MINNEAPOLIS — If the first three games of the season are any indication, Karl-Anthony Towns has taken a major leap forward. Averaging 32 points a game with an NBA-high 13.3 rebounds, he has shown a marked improvement in defense and passing while leading the Timberwolves to their first 3-0 start since 2013.
But waiting for Towns is a challenge that might tell us more than the first three games did.
Hello, Joel Embiid.
The 76ers’ star big man has gotten the best of Towns early in this young rivalry, and they meet again Wednesday, Oct. 30, at Wells Fargo Center in Philadelphia. In five meetings, Towns has walked away with one win, and that came in Embiid’s eighth NBA game.
It was Embiid’s first active season after sitting out two years because of foot issues. He was only playing one game of back-to-backs at the time, and purposely sat out a home game against Washington so he could go head-to-head against Towns the next night.
The two transcendent big men like to go at one another, on and off the court. After the 76ers beat Minnesota at Target Center in December 2017, Embiid posted an Instagram photo of himself scoring on Towns with the caption, “Euro stepping our way through Minnesota and we ended up raising the cat last night.”
At the time, a Philadelphia social media campaign encouraged fans to post of themselves lifting up cats after victories, but it was hard not to make the KAT connection.
“That caption was as trash as your photo quality,” Towns responded in the comments.
“Better quality than your defense,” Embiid said.
In the past, Embiid has brought the worst out of Minnesota’s all-star center, highlighting Towns’ defensive deficiencies and seemingly frustrating the big man into bad decisions. He was 3 for 15 from the field in a loss in Philadelphia in March 2018, then finished with just 13 points and three rebounds in a 149-107 loss at Philly. With Towns on the floor, the Wolves were outscored by 42.
Last season, Timberwolves coach Ryan Saunders would have felt compelled to have a discussion with Towns before a game like this, a reminder to play within himself and the system. Not now.
“I feel so good about where he’s at as a player, as a person, as a leader,” Saunders said. “I just feel very comfortable with it, so it’s not something I’ll address.”
It’s easy to be that positive, focused, team guy who plays with a level head when everything is going right. If things continue to go the right way Wednesday, Towns and the Timberwolves will have another giant feather in their cap — further proof they’re better than most expected.
Whatever happens, it will be interesting to watch. What happens if Philadelphia — which features a talented starting lineup and presents a massive size mismatch for Minnesota — again gets the better of the Timberwolves and Towns? Will the star big man revert to old, bad habits? Or will he keep his head and continue to be the best all-around player he can be?
Win or lose, how Towns handles Wednesday night’s game and opponent will show exactly how far he’s come in many areas. It’s a big early-season litmus test, and all anyone can do is wait for the results.
For now, he’s saying all the right things. This isn’t Karl-Anthony Towns versus Joel Embiid, he said Tuesday, it’s the Minnesota Timberwolves versus the Philadelphia 76ers.
“I know everyone wants to hype it up; that’s what sells papers. But I ain’t in the business of making y’all money,” Towns said. “I’m in the business of getting Ws, that’s what I am. I’m going out there trying to find a way to get a team win, and we’ve got to play together if we want to beat a good team in Philly.”