Not all No. 1 NBA draft picks are sure things. Just ask the Cleveland Cavaliers about Anthony Bennett, or the New York Knicks about Andrea Bargnani. And even the sure things don't always work out; Greg Oden was a generational talent until injuries derailed his Portland Trail Blazers career.
But when the Minnesota Timberwolves selected Kentucky's Karl-Anthony Towns two years ago on the heels of his nearly undefeated college season, the Wolves got a hands-down, no-doubt sure thing. And so far it's paid off handsomely, with the 21-year-old big man quickly developing into one of the brightest young stars in the NBA.
I recently sat down with Towns after he was filming a Gatorade television commercial at the Timberwolves' practice facility. He was thoughtful, honest and charming, and provided a brief look into the life of a young man who three years ago was coming into college ranked behind players like Kansas' Cliff Alexander and UNC's Justin Jackson in national recruiting rankings. As the NBA holds its annual draft lottery Tuesday night, Towns offers a glimpse of what happens when everything works out perfectly for an NBA team: The ping-pong ball falls in the team's favor, the sure-thing No. 1 pick walks across the stage and shakes the NBA commissioner's hand, and the prospect turns into exactly the NBA player that scouts had dreamed of.
Q. Just a moment ago, you saw your face on a Gatorade bottle for the first time. That's gotta be quite the feeling.
A. It's amazing. I'm used to going to the park and drinking Gatorade all the time, and now for the next generation of kids to be going to the park and grabbing a Gatorade with my face on it -- it's mind-boggling to think how far a kid from Piscataway [N.J.] has come. … Years and years ago, just dreaming of becoming a Gatorade athlete and now being a Gatorade athlete, it's amazing how far I've come. I definitely have some pinch-me moments. But I always think about the little things like where I came from, how far I've come in my career and how blessed I've been to get to this point.
Q. Everyone talks about how the NBA has gone small: Steph's Warriors, LeBron's Heat and now Cavs. But with DeMarcus Cousins and Anthony Davis playing together now – and with you kicking some butt up here – plenty of focus is shifting to bigs. What's the future of the big man in the NBA?
A. It's something that's going being revitalized, the importance of it for a team. It's going to be different. More versatile bigs. We're going to be able to do a lot more than we've ever been able to do, and that's a testament to the growth of the game. Us adapting with the game, us finding ways to benefit our teams better. I don't necessarily view myself as a big -- I view myself just as a player, someone who can go out there and contribute to the team from any position. I've worked tremendously hard to get to the point where I could be as versatile as possible to be able to help my team in a lot more areas.
Q. I remember watching you at a Kentucky practice before the Bahamas trip. Cal was tough on you -- tough on you, man.
A. Oh yeah!
Q. I know you only spent eight months [at Kentucky], but how did those eight months change you as a person and as a player?
A. It made me a smarter player when you go though a journey like that and it's at the University of Kentucky. It's different. It's something that can't be talked about. It's something that has to be witnessed and experienced. It's amazing, the things you learn, the experiences you go through, the feeling of being like a rock star that goes with being a University of Kentucky basketball player. Just the ability to feel fame for the first time – that's something Kentucky gives you.
Q. What do people on the outside misunderstand about Cal?
A. I think they think he's more of a person who is looking out for himself when he's not that at all. He's probably one of the few coaches in the whole entire game that is all about his players more than he is about himself or even the institution. He looks at us as his sons. And he puts us first before everything. He's tremendously loyal, tremendously supportive of his players -- his past players the same as his present players. He treats all of us the exact same way. Just the respect.
Q. I interviewed Cal recently, and it was an interview that got a lot of people talking because I asked him about what his all-Kentucky Calipari starting five should be.
A. I've heard what Cal said his starting five was. I've been texted about it a billion times. I've been told a billion times already that I was on that list. That's a huge honor, only in my second year in the league, for me and [Devin Booker] to be mentioned in that kind of elite group, but it's only the beginning for us. We're only in our second year. We have so much more room to grow and get better. It's going to be fun when the whole toolbox is out. … There's not another school that could boast about saying that you make a starting five and I guarantee you beat almost anyone else in the NBA. You can pick your favorite five people from Kentucky, I'm pretty sure it can be someone else's favorite five people from another school. That's just a testament to what Cal has brought to the table and the expectations Kentucky holds and his ability to grow players. I don't know who my starting five would be. I know it'll be four other players, but I'm gonna be one of them.
Q. You got a new coach [with the Timberwolves] who's pretty well respected. How has Thibs changed your life and this organization?
A. Just having a guy who has such great experience with winning, it helps a lot because he knows what it takes to win. He's helped us tremendously learn different ways to win, scratch out wins. We are tremendously privileged to have Thibs as our coach, and I can't wait to see what the future in Minnesota is going to bring.
Q. Who's tougher on you, Thibs or Cal?
A. Haha. Ahhhh … I'ma say Cal. Cal was very hard on me. Thibs is hard on me, but Cal was otherworldly hard on me. It was definitely something I enjoyed, funny enough. I was always able to take the criticism. I was always able to talk to him. They both have love for me.
Q. So who is the best big in NBA history?
A. Man. I don't know. I think what Shaq has done is absolutely absurd, what the league has never seen before. I think Kareem, what he was able to do in the league was otherworldly. Obviously for me I always put Bill Russell up there, because he has the most rings. I want rings. That's most important to me. I count championships to mean a lot. I don't know, though. There's so many bigs who've blessed this game with their presence. I'm just hoping at the end of my career I can say the same thing.
