Wolves Nation and NBA executives have fallen hard for Kentucky big man Karl-Anthony Towns, smitten in recent weeks and months by a 19-year-old who can dribble it, pass it and shoot it from both near and far.
Well, there is one thing that concerns some chapters in Wolves Nation: Towns’ imaginary friend, nicknamed Karlito.
Karlito supposedly sits on Towns’ shoulder and engages in conversation with a player so multitalented the Timberwolves are expected to select him first in Thursday’s NBA draft, unless, in the words of Kentucky coach John Calipari, “something crazy” happens.
But do not fret Wolves Nation: Your franchise’s future hasn’t already lost his mind.
“That wasn’t Karl,” Calipari said, laughing about a character reminiscent of Jimmy Stewart’s invisible 6-foot-3 rabbit named Harvey long ago. “That was us.”
From the beginning of last season, Calipari identified Towns — the best player on a team so talented that Calipari platooned units — as the guy he would push hardest whenever his team needed it. When Towns turned the other way one day and said something, Calipari asked if he was talking to an invisible someone. An assistant coach determined Towns had talked to “Karlito,” which left everyone laughing.
“Because he’s so respectful, he would turn away and like mumble into his shoulder,” Calipari said. “He never would have said anything about it. I said something publicly and I was joking when I said, ‘If you see him talking to himself, that’s Karlito on his shoulder.’ He just ran with it.”
Towns told the Lexington Herald-Leader he indeed talks to himself. “I don’t know if it’s self-talk [or] inner dialogue,” he said. “But I know one thing. I [will] be talking to myself. I don’t know why. I’ll be having some good conversations with myself.”
The real deal?
Towns apparently has a lot to say and so much to do, even beyond a career arc that has him poised to join the rare air of No. 1 overall picks. That list includes everyone from Magic Johnson, Hakeem Olajuwon, Tim Duncan and LeBron James to Michael Olowokandi and Kwame Brown as well as two current Wolves players, NBA Rookie of the Year Andrew Wiggins and Anthony Bennett, too.
Towns is a teenager who visits hospitalized children unannounced, who volunteered at a New Jersey home for autistic children after he was moved to do something following the Newtown, Conn., school shootings, who gave a needy Bahamian child the socks off his feet during the Kentucky team’s tour there last summer.
He impressed Wolves basketball boss Flip Saunders at both ends of the court with two pre-draft workouts and owner Glen Taylor with his polite manners and thoughtful answers during a visit with his father and agent to Minneapolis and the team’s new practice facility last weekend. That apparently finalized the team’s decision. The Wolves are the only team for which Towns worked out.
“You know what, it’s almost like it’s fake, isn’t it?” Calipari asked. “It seems fake and it isn’t, I can tell you. I tell everybody: He’s one of the nicest kids, so intelligent, so smart. He is a real kind, nice soul and what you see is who he is, all the time.”
The son of a high school basketball coach, Towns will be chosen ahead of players who had more decorated collegiate careers almost as much because of what he didn’t show last season than what he did.
At Calipari’s command, Towns played all last season near the basket — displaying a nice baby hook with each hand and defensive potential — in part so he could prove to NBA scouts he was strong enough and tough enough to play there. By doing so, he is following in a line of recent UK big men — Anthony Davis, Nerlens Noel, DeMarcus Cousins, Terrence Jones and Patrick Patterson, among them — who have progressed to NBA success.
In those two pre-draft workouts, he impressed Saunders with his ball-handling and NBA three-point shooting range, unusual gifts in a player who’s pushing 7-foot but who measures a bit over 6-11 but who Calipari estimates plays bigger than a 7-footer because he has a massive wingspan and no neck.
“When he puts a shirt with a collar on, it goes to his ears,” Calipari said.
Towns has the kind of defensive mobility and shot-blocking instincts that NBA scouts expect will allow him to play both power forward and center, and alongside Gorgui Dieng and Nikola Pekovic at times. Those offensive multiple skills just might have reminded Saunders of a young big man he watched work out long ago, a guy named Kevin Garnett.
“I knew he had some perimeter skills, but I didn’t know he had the ability to shoot the ball as effortlessly and with as much range as he does,” Saunders said. “No question KG was the first player his size to do those things. He could guard out on the floor, run the floor, shoot the ball. There have been more who have come: [Anthony] Davis at New Orleans is similar and K.A.T. is along those lines. He’s able to do a lot of different things and be good at a lot of them. Sometimes players are good at a couple different things, but not a lot of them.”
Calipari chuckled last week when reminded that, like what was once said of Dean Smith and Michael Jordan long ago, he might be the only guy around who can hold Towns under 20 points a game. He reminds that players such as Towns come to Kentucky to get better and contend for a national championship, both of which he did.
“He got a lot better,” Kentucky teammate Aaron Harrison said of a player who played for his New Jersey high school junior varsity team in the fifth grade and played for the Dominican Republic national team at age 16. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen anybody get that much better in a season.”
So much better that Calipari doesn’t want to compare Towns to NBA players past or present, even if you’re talking future Hall of Famers or current All Stars.
“You can say Tim Duncan, you can say [LaMarcus] Aldridge,” Calipari said. “But he could be the one they’re talking about five years from now. Is somebody like Karl Towns? I think he could be that good. Karl is 19. In five years, he’s going to be 24. What? What? You know what I’m saying? I think he’s ready for the moment.”
“I don’t want to be a 2.0 of somebody,” he told reporters at last month’s draft lottery. “I want to be the first version of someone, the first Karl Towns.”