Seven-feet high and rising: Where does Karl-Anthony Towns go from here?

Brace Hemmelgarn-USA TODAY Sports   Brad Rempel-USA TODAY Sports
Brace Hemmelgarn-USA TODAY Sports Brad Rempel-USA TODAY Sports /

With King James abdicating the communal throne on behalf of the City of Cleveland this summer, a new “most-tortured sports city” must be named, and who better to assume the mantle than the twin cities of Minneapolis and Saint Paul? After all, Minnesota’s Twins have mustered just three playoff victories in the quarter-century since winning the World Series, the Wild have yet to reach a Stanley Cup Final in franchise history, and the Vikings have lost each of their four Super Bowl appearances.

And the Timberwolves? Well, since the NBA returned to Minnesota in 1989, the Timberwolves have made it beyond the first round of the playoffs exactly once. Once, in 28 seasons! To put that in perspective, in the summer of 1989, while the franchise’s first draft pick, Pooh Richardson, was preparing for the Wolves’ inaugural 22-60 season in a Minnesota gym, the soundtrack to his workout might have been De La Soul’s debut record, 3 Feet High and Rising, the No. 1 hip-hop album at the time.

That same humid summer, somewhere in South Carolina, a smiling, colorfully-dressed, 13-year-old Kevin Garnett, was probably doing the Running Man in front of a mirror, rapping to himself:

“Mirror mirror on the wall
Tell me mirror, what is wrong?
Can it be my De La Clothes
Or is it just my De La Soul?”
-De La Soul, Me, Myself, and I

The Kid would later grow up to become the most beloved basketball player in Minnesota (with all due respect to the original Minnesota superstar, George Mikan), despite never leading the Wolves out of the hinterland of NBA mediocrity.

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In Piscataway, NJ, meanwhile, Prince Paul’s samples blasted from boom boxes as the Twin Cities’ next hero, and Garnett’s current protege, flashed as a glint in his father’s eye.

There has been a lot of losing in Minnesota since 1989, but, finally, Minneapolites… Saint Paulers… Minnesotans everywhere, really, have a reason to be optimistic and that reason is Karl. Anthony. Towns. Towns had a hugely impressive rookie campaign with the Wolves last year and he appears poised to join the superstar class of the NBA this season. What might the future hold for Towns and the Wolves? Will he be the MVP someday? Will he eventually help the Wolves win their first championship?

To find out, we’ll examine how other players of his ilk have fared in the NBA after having outstanding rookie seasons and, as a wink to the history of the Wolves, we’ll do it all in the spirit of the summer of 1989.

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The Magic Number

That’s the Magic Number.
Yes it is.
It’s the magic number.”
-De La Soul, The Magic Number

It’s true, it is. A Value Over Replacement Player (VORP) mark of 3.0, to be specific, is a magic number. Prior to last year and since 1979-80, only two dozen rookies achieved that magical cutoff for VORP, including some decently-big names from NBA lore such as Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, Tim Duncan, Hakeem Olajuwon, Shaquille O’Neal, Charles Barkley, and David Robinson, as well as some active NBA stars like LeBron James, Chris Paul, Pau Gasol, and, most recently, Blake Griffin.

In the last five years, though, when it comes to being a rookie with 3+ VORP, it’s just he, himself, and him (Karl, Anthony, and Towns, that is).

“But when it comes to being De La
It’s just me myself and I”
-De La Soul, Me, Myself, and I

Last season, Towns became the 25th member of this illustrious group by racking up a VORP score of 3.1 in his debut season. How big of a deal is that? Well, let’s take a look at the collective achievements of the full group of 25 players (including KAT) who posted 3+ VORP as a rookie as compared to the collective achievements of the other 2,504 players who have been NBA rookies since 1979-80:

Career achievements of players who had a VORP score of 3+ during their debut seasons versus players who contributed less as a rookie, starting in 1979-80.

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In the chart, each hand hoisting the No. 1 finger represents ten 1st-Team All-NBA selections, each Maurice Podoloff Trophy represents one MVP Award, each Larry O’Brien Trophy represents one player who led his team to a championship (i.e., a VORP leader on a championship team), and each orange blazer represents one Hall of Fame inductee. So, all together, the 25 rookies in the top 1 percent of VORP (3+) collected 78 1st-Team nods, 21 MVPs, 26 championships, and 8 Hall of Fame busts; more or less matching the production from the remaining 2,504 rookies, who garnered 107 1st-Team selections, 16 MVPs, 11 championships, and 22 Hall of Fame inductions.

