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:

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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.”