With Jimmy Butler sidelined, training wheels are off for Karl-Anthony Towns, Andrew Wiggins

Karl-Anthony Towns got popped in the chin so forcefully that the only option the rest of his body gave him was to hit the floor. As a kid, Towns’ mother, Jacqueline Cruz, always warned him not to reach around the stove, lest he wind up getting burned. But the inclination to put his hand where it shouldn’t be has always remained. And there was Towns, reaching on defense last week and inviting a nasty collision with Washington’s Tomas Satoransky that had him rolling in agony, wondering if his teeth were still in his mouth.

Towns eventually got back up on his feet, spit some blood and little bits of his teeth into a cup and was ready to get back on the court. Minnesota Timberwolves coach Tom Thibodeau was concerned his All-Star big man might’ve sustained a concussion but Towns calmed any uneasiness with a question.

“Do I still look pretty?” Towns asked Thibodeau with a chipped-tooth grin, providing a much-needed moment of levity for a team that could understandably be on edge right now.

No NBA franchise has experienced a playoff drought longer than the Timberwolves, who haven’t had their season extend beyond 82 games since 2004. Few Western Conference playoff races have been so intense that every game has to be approached with postseason intensity. And, with All-Star forward Jimmy Butler out indefinitely while rehabbing mostly in Los Angeles from a meniscus injury, Minnesota is being asked to navigate its way through what Towns has described as “a swamp” by leaning on two youngsters who are playing meaningful professional basketball for the first time.

Towns and fellow former No. 1 overall pick and Rookie of the Year Andrew Wiggins both specialized in padding meaningless stats on bad teams before the expectations and demands changed this season. The arrival of Butler in a draft-night trade and Thibodeau’s investment in a more veteran supporting cast meant that it was time to turn promise into productivity and toss the excuses into the wastebasket. Butler brought his blunt, take-it-or-leave-it leadership style from Chicago and used his familiarity with Thibodeau to lift Towns and Wiggins out of the pressure-free stages of their careers. But Butler’s unfortunate setback in the first game after the All-Star break removed those trusty training wheels.

The time is now for Andrew Wiggins and Karl-Anthony Towns. (Getty)
The time is now for Andrew Wiggins and Karl-Anthony Towns. (Getty)

“You don’t want to see anyone get injured, certainly not Jimmy, and we know we can’t replace him individually. We have to do it collectively,” Thibodeau told Yahoo Sports. “But whenever someone goes out, it’s an opportunity for others to step up and grow. So we want to take advantage of this … and really, the only way you can learn is to go through it.”

Towns returned from the chin music in Washington to inspire his teammates with a season-high 37 points and the two decisive plays in a 116-111 victory — drilling a 3-pointer from the left corner just before the shot clock expired and running out to the 3-point line to force Bradley Beal into a turnover. In the previous game against the Stephen Curry-less Golden State Warriors, Towns scored on five consecutive possessions to help the Timberwolves pull away for good. Though he wasn’t often placed in those situations with Butler around, Towns isn’t intimidated by the moment.

“It’s normal. I feel comfortable being in this position and I have great teammates. It makes everything a lot easier to do,” Towns told Yahoo Sports about his role as a leader. “Just trying to fill in some voids. Having a bigger role to play now, having to do a lot more. I go with how the situation is playing out. Sometimes, you do it by voice. Sometimes, you do it by action. You don’t have to always be ‘rah-rah’ about it.”

Wiggins was probably better positioned to emerge with Butler out because both play on the perimeter with the ball in their hands more. The Timberwolves didn’t start to take off until Butler took more command of the team, building a dark-horse MVP argument. But his success came at the expense of Wiggins’ involvement and forced him to make a difficult adjustment as the team’s third option most nights. Wiggins now gets more touches but hasn’t gotten greedy in Butler’s absence.

While Wiggins’ scoring average has seen a slight uptick, the Timberwolves continue to wait for those late-game takeovers they probably expected when he agreed to a $146.5 million extension last October. From the time he reached the NBA, Wiggins has heard criticism about his lack of passion but has never responded by forcing things. For the Timberwolves to truly ascend into elite status, Wiggins will have to prove to be a special, transformative talent but the clock is ticking on that sort of progression. Wiggins continues to go at his own pace, leaving that slow-burning fire inside and unmoved by outside criticism.