Towns joined a group of players who had historically great rookie campaigns and this group of players has accomplished a lot in the NBA. But, does that necessarily mean that Towns will also be successful? We can get a better sense for some possible trajectories that Towns’ career might follow, if we look at the individual arcs of some of his predecessors’ careers. Here’s a quick summary:

Career trajectories of 24 players who had 3+ VORP as rookies, starting in 1979-80.

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Note: VORP scores for 1999 (50 g) and 2012 (66 g) are prorated to a full 82-game season.

In the chart above, each dot represents the player’s VORP score for each year of his career. The dots are plotted relative to the player’s VORP score as a rookie, such that the first dot from the left is always on the horizontal axis and a straight line of dots along the horizontal axis would indicate no change in VORP over the course of his career. Solid gold dots represent a season where the player led his team to the championship (as the VORP leader) and gold rings represent a season where the player contributed to the championship, but not as the VORP leader.

Below, I go row-by-row to provide some more detail about each group of potential trajectories.

Seven-feet tall and rising

It certainly feels like Karl-Anthony’s stock is on the rise and there’s no particular reason to temper the expectations for the 7-footer at this early stage of his career. So, let’s start off by shooting for the moon with some truly staggering historical comparisons…

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Note: VORP scores for 1999 (50 g) and 2012 (66 g) are prorated to a full 82-game season.

You’ll notice that each of these legends had a much higher rookie VORP score than Towns — VORP of more than 5.0 for all four players. Indeed, during their respective rookie years, all four were All-Stars and everybody but Magic was on an All-NBA Team, too. For each player, his immediate dominance of the league meant that he was ready to contribute to a championship effort very early in his career — Magic won the title during his rookie season (1980, shown above as a gold ring because Magic was the second-biggest VORP contributor on the Lakers after his teammate, Kareem Abdul Jabbar), his contemporary Bird was a champion the following season as a second-year star in Boston (1981, shown above as a gold circle to indicate that Bird was the leading VORP contributor on the Celtics), and Duncan won it all in his second year, too (1999).

Compared to these once-a-decade type NBA icons, Towns had a less outlandish rookie year. As such, we might tentatively set his ceiling at: not likely to be a top-5 player of all time.

The next group of historical comps is perhaps the most tantalizing for Minnesota fans: a group of four Hall of Fame-worthy centers who each developed substantially after his rookie year and eventually won multiple championships.

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Note: VORP scores for 1999 (50 g) and 2012 (66 g) are prorated to a full 82-game season.

As noted on the graphs, each of these four peaked long after their rookie seasons. Hakeem had a maximum VORP of 8.5 in his ninth year when he was 30 years-old, and he won the first of two consecutive championships the following year. Shaq had a maximum VORP of 9.3 in his eighth year when he was 27 years-old, and he won the first of three consecutive championships that same year. Robinson reached a maximum VORP of 10.6 in his fifth year when he was 28 years-old and he won his first of two championships five years later. Gasol reached a maximum VORP of 5.6 in his eighth year when he was 30 years-old, the year after winning his second of two championships.

Similarly the Wolves would love to have Towns blossom over the next decade or so, as his supporting cast grows up around him.

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Note: VORP scores for 1999 (50 g) and 2012 (66 g) are prorated to a full 82-game season.

Here’s another encouraging group of comps for Towns and the Wolves. King James and Sir Charles, NBA royalty both, posted essentially the same VORP score as Towns as rookies. Both took huge strides in subsequent seasons, adding another 8.5 and 6.0 additional VORP at their respective peaks. CP3 actually got off to a faster start in the NBA than the wunderkind, LeBron, but he too made a huge improvement before injuring his knee during his fifth season.

“But clear your court cause this is a one-man sport”
-De La Soul, Eye Know

Besides offering a tantalizing vision of how a solid rookie might develop into an All-NBA 1st-Teamer, the career arcs of James, Barkley, and Paul demonstrate how basketball is NOT a one-man sport. During their peaks, none of LeBron (in Cleveland, the first time), Barkley (in Philadelphia), or Paul (in New Orleans) were able to cash in on a championship ring. Even great players like these need to find the perfect team context before they can win it all and for some great players, not even that is enough. Even if Towns can continue to improve over the next few years, his talents alone will not guarantee the Wolves a title run.

