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With $32M on the line and Timberwolves needing him more than ever, Karl-Anthony Towns coming into his own

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DETROIT – Karl-Anthony Towns unknowingly walked up on Anthony Tolliver getting interviewed about Towns in the Timberwolves’ locker room.

“Hey, what’s up, man,” Tolliver said. “I’m not talking about you or nothing.”

Towns laughed. Then, as Tolliver returned to complimenting him, Towns realized Tolliver made more than a random joke.

“Wait,” Towns said. “Were you talking about me?”

Towns urged Tolliver to change topics – to Towns’ flaws, to Tolliver’s own 3-point shooting, to anything else. Towns even jokingly threatened to throw fruit at Tolliver.

This is the Towns who earlier this season resisted being labeled of one of Minnesota’s most important players. He’s prone to just trying to fit in.

But Towns has special talent. The Timberwolves need him to assert himself.

Hope of Towns co-starring with Andrew Wiggins, the reigning Rookie of Year and previous No. 1 pick when Towns got drafted No. 1, has nearly completely faded. Wiggins has stagnated (at best) since signing a max contract extension two years ago.

Jimmy Butler temporarily commandeered the scene in Minnesota. While Butler was carrying the Timberwolves to their first playoff appearance in 14 years last season, it made sense for Towns to defer. But Butler is gone, reportedly at Towns’ request (and definitely at Butler’s).

This team is now clearly Towns’ and Towns’ alone. He might finally be embracing it.

“There’s a lot on my shoulders, but good thing I’ve got broad shoulders,” Towns said.

In six games since a car crash he said could have killed him, Towns is averaging 34 points, 14 rebounds and four assists per game. Even for someone who has already established himself as a star, Towns might be turning the corner into superstardom.

The timing could be lucrative.

If Towns makes an All-NBA team this season, his upcoming extension will project to be worth $190 million over the next five years. If he misses the All-NBA teams and super-max eligibility, the extension projects to be worth $158 million – $32 million less.

Will Towns get one of three All-NBA center spots?

He appears to be in a six-man race with the Nuggets’ Nikola Jokic, Pelicans’ Anthony Davis, 76ers’ Joel Embiid, Jazz’s Rudy Gobert and Magic’s Nikola Vucevic. Here’s how they compare in points, rebounds assists, blocks and steals per game and PER, win shares and real plus-minus:

Player PPG RPG APG BPG SPG PER WS RPM
Nikola Jokic 20.5 10.8 7.7 0.6 1.4 26.9 9.9 6.5
Anthony Davis 26.8 12.3 4.0 2.5 1.6 30.5 9.4 6.1
Joel Embiid 27.3 13.5 3.5 1.9 0.6 25.4 7.2 4.3
Rudy Gobert 15.5 12.9 2.1 2.2 0.8 24.3 11.0 4.6
Karl-Anthony Towns 24.2 12.2 3.3 1.7 0.9 26.6 9.2 4.3
Nikola Vucevic 20.6 12.0 3.9 1.2 1.0 26.0 8.3 5.5

Towns will have a tough time catching Jokic, who will get onto many MVP ballots.

Davis has already missed 16 games and will receive only limited minutes the rest of the season. The negative effects of his trade request on New Orleans should count against him. But his incredible production while on the court should also matter.

Embiid has missed 11 games and counting. How quickly and how well he returns from his knee injury will swing his candidacy.

Gobert wasn’t even an All-Star, but that was determined by Western Conference coaches, not the media who’ll pick All-NBA. Gobert’s All-Star snub generated a lot of publicity that might even help his All-NBA case. Defensive-minded players like him also tend to fare better with All-NBA than All-Star, because voters are also considering Defensive Player of the Year at the end of the season. Gobert is a leading candidate for that award.

Vucevic is in his first season playing on this level. If nothing else, there will be no voter fatigue with him.

Other players like LaMarcus Aldridge, Brook Lopez, Al Horford and Andre Drummond could also get All-NBA votes. In a close race, those could determine who actually lands on the All-NBA teams.

At minimum, Towns’ All-NBA window is open.

