For the first time in over nine months, competitive basketball was just moments away for Karl-Anthony Towns as he sat on the bench before the Timberwolves' first preseason game.
But Towns still needed more time. As he was announced in the starting lineup against Memphis last week, he stayed on the bench, head in his hands, clearly thinking of his mother, Jacqueline, and other family members he said he lost to COVID-19. Coach Ryan Saunders came over to console him.
Moments later, however, Towns was at center court for the tipoff.
"When you lose somebody like a parent or somebody like Karl lost, that meant that much to him, there's a lot of firsts," said Saunders, who went through a similar process when his father, former Wolves coach Flip Saunders, died in 2015. "Playing a game here in a place that his mother loved to come watch and play, that was a first for him. I'll continue to say that Karl's strength through all this has been remarkable."
That moment encapsulated what this season might be like for Towns, the franchise center around whom President Gersson Rosas has built this team. There might be days of tremendous grief, but the NBA schedule won't let up, nor will the expectations generated by a maximum contract.
In the middle of that is a 25-year-old who has had to grow up too soon, a son who just lost his mother, and a franchise leader in need of support. Towns spoke earlier this month about how hard it would be to play basketball again because his mom won't be there.
"It always brought a smile to my mom and it always brought a smile for me when I saw my mom at the baseline and in the stands watching me play," Towns said when asked if basketball can be an outlet for him to grieve. "It's going to be hard to play. It's going to be difficult to say that this is therapy. I don't think this will ever be therapy again for me."
Towns is about to embark on the most difficult season of his life in a season unlike any other. All the Wolves can do is help Towns on and off the court as much as possible.
Building around player and person
Since Rosas took the job, he has made it his priority to build around Towns. Rosas has catered the roster to Towns' abilities, and this season's roster is likely in better shape to complement what Towns does well than last season's was.
It is Towns' talent they're trying to maximize, and with him goes the fortune of the franchise. But it's also understandable if Towns' heart and mind aren't always in it on a nightly basis. How these dynamics play out will have a lot to say about how the Wolves do in the standings.
But as that moment on the sideline before the Memphis game showed, concerns over wins and losses will take a back seat to how Towns the person is doing.
"He has to go through the pain and ups and downs," guard Ricky Rubio said. "It will happen throughout the course of the season."
Rubio and others on the Wolves would know. Rubio lost his mother to cancer in 2016. Saunders lost his father a year earlier. No. 1 pick Anthony Edwards lost his mother and grandmother to cancer in the same year when he was 14. Towns has a coach and teammates who can empathize with him on a level that others may not, as much as they might try to help.
"He can talk to me whenever he's ready and whenever he wants," Rubio said. "We'll be on the road, we can have a glass of wine. Whatever he wants to talk over, I will be there."
Towns looked like he needed time to regain his old form on the court during the first two games of the preseason, but in the third against Dallas, he scored 20 points and resembled the fearsome scoring threat Wolves fans have come to expect.
Saunders sees a group around Towns that can maximize what Towns does on that end of the floor.
"I view it as guys that fit around Karl in a number of ways," Saunders said. "I can go down the list of the roster."
Towns has a point guard in D'Angelo Russell who is a friend and potential formidable pick-and-roll partner. He has another friend and playmaker in Rubio. There's Malik Beasley, who shot 43% from three-point range after joining the Wolves in February and should help create space on the floor. There's Jake Layman, who has shown the ability to find lanes to cut off the ball and play off Towns' special passing ability for a big man.
Then there are the blossoming Edwards and Jarrett Culver, whose developing games could also benefit from the attention Towns draws.
"I think that my job with everything is to bring the best out of them," Towns said. "So I don't feel that it's more about them complementing me, but I have to figure out how to complement them."
Along those lines, Towns spoke about wanting to empower Edwards, the No. 1 pick. Rosas has tried to downplay the expectations for Edwards. Towns said he was going to make sure Edwards gets the mentorship he needs.