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Note: VORP scores for 1999 (50 g) and 2012 (66 g) are prorated to a full 82-game season.

Each of these players had a strong initial showing in the league, all with a rookie VORP score in the neighborhood of 4.0 and each earning the honor of NBA Rookie of the Year. Still, none of them made large improvements over the course of their career, in fact, Jackson was never even able to recapture his rookie form. In the end, this group earned only one 1st-Team All NBA nod and no rings. Of course, Griffin’s membership in this group is only provisional as his game is still slowly evolving and he may have room for growth, yet.

Wolves fans, no doubt, are hoping for more than the status quo from Towns during the coming seasons. But, if one of Minnesota’s other young players can emerge as the team’s leader — Kris Dunn, maybe? — having a Chris Webber-level version of Towns as the second banana could still be good enough to win a championship some day.

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Note: VORP scores for 1999 (50 g) and 2012 (66 g) are prorated to a full 82-game season.

“Dante is a scrub”
-De La Soul, Can U Keep a Secret?

It’s not at all fair to imply that these guys were scrubs, they weren’t. It’s a particularly disingenuous characterization for Sabonis, since he came to the NBA as a 31-year-old rookie already past his prime. In reality these guys were solid contributors on very good teams for many years — Harper and Battier helping to win multiple championships. But, you get the idea; relative to the rest of the group, these guys started off with the lowest VORP scores and their individual contributions didn’t grow much over time. None of them ever wore shorts to an NBA All-Star game. All of them were best suited as role players.

But it’s a lot more fun to call somebody a scrub than a role player, right?

“Dante is a scrub
Dante is a scrub (scrub)
Dante is a scrub (is a big scrub)
Dante is a scrub (a super scrub) (scrub)”
-De La Soul, Can U Keep a Secret

Just based on his size, his age, and his potential for continued improvement, it seems very unlikely that Towns will end up being a role player and/or scrub. As long as he stays healthy, I don’t see his career trajectory being this flat.

Of course, there are no guarantees and — even in this elite group of rookies — some careers did end in disappointment.

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Note: VORP scores for 1999 (50 g) and 2012 (66 g) are prorated to a full 82-game season.

“Now life in this world can be such a b-tch,
And dreams are often torn and shattered and hard to stitch.”
-De La Soul, Ghetto Thang

The poster child for NBA shattered dreams may just be Penny Hardaway. After being drafted third overall in 1993 by Orlando, Penny teamed up with Shaq and the pair had immediate success. They reached the NBA Finals in Penny’s second year and the 6-7 point guard was named to the NBA’s First Team. Penny earned two more All-NBA honors the next two seasons before having his career sidetracked by two devastating knee injuries.

Sam Bowie will forever be remembered as the punchline to the trivia question: who was drafted before Michael Jordan? But, the No. 2 draft pick actually got off to his own great start in the league — being named to the All-Rookie team in 1985. The fact that he broke his leg in each of the next three seasons — once while warming up for a preseason game — was just sad.

Terry Cummings and Steve Francis were two more high draft picks (both No. 2 overall) who were voted Rookie of the Year and multiple-time All-Stars, before their careers fizzled without the achievement of the ultimate team success. For the benefit of all the tortured Minnesotans out there, hopefully Towns will be able to avoid a similar fate, maneuver around any potential potholes in his lawn, and stay healthy and productive for a very long time.

To summarize, of the two dozen potential historical comparisons for KAT after his impressive rookie year:

  • Nine eventually led their team to an NBA championship:Jordan, Magic, Bird, Duncan, Hakeem, Shaq, Robinson, Gasol, LeBron.
  • Seven were somewhere between really good and great but with no rings to show for it: Barkley, Paul, Kirilenko, Webber, Johnson, Jackson, Griffin.
  • Four were solid but not spectacular role players on winning teams: Harper, Battier, Kittles, Sabonis.
  • Four were disappointments: Penny, Francis, Cummings, Bowie.

For a Minnesota fanbase in need of a new hero, that sounds like pretty good odds of achieving individual and team success.

Say no go

The Wolves, of course, recognize what they have in their former first round draft pick — a possible franchise cornerstone — and they will do their damnedest to keep him from leaving the Twin Cities, like his predecessor, KG, did before.