Q. Who do you emulate -- take parts of his game to make them your own?
A. I've watched a lot of people. Tim Duncan. Kevin Garnett. Hakeem Olajuwon. Sam Perkins. Len Bias. I've watched a lot of people play. But I'm still finding different ways I can score and make the game easier on myself. I know we're talking bigs, but I'm also a huge, huge fan of Chris Mullin, his efficiency, his smoothness, his ability to score. He's so smooth with everything, very efficient, and that's a key I like to have in my game. Doesn't miss many shots. And if I'm correct he leads the NBA all-time in field-goal percentage. Don't waste any possessions. Any shots you take, don't waste them. Make them all. I just love the way he played. It was so team-oriented. Not to miss -- that's a great way to help the team out.
Q. Who's the toughest guy to go up against?
A. I respect a lot of guys. DeMarcus Cousins, Anthony Davis, they're some of the best bigs in the league. Playing them was always a lot of fun. Marc Gasol, he's one of the hardest people to guard. His ability to pass, shoot and his size is something that can be a benefit to him a lot. Those three guys, all tremendous players. But there's a lot more tremendous players as well. This league is filled with the best of the best. Every night you gotta bring your best.
Q. What's the biggest moment of the past two years since draft night, when you're like, "Holy [crap), I'm here, I made it"?
A. I had one. It was just simple. It was nothing crazy. Didn't meet anybody famous. Didn't do anything crazy. One day I just walked into work, getting ready to play the Memphis Grizzlies last year. I looked at my jersey and for some reason it just clicked. This wasn't five games in. This wasn't 10 games in. This was like 60 games into my rookie year, and I finally realized, 'Hey, I'm in the NBA!' It was amazing, just looking at my jersey for 15 minutes, just realizing every little detail, every little thread on that jersey. Realizing my number is there. How it was sewn. How it was made. It was a moment. I truly realized how fortunate I was. I always try to take time to realize how fortunate I am to be in the NBA, but that was a moment when I felt like, 'Wow--– I'm really in the NBA.' Felt like I was the rookie who was happy to put a jersey on for the first time.
Q. You're a success story of the one-and-done rule. But there are plenty of people that it hasn't worked out for. What's the best solution out there?
A. I don't know. That's based on the person and the situation. I just felt like the best thing for me and my family was for me to enter the draft after my first year in college. I'm just glad we made the right decision as a family unit. I don't know. I don't make the rules, nor do I know the situation of each player. … For me I just grew as a player, got some experience at the highest level. Understood what life is gonna be like as an NBA player. Just understand everything, from how to play on the biggest of stages night in and night out and how to deal with different circumstances. I learned a lot. But it's all up to the situation of the individual player.
Q. Best slam dunk of all time?
A. By me?
Q. Nah, man. By someone else.
A. Man. From my memory, the one that still has me going crazy -- well, there's two. There was Shawn Kemp, when he dunked and then pointed at the guy. And there was the most notorious of all, Vince Carter jumping over the seven-footer. Olympics. That was absolutely absurd.
Q. What's the No. 1 piece of clothing in your rotation right now?
A. I'm wearing a lot of jackets. Bomber jackets. Old-school sports jackets. I'm a big jacket guy. That revolves around my personality a little bit. And it's Minnesota culture. I love Minnesota. The cold is fine with me, being from New Jersey. I'm just happy it's less wind. I'd rather have more cold than more wind.
Q. What's the most-played album in your rotation these days?
A. I've been listening a lot to -- hmmm…I'll say The Game, Jesus Piece. It's old [released in 2012]. It's older. Favorite all time? I love music so much. I don't know if I could do that. I don't know. I can't pick one. So many great albums.
Q. After you got the big contract, what was the coolest thing you really wanted to buy for yourself?
A. I was really pumped to pay my parents' house off. I paid the house off. I just came back from there [over the All-Star Break] -- a lot of fun to go back home. That was it, man. When I was fortunate enough to financially be on a better standpoint, I never really wanted anything. I just wanted to take care of my parents. Make sure their house was paid off, their bills were paid for, their cars were paid off. That was it. I didn't buy myself anything. I think the only thing I bought myself was … what was it? It was something so small, and I was so excited.
I didn't have a car when I first moved to Minnesota. I didn't have a car until, like, January. The only thing I bought myself was … man, I didn't do anything! I literally didn't do anything. I think the first time I spent a little bit of money, I bought a TV. But that was because I just moved in! And when I first moved in, I didn't even have bedframes and stuff. My dad was like, 'What are you doing?' And I'm like, 'Oh, I'm just sleeping on the mattress.' And he said, 'You're not supposed to do that.' I was like, 'Oh. OK.' But I really don't remember the first thing I bought. I think it was a TV. I really, really didn't want anything.
Q. Not even, like, a sports car or something?
A. I didn't have a car! I didn't need a car! I was walking every day. To practice. I was walking to games.
Q. Lotta double-takes?
A. They thought I was just some tall guy. I was walking around just like normal. People didn't know who I was. And I was just like, 'Cool.' I do that still nowadays. We were playing the Golden State Warriors. We had just got there. My girlfriend's out there. I'm like, 'Hey, I want some candy. I'm going to go get some candy.' And she's like, 'What do you mean?' I'm like, 'There's a Walgreen's right there. I'm going to walk outside the front, I'ma go get some candy and I'm gonna come right back.' She's like, 'You can't do that!' And I'm like, 'Why I can't?' And I walked outside and everyone's like, 'Karl! Karl!' I'm like, 'Oh. That's why she said that.' I forget it all the time. I just walk outside and go get something. And she tells me, 'You can't just do that.'