"He wants to be great, he wants to be the best," Towns said. "It's up to us as a team and an organization, especially me and D-Lo as leaders, to bring the best out of him and help him find the groove and rhythm he needs to be successful in the NBA."
Completing his game
The offensive numbers have always been there for Towns, and last year his shooting took a leap. He attempted 7.9 three-pointers per game, 3.3 more than the prior season. He shot 41% from deep even at that high volume. Among players who took at least five threes per game, Towns' percentage ranked ninth overall in the NBA.
He averaged a career-high 26.5 points and a career-best 4.4 assists, and if the Wolves hit more shots from the outside, that number could go up again this season.
The biggest question in Towns' game has always been whether he can become steady enough on the other end to anchor an adequate defense.
"I've never been worried about the offensive thing. I just want to lock in defensively for us, especially. That's the biggest reason we haven't found success," Towns said. "Just trying to do my part to be where I'm supposed to be, talk the coverages correctly and just not do too much, like I've done sometimes, jumping out of place and things like that."
This will be Towns' second season under the defensive system of associate head coach David Vanterpool. Last year, the Wolves had Towns mostly in a drop scheme on screens, but often they would relinquish open shots both at the rim and clean looks from the midrange in front of Towns.
The Wolves, for all the offensive talent around Towns, are still one of the youngest teams in the NBA. Youth and defense are not always a compatible combination, and how they improve (or not) at that end of the floor will go a long way in pointing their trajectory in the Western Conference.
Saunders said he has noticed a shift in how Towns is approaching defense.
"He's been able to show in practice or give reasons [for lapses], 'I should've been there. My presentation should've been there. I didn't need to commit to the ball right there.' You didn't always necessarily see that in the past," Saunders said. "His ability to take ownership, I've been really impressed with. He's had a lot go on in his life. But he's stayed positive."
The Wolves had one of their best defensive stretches of the season when Towns was out with a knee injury from Dec. 18 through Jan. 15, a span of 15 games when the Wolves had the third-best defensive rating in the NBA. Before that, they were 22nd in defensive rating.
Towns said some of the time he spent on the sideline last season helped him better understand his defensive responsibilities.
"It's been fortunate to be injured and watch it play out and see how I could be better in spots, and when I come back, how could I do this? How could I do that better?" Towns said. "For me, the system has been great. I've been very fortunate to have a great coaching staff, and a great coach like [Vanterpool], where it's been easy for me to pick up, especially this year."
Russell thinks the league had better be on guard when Towns — who was limited to 35 games last season because of the knee injury, a fractured wrist and then the COVID shutdown — takes the floor this season.
"I said it multiple times, I think his mentality is going to change," Russell said. "He's going to bring a different energy to this game. I think that will make it easier for everybody. The better he is, the better we'll be."
That is the reality for the Wolves, even if this is bound to be Towns' most trying season — all while carrying the expectations of a franchise on his weary shoulders. Earlier this month, Towns sounded broken when discussing his mom.
"I never been mentally in a good place since that woman went in the hospital," Towns said. "It's just getting harder and harder every day as I keep losing people."
In that moment, he sounded like the last thing he wanted to do was pick up a basketball and bang around in the post. On Wednesday he'll do just that. And then again Saturday. And Sunday. And so on, as long as he's not injured physically.
But this offseason he suffered an injury that won't go away, one that will never heal.
He revealed in a YouTube interview that he had to make the painful decisions around his mother's final moments, and he said earlier this month how difficult it has been to be there for his family through battle after battle with COVID.
"I feel like I've been hardened a little bit by life and humbled," Towns said.
Now, basketball is back in his life full time. How does someone in Towns' situation deal with that? Nobody can know, even those who've experienced similar loss.
"We just have to be there for our teammate and just have his back," Rubio said. "We know how much he cares about the game, but of course there's something bigger than that. We're just going to be there for him."