NEW YORK -- The big story at Barclays Center on Wednesday was Kyrie Irving scoring 50 points in his regular-season debut for the Brooklyn Nets. Irving put on a show, dancing with the ball and dicing up the Minnesota Timberwolves' defense. On consecutive possessions in a one-minute crunch-time stretch, he made two off-the-dribble 3s and was fouled on a third. The performance was spectacular, and it would have been legendary had his overtime buzzer-beating jumper gone in after he slipped, fell down, kept his dribble alive and somehow got off a clean look.
"Just gotta tuck in the elbow a little bit," Irving said.
It was also a debut of sorts for another star. Karl-Anthony Towns began his fifth season with the team that drafted him No. 1 in 2015 by showing off what he can do in a drastically different environment. Coach Ryan Saunders installed a re-imagined offense in his first training camp, designed to maximize Towns' varied talents. Already one of the biggest matchup problems in the game, he now looks even more dynamic. Brooklyn he matched Irving's seven 3s (and, going 7 for 11, needed three fewer attempts) and compiled a staggering stat line: 36 points, 14 rebounds, three assists, three blocks, 11 for 22 shooting.
Two weeks ago, a clip of Towns talking Xs and Os in a media scrum made the rounds. Kyle Ratke of the Wolves' official website called it "pretty awesome and rare." The popular takeaway was that, if professional athletes were more often asked specific questions about the art of the game and willing to answer them, the public would benefit. This is true, but the actual content of his answer is just as notable as its broader implications. He was talking about the difference between passing out of the post and from the top of the key. He was talking about this because, in Minnesota's new system, he will be at the top of the key more than ever before, displaying his basketball IQ without any microphones in his face.
Saunders distilled the team's new offensive philosophy simply: "We want to play with pace and we want to play in space." This, in 2019, is not revolutionary, even if Minnesota is doing quirky things like painting shot values on the practice court. What separates the Wolves from other teams who have done analytics-driven makeovers is that they employ Towns, a 7-footer who is equally comfortable bullying people on the block, shooting quick-release 3s and putting the ball on the floor.
Towns' first bucket of the season felt symbolic. He contested Allen's hook at the rim, chased down the rebound, brought the ball up himself, looked off Andrew Wiggins on the wing and swished a pull-up 3.
Allen said he could have given Towns less space on some of his jumpers, and that is the best example -- concerned about Wiggins cutting to the rim, he surrendered an open look to a man who made 40 percent of his 3s last season and 42 percent the season before. With about four minutes left in the fourth quarter, Allen was not going to be caught off-guard by the same trick, so Towns used a different one. He brought the ball up, hit Allen with a step-back and then got him in the air with a pump fake, earning three free throws:
In the offseason the Wolves tried to sign D'Angelo Russell, a close friend of their franchise player -- Towns called Russell, Devin Booker and himself "Banana Boat V2" in a recent SLAM cover story -- but couldn't close the deal. Since then, much of the big-picture conversation about Minnesota has been about Towns being left on Lone Star Island. Last month this website published a column titled, "The clock is ticking for the Timberwolves to get Karl-Anthony Towns some much-needed help." But what if the Wolves tried to turn their lack of a second star into a strength? What if they did everything they could to unleash the one star they have?
Minnesota's approach with Towns has several parallels. A Wolves beat writer told me last night they're trying to use him like the Denver Nuggets use Nikola Jokic, the main difference being that he will shoot far more 3s and is not the best passing center in history. Another way of thinking about it is that they're trying to do what the Milwaukee Bucks do with Giannis Antetokounmpo and what the Houston Rockets do with James Harden: give the ball to their best player and allow him to operate in space. (After years of playing next to traditional bigs, Minnesota used only Robert Covington and Jake Layman at power forward against the Nets.) Ideally this shift will catapult Towns into the MVP conversation and the team into the playoffs.
"We want to put him in positions and actions where he is handling the ball at the top of the key and the ball goes through him," Saunders told The Ringer's Jonathan Tjarks in a profile in which Towns had the audacity to no-pun-intended an impeccable KAT pun. "You want the ball to touch your best players' hands each time down the court."
After the 127-126 win in the opener, Saunders said the coaching staff has, in recent weeks, debated how to handle situations that call for slowing things down. When the game is on the line, he said, the Wolves still want to give Towns some post touches, and they did that in Brooklyn. The beauty of Towns is that he is one of the best in the world at doing old-school stuff, but he can do everything else, too.
"We're going to try to move him around the court," Saunders said.
"I've worked tremendously hard to be as versatile as possible," Towns said. "If they want to put a big guy on me, maybe I can use my quickness and my shooting ability from the 3-point line and drive him in. If I have a guy who's smaller than me, obviously I go abuse him in the post. It's just about utilizing what the game's giving you."
Often he looks more like a wing than a center, and he seems to relish his opportunities to create for others, like this drive-and-dish to Wiggins:
I am still trying to understand this pass from the preseason:
And while you can't count on crazy passes like that every night, the significant thing is that he is thinking like a facilitator. Look at him raise his arms to (prematurely) celebrate Layman's 3 after his crosscourt pass out of the post:
This is the kind of freedom Towns has always wanted, and something of a return to the way he played before he arrived at Kentucky. "It's a piece of nostalgia, a little bit," Towns said. "I'm having a lot of fun playing this way." But as Minnesota empowers him on offense, it is also challenging him on the other end. Towns made some strides as a defender in 2018-19, but has room to grow if he's going to live up to the two-way potential that made him the popular pick for "player you'd start a franchise with" in the 2016 GM survey.
It is extremely early, but the signs are encouraging. While he was not perfect -- Towns picked up five fouls, which is why Saunders elected to sit him on the final possession -- he played with focus and energy, largely hanging back and doing his best to deter drivers. He made enough defensive plays for a short highlight reel, including multiple stops against the scorching Irving and a game-saving block at the end of regulation:
"This summer he talked more about defense than he did about offense to us," Saunders said. "I think he understands that, for this team to take a step, he needs to improve his defense. And he did that tonight."
The Wolves didn't make many headlines during the NBA's topsy-turvy summer, and in their first game a player on the losing team overshadowed them. Towns, however, is the rare All-NBA-caliber player who has a chance to make a real leap. He plans to earn more attention.
"I'm not out there to just be there," Towns said. "I'm out there not only to compete, but to dominate."