“I don’t really care much with people’s opinions. I just play. I don’t really talk or listen to the outside. I kind of have a close circle I listen to, and that’s it. Anything else, I don’t even,” Wiggins told Yahoo Sports. “Jimmy’s not a guy that can really be replaced by one person. It’s on the whole team to do that. I’ve got to be more aggressive. The ball is in my hands more, so I have to make good decisions. Some games, my shot may not be falling, I may have a bad game but I always feel good, always feel confident.”

At 22 and 23, respectively, Towns and Wiggins are two of the youngest leading men for a team in playoff contention. Their inexperience has led to some inconsistent performances. Minnesota followed up those wins against the Warriors and Wizards with losses to San Antonio on Saturday and Houston on Sunday that nullified any short-lived progress in the standings.

The patience that might be reserved for the development of Towns and Wiggins doesn’t negate the immense pressure. Derrick Rose, a recent free-agent pickup reuniting with Thibodeau, became the league’s youngest MVP at age 22 and can relate to the challenge.

“Hell yeah, you’re going to feel that [pressure], no matter what, no matter where you are, no matter what’s going on with the team … it’s no excuses. No crying about it. Nobody is going to feel sorry for you or nothing like that,” Rose told Yahoo Sports.

Taj Gibson, another ex-Bull brought along to help mold the team in Thibodeau’s image, played alongside Rose when the guard led Chicago to the league’s best regular-season record and the conference finals in 2011. “Derrick was a dog right away. He just wanted it,” Gibson told Yahoo Sports, adding that Towns and Wiggins are starting to understand what’s required of them in this intense playoff race. When the Timberwolves lost back-to-back games to Portland and Utah in the first week of March, Gibson said he noticed a shift in focus from Towns and Wiggins — a recognition that they can’t be “buddy-buddy” with their opponents — and one that he hopes remains through the rest of the season.

Andrew Wiggins is still working to find his place in the league. (AP)
Andrew Wiggins is still working to find his place in the league. (AP)

“You can see it now, KAT and them, they want it. But the winning side, too. Not just about their numbers. Last year, mostly, we heard stories about guys wanting their numbers, cool with losing. And we’re not cool with that,” Gibson told Yahoo Sports. “When you win and do well, you understand, you can be an All-Star, the city is calling your name. A winning atmosphere. A winning mentality. That’s what’s good for the team.”

Thibodeau knew that establishing a winning culture in Minnesota would take time, regardless of the talent on the roster. But he’s starting to see some growth in the young stars, with Towns demanding the ball in crunch time and Wiggins sacrificing shots to expend energy chasing down the opposing team’s best perimeter scorer on the defensive end.

“Andrew and Karl, their impact on winning has been far greater this year than it was last year, even though, statistically, they scored more. But they’re making winning plays. They’re playing unselfishly. They’re passing the ball against the double-team. Their defense has vastly improved. That’s what you have to do win,” Thibodeau told Yahoo Sports. “Like in any job, when a guy comes into the league, he doesn’t really know what the league is about like a guy who has been in seven or eight years. That guy knows all the tricks of the trade. He’s been through things, he has a much better understanding. Jimmy is just going into his prime and a lot of things Andrew and Karl are experiencing right now, Jimmy just went through. So, I like the makeup of our team. Just the way that those guys are growing is important for us.”

The Timberwolves would probably be in a “prettier” position if Butler were playing, rather than rehabbing and re-engaging his social media accounts to talk smack and offer praise for his teammates. But Towns continues to reach out for more, not fearing the outcome. He and Wiggins plan to take what’s in front of them, in hopes that whenever Butler returns, the franchise hasn’t squandered a chance to finally be relevant again.

“If you would’ve told me last year we’d be in this position, I’d be happy with it. So, I’m happy with where we are,” Wiggins told Yahoo Sports. “It’s a battle. If it were easy, everyone would be doing it. It’s hard but that’s what we’re for, what we asked for. It’s competition, it’s what we love. I think we’re capable of beating any team. We’ve got the talent and we’ve got the guys working hard to do it. We can beat any team.”

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