The all-star big man scored 20 points in 27 minutes, hitting 8 of his 14 shots from the field, including a couple of three-pointers. Wolves fans breathed a giant sigh of relief as Towns seemed to kick off some rust and regain his offensive form well ahead of Wednesdays season opener against Detroit at Target Center.
Towns remained largely unimpressed.
Offensively, Im not worried about that, he said.
Not worried about that? Thats new for a big man who has been one of the games truly elite offensive talents for years. He is the games top shooting center who probably can recite his counting stats if you ask him to. So, when he says hes not worried about his offense, you take notice.
But this season, as the leader of this team, he has bigger priorities.
I think right now, for me, Ive just been more focused on making sure we have everything we need to get done defensively, Towns said. Its always the thing thats kept us from being great, the defense.
Thats the Timberwolves in a nutshell, essentially for the franchises entire existence, and especially since Towns came to town. Minnesota has had offensive talent in recent years, but defensive ineptitude has kept it from achieving much of anything. For ESPNs Brian Windhorst, any conversation about the young, talented Timberwolves always starts and ends on that end of the floor.
I dont think the Wolves can be a playoff team unless they get better defensively, Windhorst said. Unless they get better defensively, this situation is not going to work. If somebody asks me about the Wolves, Im like, Well, let me know when theyre going to defend. When theyre going to defend, then Ill start taking them seriously.
The same can be said for Minnesotas prodigal center. Offensive dominance is fun and all, but becomes less appealing when cancelled out by defensive malpractice.
ESPNs Real Plus-Minus is an imperfect, though often revealing estimate of a players on-court impact on team performance, measured in points scored per 100 possessions. Among centers last season, Towns ranked No. 1 in offensive real plus-minus, more than doubling the second-best center, Nikola Jokic. But, on defense, among 72 centers, Towns ranked dead last, by a lot.
Those consistent struggles are why outside perceptions of the 25-year-old are souring, and also contribute to the teams annual defensive struggles.
He is one of these guys whos looked at in the league as a guy who is not a good defender cant defend, Windhorst said. And it affects the way teams play against him.
Towns post-game discussion with reporters last week suggested he may now realize as much. As do his actions in training camp.
What I do sense more than anything from him that is a little different than last season is, first of all, a different level as far as an approach to maturity in general, and his level of urgency when it comes to defending, said David Vanterpool, the Timberwolves associate head coach and defensive coordinator. Those things are big when youre trying to improve.
This will be Towns second season playing under the defensive scheme implemented a year ago by Vanterpool and head coach Ryan Saunders. He missed a large number of games at the end of last season with a wrist injury, which he deemed a positive.
It allowed him to watch and learn, and try to understand what he could do better, which really boils down to determining what not to do.
You can talk all you want about schemes and systems. Vanterpool hears those terms often. Whats most important is finding ways to force offenses into the looks the Timberwolves want to create defensively.
NBA players can and will score; its what theyre trained to do. The mission is to make it as challenging as possible for them to do so. You do that by being in the right spots, thus forcing opponents to take inefficient shots over strong contests. Never mind blocked shots and steals, if you just do those simple things every possession, youll likely win the game.
Thats why Vanterpool constantly preaches the notion that solid is enough.
Base hits suffice. . The reality is, at times, everyone wants to be Barry Bonds, or whoever it is thats hitting home runs, and thats cool. But the reality is more of us could be that base knocker, Vanterpool said. For KAT, defensively just in general, creating the types of attempts from the offense that we have set out to create is the win.
But thats a hard notion to get into the minds of young players. They want to block shots and never let their opponent score.
Towns is a perfectionist on the floor. He wants to succeed, badly. Its why hell help when he doesnt need to, or unnecessarily attempt to block a stiffly contested shot. That leads to being in no mans land, fouls or uncontested offensive rebounds.
Recognizing those situations will help to hopefully deter the urgency to help too much in situations where your help may not be needed, Vanterpool said. Understanding, OK, this is whats necessary right now. If its not necessary, lets not do too much.
Towns is recognizing those situations better in training camp, and is more committed to what his role is within the defense.
Hes been able to show in practice or give reasons, (saying), I shouldve been there. My presentation shouldve been there. I didnt need to commit to the ball right there, Saunders said. Didnt always necessarily see that in the past. His ability to take ownership, Ive been really impressed with.
Towns defensive goals heading into this season appear to be simple, and prudent.
Just trying to do my part to be where Im supposed to be, talk the coverages correctly, he said. Just not do too much, like Ive done sometimes, jumping out of place and things like that.
Windhorst noted it is unusual for star offensive players like Towns to become lockdown defenders later on in their careers.
But he doesnt have to be Ben Wallace, he said.
Towns just has to be good on that end of the floor. That comes down to the aforementioned understanding of responsibilities, but it also comes down to commitment. That, too, has been questioned at times.
Not right now.
Towns endured so much loss and pain this offseason, losing seven family members to COVID-19, including his mom. That pain remains, and will be with him long after this seasons conclusion. Basketball isnt some kind of magic elixir for that kind of hurt.
But he still wants to succeed. He wants to set No. 1 overall pick Anthony Edwards up for success. He wants this team to win, whatever it takes.
Hes had a lot go on in his life. But hes stayed positive, Saunders said. You can see a change and a shift in a mindset, I believe. Im really proud of what hes done so far. It just has to be where were stacking days on top of days as we move forward.
Timberwolves point guard DAngelo Russell, one of Towns good friends, believes everyone will see a killer in Towns this season.
I think his mentality is gonna change; hes gonna bring a different energy to this game, Russell said. I think that will make it easier for everybody. The better he is, the better well be.
Towns is an intellectual player who knows the game well. With more experience, Vanterpool believes Towns can use that knowledge to start to think one move ahead on the defensive end, much like a game of chess. If he sees things before they happen, Towns could put himself in positions where opponents arent even tempted to attack.
Thats more about playing smarter versus harder, an achievable mode for those who are truly locked in to whats happening on the floor.
Perhaps, in Year 6, Towns can enter that territory. If he can, the Timberwolves will be better for it.
Things really start with a mindset for me, a mentality. Im very encouraged, because KATs mentality is in a good space as far it goes with the improvements he wants to reach, Vanterpool said. Starting with that is a great area to begin, as far as being able to put in the work towards growing into that space. Hes had the right approach, hes had the right mentality.
Hopefully, the results come quicker than anyone would think, but Im more of a process type of guy, and the reality is, if youre doing the right things, and the process is right, the results will come as they should. We worry about the results as they come.
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