’s not exactly the case.
“I feel like I have to do a lot more than I did last year regardless [of the contract],” Wiggins said.
Added Towns: “You only have pressure when you feel you may have not deserved it. And you feel pressure when you feel you don’t put the work in every day that is necessary.”
But will that work translate into winning and be enough to salvage the promise both had upon arriving in Minnesota?
Acknowledging the critics
Wiggins stared out at an empty basketball floor in Santa Monica, Calif., recently, and explained how signing that contract a year ago changed or didn’t change him. Wiggins isn’t immune to the criticism fans have — that the deal may have been a mistake, that he isn’t living up to expectations, that he has no passion for the game. He hears all of it.
“I feel like a lot of people don’t really think too much of me right now,” Wiggins said.
Then his stare broke and his wide smile flashed on his face for a moment.
“Because of that one year last year,” he continued. “But I don’t really feel too much pressure. This year will be a good year for us. For me, too.”
But even though he is aware of what fans and media say about him, he tries not to let it bother him. To Wiggins, words like that only matter if they’re coming from a respected source.
“If it’s someone with a voice, someone I look up to or someone I idolized as a kid or something like that, I could use that as motivation and positive purposes,” Wiggins said. “But if it’s like random fans or random whatever, I don’t really care.”
Lately, a heavy dose of Wiggins and Towns criticism has come from Butler, who isn’t some random fan. It is the lack of competitive fire Butler sees in Wiggins and Towns that is contributing in part to Butler’s desire to leave Minnesota.
“I’m not the most talented player on the team,” Butler told ESPN last week, repeating a message he has delivered before. “Who is the most talented player on our team? KAT. Who is the most god-gifted player on our team? Wiggs. Who plays the hardest? Me! I play hard. I put my body [on the line] every day in practice, every day in games.”
It’s a refrain Wiggins has heard about himself from various circles, not just Butler, and it’s one he shrugs at.
“I’m not usually that person to try and prove something wrong,” Wiggins said. “I have my own role and I try to focus on myself. I don’t play for nobody, unless you’re my family, my immediate circle. I play for them. I don’t play for other people’s approval or other people’s entertainment, I just play for me.”
To Towns, Wiggins is still the same person he was when they met at that camp.
“Even with all the attention he’s garnered over the years he’s always been the same guy, same Andrew, always thinking of others first, taking care of his family, doing the things he needs to do to make sure that his state of mind is always as best as possible,” Towns said.
Lighting their fire
But can that equal basketball success? And do Wiggins and Towns have what it takes to be leaders, despite their ages? Wiggins’ production dipped last season, especially in his free-throw shooting, which went from 76 percent to an alarming 64.3, and Wiggins professed he was going to be a better rebounder after averaging just 4.4 boards per game last year — a low number for someone listed at 6-8 with considerable leaping ability.
“I just got to go get it,” Wiggins said. “You can say whatever you want but rebounding, it’s just go get it.”
You can argue that Wiggins has been too inconsistent to warrant a maximum contract. Fewer question Towns, who made an All-NBA team last season for the first time.
Towns said that in his fourth season, he is learning more what it means to be a professional and not just a gifted athlete. Words from Kevin Garnett and Tayshaun Prince ring in his ears from his rookie year about how to pace yourself and how to take care of your body. Perhaps this is where he and Butler clash, since Towns said he isn’t expending as much energy as he can every minute he’s on the floor. Instead, he’s trying to use it in different way.
“You find ways to play just as energy-filled as you were when you were a rookie but using about 60 percent less of the energy,” Towns said, adding later: “Just really toning down the energy output because you’re just playing smarter, doing the little things better, fundamentally better. You’re just being more savvy, and it comes with experience.”
So does the mandate to be a leader. On that front, coach Tom Thibodeau said it was important Towns and Wiggins made the playoffs last season and saw what it took to get to that point — and how the Wolves’ No. 8 seed could have been better with a few more wins.
“The important thing is to do the right things each and every day, even on the days in which you don’t feel like doing them, and to do it throughout a long season in the grind of an NBA season …” Thibodeau said. “And I think that’s what they have taken from last year, and now they have to do it on a consistent basis throughout this year.”
The young leaders
Grabbing hold of the team’s leadership is more complex than it sounds. Veterans surround Wiggins and Towns, and even though they have the biggest contracts and are the undisputed futures of the franchise, they won’t be the sole voices in the locker room.
“I’ve always seen myself as a leader of the team, and you just don’t have one leader,” Towns said. “The army has multiple ranks and there could be multiple lieutenants, multiple everything. I see myself more as a contributor to the team’s success.”
Added Wiggins: “I’ve always been that guy who if I feel a certain way will say something. I’m not really the type to hold something in if I have to say it. … If you say something, you have to act on it and you can’t tell one of your teammates to do something that you’re not doing.”
So they have been doling out advice to the youngest Wolves on the roster.
It wasn’t that long ago when Wiggins and Towns were in their shoes, highly touted No. 1 picks but trying to feel their way through the NBA. They’re a little more seasoned now but still have yet to reach their full potential. Their contracts reflect the belief the Wolves have that they will get there.
For the team’s sake they had better, or else the next half-decade could be a repeat of the perennial lottery trips that preceded them. And even if they say in one breath there is no pressure — there still is.
“I mean there’s pressure — I guess you can say that we have to obviously do what we need to do on the basketball end to make sure this team is taken to heights it deserves to be at,” Towns said. “But we continue to work hard and continue to understand what we need to do as teammates and as players to get the job done.”