Towns earning the pay bump would further squeeze a team with at least a couple players on undesirable contracts – Wiggins (four years, $122,242,800 remaining), Gorgui Dieng (two years, $33,516,853 remaining) and arguably Jeff Teague (one year, $19 million player option remaining). But Towns playing well down the stretch would carry its own value.

“Karl deserves to be an All-NBA player,” Timberwolves interim coach Ryan Saunders said.

By traditional big-man standards, Towns – averaging 24 points and 12 rebounds per game – looks like a lock. But he knows better.

In the previous 40 years, 25 players averaged 24-12 (minimum: 50 games). Only one didn’t make an All-NBA team – Towns in 2017.

In a system that awards five points for a first-team vote, three points for a second-team vote and one point for a third-team vote, Towns landed just four voting points behind DeAndre Jordan for third-team center. If Towns had made All-NBA that season, he would have already clinched super-max eligibility. Nothing would have been on the line this season.

Towns said he thought he’d make All-NBA in 2017.

“It was a learning experience,” said Towns, who declined to elaborate on what he learned.

So many learning experiences lie ahead for Towns, who’s just 23. He has looked sharper on defense – by far his biggest deficiency – and improved passing out of double-teams. But there’s so much more room to grow. A reason Minnesota is just 30-35 is Towns’ defensive shortcomings.

Still, he brings so much offensively. Towns is the only player making 70% of his shots at the rim and 40% of his 3-pointers (minimum: 100 attempts each). He makes it look easy.

“He’s so talented,” Timberwolves forward Taj Gibson said. “There’s nothing in this league, in the game of basketball, that I doubt him in.”

Towns has 44.1 career win shares. Since Towns entered the NBA in 2015, only four players – James Harden (54.9), Stephen Curry (47.3), LeBron James (46.9) and Kevin Durant (46.0) – have produced more win shares. But Towns is way younger than those four.

Here’s everyone who played in the NBA the last four seasons, sorted by age this season and win shares over the last four seasons. Harden, Curry, LeBron, Durant (who’s hiding behind Curry) and Towns are pictured:

image

Russell Westbrook recently trash-talked Towns during a game: “Get to the f—ing playoffs before you speak to me.” The diss was particularly cruel because the Timberwolves made the playoffs last year. But they got rolled by the Rockets in five games in the first round, Towns fading into the background of the series. It was quite forgettable.

There’s still plenty of time for Towns to make a bigger impact. Though further advancement might require roster upgrades around him, he has the tools to eventually lead the Timberwolves back into the playoffs and make a lasting impression.

Will he embrace that challenge and the accompanying spotlight or shirk the responsibility?

“He wants it,” Tolliver said. “And you can’t really say that about everybody. Some guys, they might say they want it, but their actions don’t say it. So, I think that he’s kind of a rare breed.”

Luka Doncic says he’ll definitely play for Slovenia in Olympic Qualifying Tournament

Luka Doncic
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Slovenia won the last EuroBasket, in 2017.

But in a stacked European region, Slovenia hasn’t even qualified for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.

Mavericks star Luka Doncic will try to change that.

Donatas Urbonas:

Slovenia got a tough draw, landing in host Lithuania’s Olympic Qualifying Tournament. Only one team from each OQT will reach the Olympics. Even Poland in the group stage will be no pushover.

But Doncic is obviously a difference-maker. Not only is he one of the world’s best players, he’s also comfortable with international style of play.

Slovenia needs him after Goran Dragic retired from the national team following the 2017 European basketball championship.

Slovenia’s first OQT game is June 24 against Angola. Dallas seems bound for a first-round loss. So, that should work. But if the Mavericks make a surprising run deep in the playoffs, Doncic could always reconsider – though he sounds quite certain now.

Giannis Antetokounmpo on playing with brothers: ‘Milwaukee, L.A., wherever – that’d be awesome’

Giannis Antetokounmpo in Bucks-Lakers
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Giannis Antetokounmpo – on the elite Bucks and nearing his super-max decision – has the NBA by the tail.

Teams are trying to impress the family-oriented superstar. Milwaukee signed his brother, Thanasis Antetokounmpo. The Lakers added another brother, Kostas Antetokounmpo. (The Knicks drafted Thanasis, but Thanasis’ tenure in New York reportedly left a sour taste in Giannis’ mouth.)

