NEW YORK — There might not have been a promise in place, but there's no longer any question that Flip Saunders sees immense, franchise-changing promise in the 6-foot-11-inch, 250-pound frame of Karl-Anthony Towns. The Minnesota Timberwolves head coach and president of basketball operations removed any lingering doubt on Thursday night, selecting the former University of Kentucky big man with the No. 1 overall pick in the 2015 NBA draft at Barclays Center in Brooklyn.
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"For me, I'm just blessed to be in this opportunity to just show that a boy from Piscataway, N.J., and the Dominican Republic can make it," Towns said during his post-selection press conference. "I'm blessed to be in this situation, to be in this seat talking to all of you. It just means the world that I'm going to be able to show kids around the world that with a little hard work, determination, a little bit of luck and some guidance, you can really make it far in this world."
To be fair, there wasn't very much lingering doubt about Towns. The 19-year-old had long been considered one of the top prospects in the class of 2015. He averaged 10.3 points, 6.7 rebounds, 2.3 blocks and 1.1 assists in 21.1 minutes per game at Kentucky, playing comparatively limited minutes for an insanely deep squad that won its first 38 games before falling to Wisconsin in the Final Four.
Even while surrounded by stars in Lexington, Towns stood out as something special in the making, earning a slew of honors during his lone collegiate season — SEC Freshman of the Year, an All-SEC First Team nod, an All-American Second Team selection — and joining the likes of Duke center Jahlil Okafor and Ohio State guard D'Angelo Russell in the running for the No. 1 spot. As the pre-draft process progressed, though, Towns separated himself from even his future-star peers.
Talent evaluators grew increasingly enamored with Towns' immediate and evident gifts on the defensive end, where he proved capable under John Calipari of stalling pick-and-rolls in space, defending the rim in the paint and cleaning the defensive glass. And as the workouts wore on, the videos kept coming, with Towns comfortably stepping out to the perimeter with a smooth touch that pairs well with the interior game he showed with the Wildcats.
Suddenly, a clearer, more expansive and far more enticing picture began to emerge. When you stepped back and took a look, you saw something that seemed an awful lot like the ideal power forward/center for the state of NBA play in 2015.
Towns topped many mock drafts even before May's draft lottery, which saw the Wolves win the No. 1 pick for the first time in franchise history, their reward for finishing a Western Conference-worst 16-66 in a down and dismal 2014-15 campaign. While Saunders was reportedly enamored of the polished low-post game of Duke's Okafor, he ultimately preferred the opportunity to pair Towns' two-way potential with that of reigning Rookie of the Year Andrew Wiggins, the No. 1 pick in last year's draft, to lead Minnesota into the future alongside playmaking point guard Ricky Rubio, electric skywalking swingman Zach LaVine and a group of young complementary pieces on a Wolves team that could soon be ready to run.
Towns steps into a high-profile frontcourt spot previously occupied by the likes of franchise legend and future Hall of Famer Kevin Garnett, who returned to Minnesota at last year's trade deadline and whose status for next season remains unclear, and former All-Star Kevin Love, whom Saunders traded to the Cleveland Cavaliers last summer in a blockbuster deal that returned Wiggins and 2013 No. 1 pick Anthony Bennett. The young fella's got some pretty big shoes to fill. It's a good thing he's got pretty big feet.
"The craziest thing about those two power forwards, I think you can see some resemblance of me in both of them," Towns recently told Yahoo Sports NBA columnist Marc J. Spears. "They've shown how effective they were in Minnesota. I'm trying to make my own stamp."
One thing's for sure — Towns won't lack for confidence as he sets about the work of giving the Twin Cities faithful a winning team to support after 10 straight sub-.500 seasons, no playoff berths since 2004 and just one trip past the opening round of the playoffs in the franchise's 26-year history.
"It doesn't matter to me where I play," Towns recently told Jon Krawczynski of The Associated Press. "It matters what you do at the place you play at. It doesn't matter how successful or how unsuccessful a team is. It can all change with one pick."
Saunders, the rest of the Timberwolves brass and fans across Minnesota are banking on Towns being that one pick.
"That's going to be the main goal of the season for me, making the playoffs," Towns said Thursday. "[...] We're going to work real hard right now in the summer, get everything straight, and we're going to make sure that we go into the season with the best possible team, with the best mindset, and go out there and try to win and make it to the playoffs."
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