“You’ll stay with me
I Know this
But not because of all my Earthly treasures
Or regardless to the fact that I’m Posdnuos
But because
I know I love you better”
-De La Soul, Eye Know

I mean, I hope that “because I love you better” won’t be GM Scott Layden’s pitch to Towns when it comes time to convince him to stick around. Towns, for his part, has already made a public pledge to stay in Minnesota for his entire career. So, I guess it could work. But, I think the Wolves should definitely offer some earthly treasures, too.

“Now you don’t have to worry about me squashin’ other deals
Cause they’ve already been squooshed”
-De La Soul, Eye Know

Now we’re getting somewhere! The Wolves will be in position to offer Towns more money than any other team — either using their Bird Rights in free agency after his fourth season or beforehand via a contract extension. If the Wolves do what they should — offer Towns a max contract — they will be comfortable in knowing that all other deals have been squooshed, at least monetarily.

But, if I were Towns, more than money, I would definitely want to be convinced that the Minnesota front office has the wherewithal to build a championship-level roster around me — something they were never able to do for KG.

“If there’s no one here to help, and no one to get involved
Always look to the positive and never drop your head
For the water will engulf us if we do not dare to tread
So let’s tread water”
-De La Soul, Tread Water

See, I’m not sure treading water will be a sufficiently aggressive roster-construction strategy for the Wolves. Last year, Minnesota made the second fewest three-pointers in the league. None of their young nucleus are particularly effective shooters from long range: Andrew Wiggins (30.4 percent), Ricky Rubio (31.8 percent), Kris Dunn (35.4 percent, college), and Zach LaVine (37.3 percent) all struggle to some degree in this respect. The Wolves might need to shake things up a bit — perhaps finding somebody who can shoot — to prove to Towns that they’re serious about building a champion.
“Levels we’ve set will never go down
Competitions commence the step down”
-De La Soul, Change in Speak

This is an interesting counterargument in favor of roster continuity. As the rest of the league’s best teams — the Cavaliers, the Spurs, the Clippers, and, eventually, even the Warriors — age out, the Wolves’ young pups will be turning into a pack of full-grown alphas. Perhaps Minnesota should just trust in their player development and wait for the competitions to commence the step down. But will Towns have the patience to take the long view if the Timberwolves opt for roster continuity?

You like the way I vocalize,
And bring it to a compromise.”
-De La Soul, D.A.I.S.Y. Age

The Wolves will be hoping that KAT likes the way they vocalize while discussing contracts over the next few years. They will be desperate to keep him in the Twin Cities for the long term.


Since Towns’ predecessor, KG, left Minnesota in 2007, the Wolves have had nine consecutive losing seasons, seven sub-30-win seasons, and zero playoff appearances. In contrast, everything worked out hunky dory for KG — he secured a mega contract from the Celtics and won a championship soon afterwards.

To me, it kinda feels like Garnett returned to the North Star State in the twilight of his career as penance for the success he had while he was separated from the Wolves. While he probably won’t be able to “Win One for The Land (of 10,000 lakes)”, maybe he can still be part of Wolves’ first championship, as a mentor to Towns.

With a 40-year-old Garnett still reportedly undecided about whether he should retire or return to the Timberwolves for his 22nd season in the league, the window is closing fast on KG’s opportunity to mentor his buddy.

“Buddy, buddy, buddy”
-De La Soul, Buddy

If he does end up retiring, Garnett might only have a few weeks left to impart his wisdom on Towns. I’m sure they’ve been practicing scowls, trash talk, and other tough-guy tactics all summer. But, I hope the ex-kid has also taken some time to help polish the new kid’s footwork, too. And I’m not talking about a mid-post jab series or hedging hard on high screens, either; I’m talking about footwork, buddy.

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It’s time for KG to kickstep his protege back to the summer of ‘89. Back to the grizzled vet’s age of innocence, before contract negotiations and the business of basketball hardened his joy for the game. To a time when it would have been OK for a lanky 13-year-old kid to dance along with a De La Soul album. Back to an imaginary gym where Pooh Richardson got some shots up to the sounds of 3 Feet High and Rising. Back to the birth of a franchise.

I’m not sure what advice the real Garnett is giving Towns about staying in Minnesota — I assume he’s pretty happy with how his move to Boston worked out. But, I know the message my imaginary 13-year-old, De La Soul-loving KG would deliver to Towns. That version of KG would definitely be like: “Man, you are De La Wolves. You need to win one for the Minnesotans, they deserve it.”

And they do.

VORP stats for this article were collected from Basketball-Reference