Now, Giannis – who once said he could never see himself playing for Los Angeles – is singing a slightly different tune

USA Today:

Antetokounmpo:

I think that would be amazing. Obviously, we’d spend more time together, and I’m 100 percent sure my mom would love that. But if we could team up on a team – Milwaukee, L.A., wherever – that’d be awesome.

Maybe Antetokounmpo is just paying lip service to the Lakers, because they added Kostas. But at this point, that’s progress for Los Angeles.

Considering Giannis’ agent just said “everything is open,” it seems Giannis could be planting the seeds for leaving Milwaukee. He could definitely stay. But by at least mentioning other possibilities, he’d soften the blow if he chooses to depart.

Giannis’ views on loyalty have always been more complex than people realized. Tastes change. It sounds as if Giannis isn’t quite as averse to Los Angeles as he once was.

Of course, there’s a huge difference between that and actually joining the Lakers. Giannis hasn’t suddenly transformed into a totally different person.

But this quote will keep the candle of hope burning in Los Angeles.

Report: All-Star fourth quarter featured more than 15 minutes of gameplay

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One overlooked feature of the NBA’s new All-Star game format: It seemed designed to shorten the game.

Sure, the league wanted to add an interesting wrinkle to a game that had grown stale. The exact details were tweaked to honor Kobe Bryant.

But – in the era of load management – shaving a few minutes off the exhibition game should be taken as a feature, not a bug.

This year’s game ended when a team scored 24 more points than the leading team had entering the fourth quarter. The last time a team had scored 24 or fewer in All-Star quarter: 2010, when the East scored just 23 in the fourth quarter.  In the decade since – including the first three quarters Sunday – All-Star teams averaged 24 points every seven minutes.

But Sunday’s fourth quarter took a while longer than the standard 12 minutes for LeBron James‘ team to outscore Giannis Antetokounmpo‘s team, 33-22.

Jeff Zillgitt of USA Today:

Defenses really turned up in the fourth quarter. Here’s how the teams’ shooting percentages changed from the first three quarters to the fourth quarter:

  • 2-pointers: 73% to 46%
  • 3-pointers: 34% to 23%

More shots being contested also led to more fouls. After attempting just 13 free throws in the first three quarters, the teams took 26 free throws in the fourth quarter.

In The Basketball Tournament, which first introduced the Elam Ending, the target score is eight more points than the leading team has at the first whistle inside four minutes. By turning off the game clock later, there’s less room for variance in gameplay length.

I suspect the NBA would have also turned off the clock later if not using the target score to honor Bryant. Because Bryant wore No. 24 last, the league has generally used that – not his other number, No. 8 – in tributes, including the All-Star jerseys.

With All-Star MVP now named for Bryant – a perfectly fitting lasting tribute – the league can alter the ending format next year.

The concept is sound. The exact execution just needs tweaking.

Bulls’ starting point guard Kris Dunn may be out for season with knee injury

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Bulls starting point guard Kris Dunn missed the last four games before the All-Star break with a sprained knee.

He could miss a lot more — like the rest of the season.

From K.C. Johnson of NBC Sports Chicago:

But sources said there’s a growing belief that Dunn will miss the remainder of the season with the injury, which occurred when Thaddeus Young took a charge and inadvertently crashed into Dunn’s knee on the first possession of a Jan. 31 road game against the Nets. When Dunn suffered a similar injury last season, he missed 23 games…

“Dunn still has some swelling in that knee,” coach Jim Boylen said before the Bulls lost to the Wizards on Feb. 11 in Washington, their final game before the break. “Once his swelling goes down, he will get re-scanned and re-evaluated.  But he had a lot of swelling.”

That’s less than ideal for Dunn as he heads into restricted free agency. He has averaged 7.3 points and  3.6 rebounds per game, however, his most significant contribution has been quality defense for Chicago this season.

This is the latest in a string of injuries for the Bulls. Otto Porter has only played nine games due to a broken foot. Big men Lauri Markkanen and Wendell Carter Jr. are currently sidelined due to injuries, although Carter could return after the All-Star break and Markkanen by early next month. Now Dunn.