For months, Timberwolves coach Ryan Saunders has pleaded for patience with rookie Jarrett Culver, saying despite his inconsistency early in his NBA career, the future is bright for the player the Wolves selected sixth overall in June’s draft.

Saunders’ best evidence to support that argument has come in Culver’s two games before Thursday’s matchup against Portland.

The Wolves’ last two-game trip was a successful one for Culver. Against Cleveland, he had 14 points to go with a career-high four steals. Then in Memphis, Culver had another career high, 24 points, and two more steals. His shooting, which has been a bugaboo all season, was 14 of 22, lifting his average for the season to 38%.

He followed that up by scoring 12 points on 6-for-12 shooting with six rebounds in 30 minutes Thursday.

Most encouraging to the Wolves was how Culver defended. His capability on that end of the floor is one of the reasons they moved up in the draft to get him, and how to play defense in the NBA seems to be sinking in slowly but surely for Culver.

“It’s very physical out there,” Culver said. “I just feel like I’m growing a lot, learning our terms more, and my teammates help me out a lot. I’m learning the positions I need to be in to be successful on defense.”

Saunders said one of Culver’s biggest improvements is his ability to stay with the players he’s guarding when they try to penetrate.

“[He’s improved] his aggressiveness and his ability to keep connected with dribblers, keep connected with players coming off catch-and-shoot actions,” Saunders said. “He’s been a guy that’s taken a little bit of time to understand what you need physicality-­wise on the defensive end, as it works with so many rookies. But I think we’ve seen it long enough from him that it’s starting to click for him.”

Against the Grizzlies, that aggressiveness led to five fouls, and Culver has 15 fouls in his past four games, although only one Thursday.

“Certain fouls I foul are dumb fouls I shouldn’t have had,” he said. “Stay away from those, I feel like I’ll be good.”

Towns nearing return

There was a chance Karl-Anthony Towns was going to play Thursday. At shootaround, Saunders said the Wolves were going to see how Towns responded in warmups before deciding if he could play. He could not, and Towns missed his 12th consecutive game because of a left knee strain.

Even though Towns couldn’t go, Saunders said the time for his return is nearing.

“He’s getting closer,” Saunders said. “He’s doing everything to get back on the court, and it’s obvious how important he is to our team. We just want to be more cautious in that.”

Whiteside ends up playing

Portland was nearly down its starting center in Hassan Whiteside, who appeared on the injury report because of a respiratory illness but was available to play. He finished with 15 points and 14 rebounds.