There was a theory being expressed on local sports media outlets as Timberwolves training camp approached last fall that, by the time the All-Star Game arrived, we would be hearing reports that Karl-Anthony Towns wanted out.
This was upgraded to "KAT will demand a trade in the offseason" in early November, when his account liked a #FreeKAT hashtag on a Tweet. Towns' explanation that this had to be the villainous work of a hacker produced only up-to-date versions of "Oh, sure'' with Minnesota's sporting public.
That tidbit of drama came in the early part of a stretch — Oct. 30 to Nov. 15 — when the Wolves would lose eight of nine games. That put their record at 4-9.
Same old, same old. Right?
Not really. The Wolves are 23-16 since then as they enter Sunday's home game against Detroit.
Towns was named a Western Conference reserve for the All-Star Game on Feb. 20 in Cleveland. This is his third All-Star selection, and first in three seasons.
He was a teenager for his first few games in the NBA and we all appreciated that talent, that potential for greatness. There was the Jimmy Butler chaos, and there were injuries, and the KAT disillusionment was strong … with me, anyway.
COVID-19 did hit him like a boulder, with the death of his mother and other relatives. He played 35 of 64 games and 50 of 72 games in the two COVID-shortened seasons (combined Wolves' record: 42-94).
#FreeKAT. That certainly made sense in November.
Three months later? This is the best KAT we've ever seen.
The average numbers don't distinguish Towns, 2022 All-Star, from the player we saw in the previous three seasons. It's more an eye test than points per game or rebounding.
And I decided to check with my favorite basketball eye guy — Terry Kunze, a player, a coach, hoops nut for life — for confirmation.
As far back as 1960, Kunze was a star among several on Duluth Central's state one-class champions; played for the Gophers, played for the Minnesota Muskies, played in Belgium, and coached there for a considerable spell.
Now, he visits high school gyms 60 times per winter as a member of the Mr. Basketball committee, and watches games at all levels on his 65-inch television — including every minute of the Wolves, live or on replay.
"The difference is, Towns has bought in along with everyone else," Kunze said. "If you're a player with this coach, you're saying, 'He knows what he's doing.'
"So, KAT's trying to defend at a better level than I've seen. He's trying to be a better passer than he's ever been — not great, but he's trying.
"This team is night and day from what it has been for years, and I give credit to [coach] Chris Finch and his assistants. I don't know him and I don't know his coaches, but he must have some good ones.
"It's been a long time since I've seen the Wolves work this hard and, for the most part, they move the ball unselfishly.
"And Jarred Vanderbilt. You see that every night, and you want to get in the fight with him. You see it in KAT, in everybody … how much they appreciate Vanderbilt."
Kunze paused a tick and then said: "People are trying to figure out how Vanderbilt gets so many rebounds. It's because they aren't guarding him! He's getting a free run to the board. And he takes advantage.
"He's there to clean up for everybody, including KAT … just a couple of Kentucky Wildcats.
"As big as KAT is, a full 6-10, players that size can't do what he does. Shoot the three, blow past you to the basket."
Another pause: "You know what else? Every player on an NBA roster has talent. But you know what they can't do? Show that talent when they're playing three minutes a night.
"[Jaylen] Nowell … he's one of their best players off the dribble, and now he's been getting to play. [Taurean] Prince, too. Where's this coming from? He's a good player! And he's not playing five minutes; he's playing 18.
"Finch coached in the same place I did, in Belgium. Over there, you see something, you let a guy play. This coach doesn't bark and take you out when you throw a ball in the stands. He lets you play.
"Towns is enjoying playing with these guys, with these coaches. That and amazing 6-foot-10 talent are what you're seeing."