AFTER THE TIMBERWOLVES selected Karl-Anthony Towns with the first pick in the 2015 draft, after they treated him to a round at Hazeltine National (where he nearly drove the 452-yard 10th, cutting the dogleg) and after they created a home in the new practice facility for his imaginary friend (a custom sculpture of Karlito lives in the communications office, under lock and key), the 19-year-old man-child politely issued one more request. "The old jerseys," he said, "with the trees around the neck."
He wanted T-Wolves throwbacks, only the team doesn't make those anymore, and Mitchell & Ness charges $200 apiece. The price does not seem prohibitive for someone who earns nearly $5 million a year until you realize that Towns remains—how to put this politely—a cheapskate. A prolific coupon clipper as a kid in Piscataway, N.J., he still refuses to buy a car, instead walking from his apartment in downtown Minneapolis to local restaurants. "Isn't that the No. 1 pick?" passersby mutter incredulously.
They won't have to wonder much longer because Minnesota agreed to foot the bill for the retro jerseys, stitched with Towns's name and number 32, so he'll be in uniform on and off the court. "To add the shorts," Towns pressed, "would I get charged?"
Resisting his charm, as the T-Wolves are discovering, is futile. Towns is a 6'11", 244-pound prodigy who was attending shoe-sponsored camps when he was eight and guarding Kevin Durant in the summer when he was 16. But he also taught himself to play piano, golf and Ultimate Frisbee. He lists Len Bias as his favorite athlete, never mind that Bias died almost a decade before he was born. "I've got a Bias jersey too," Towns mentions with a wink.
Kat, as he is known, winks often and smiles constantly, whether he just chucked an air ball or drilled an 18-foot fadeaway. "I was raised to smile," he says. "I'm a smiling kind of guy. I like to joke around, be lighthearted, not take things too seriously." His joyful countenance bears little resemblance to the former wunderkind who has been tabbed to mentor him, the one who bangs his head against the basket stanchion before games, who releases primal screams at the sight of loose balls and who made that jersey with the foliage on the collar so desirable in the first place.
ON THE day Kevin Garnett returned to Minnesota last season, acquired from the Nets in February, he told general manager Milt Newton, "I want to be known as the best teammate ever." Garnett, who molded Rajon Rondo and Kendrick Perkins in Boston, was joining a locker room with three vaunted swingmen under 23: Andrew Wiggins, Zach LaVine and Shabazz Muhammad. Coach Flip Saunders predicted Garnett would flush their cellphones down the toilet. Instead, he disarmed the young Timberwolves, cordially introducing himself to each one. "You heard about how intimidating he was," says LaVine, Minnesota's first-round pick in 2014. "It wasn't like that at all."
Then practice started, and Garnett narrated every action with the voice of God, a baritone so booming you can hear the expletives through closed doors. "Is he serious?" one player asked assistant coach Sidney Lowe. "Is he really like this every day?" Lowe, who coached Garnett during his first tour in the Twin Cities, stifled a laugh. "Every day," he replied.
Four months later the T-Wolves drafted a genial giant out of Kentucky who leads fast breaks, tosses alley-oops and throws down double-pump reverse dunks, a boundless skill set few big men have possessed since the 6'11" Garnett emerged from Farragut Career Academy in Chicago 20 years ago. Garnett pulled Towns aside after his predraft workout at Target Center and again at the Las Vegas Summer League. Conversations with KG are rarely casual. When he speaks, he leans forward, head bobbing and eyes bulging. He touches your arm to punctuate his points. He is a yeller, but it is important not to confuse volume for anger. Garnett is relentlessly supportive of young players, buying them suits so they don't look like they're in college anymore, and taking their 4 a.m. phone calls because he never seems to sleep.
So what exactly is he teaching Towns? "Everything," the rookie says. Moving faster to triple-threat position on offense, getting lower on defense, keeping his balance, attacking his man, protecting the weak side, identifying the back screen and communicating until he goes hoarse. Sam Mitchell, serving as coach while Saunders battles Hodgkin's lymphoma, often turns practice over to Garnett for five-minute stretches. "We talk!" he hollered on the first day of training camp, while tugging Towns's jersey. "Bigs always talk to each other! Feel me? We always on the same line!" During a recent scrimmage Karl Towns Sr. watched his son trade body blows in the post with center Gorgui Dieng. "He's not backing down," Towns Sr. said. "He's listening to KG."
In Boston, Rondo and Perkins took on Garnett's seething persona, but there is no way to predict how the happy-go-lucky Towns will respond. "They're such a study in contrast," says one NBA general manager. "It's going to be a very interesting marriage." The differences are superficial, and in Garnett's estimation, insignificant. "Don't take the smile for a weakness," he warns. "[Karl] plays with another type of engine." Towns exhibits, through the ferocious way he patrols the paint and runs the floor, plenty of what Timberwolves coaches call the inner thing. "The place KG and I really meet is in the passion we have for the craft," Towns says.
They share at least one mannerism, too. Both players talk to themselves, and while no one in his right mind would ever mock Garnett for it, Kentucky coaches felt free to ridicule Towns. "He's talking to his imaginary friend!" former Wildcats assistant Barry Rohrssen cracked at a practice last season. Karlito was born, and Towns, perhaps sensing a future marketing opportunity, was delighted. No word on whether Garnett has an imaginary friend—the Little Ticket?—but in a recent photo shoot with Towns he suggested a twist on their default expressions. Kat scowled, KG beamed. Then Garnett threw the rook in what was supposed to be a playful headlock. "Dude!" Towns yelped. Garnett loosened his grip.
Young squads like to add veteran influences, but the Timberwolves have taken that strategy to an extreme. They now employ an elder statesman for each position group—Garnett, 39; point guard Andre Miller, 39; wing Tayshaun Prince, 35—so every prospect has a guide. The T-Wolves are a team of freshmen and senior citizens. It's hard to find anybody in his prime. They recall the Thunder, circa 2009, so it was appropriate that their first preseason opponent at the Target Center was Oklahoma City. Garnett sat on the end of the bench during player introductions, head already lacquered with sweat, staring at the floor. His entire body seemed to be vibrating. He never looked up, wordlessly raising his right fist every time a teammate was introduced, waiting for a pound. When LaVine was announced, he ran straight to the court, unintentionally bypassing Garnett. Towns would not make the same mistake. He would not leave KG hanging.
THE BEST seat in an NBA arena this season, unless you are accompanied by a small child, is the one next to the Minnesota bench. Here is a brief sampling of the Garnett sound track from the Oklahoma City game, which, it bears repeating, did not actually count. To point guard Lorenzo Brown: "You're by yourself, Zo! To your right, Zo! Yeah, Zo!" To Dieng: "Sit down, G! Two-man game, G! Good job, G!" To Towns: "Hurry up, Kat! Get back, Kat! Stop the ball, Kat!" To a referee, after a questionable foul: "We're all in preseason form!" After a Thunder air ball: "That's a terrible shot!" After a Thunder dunk: "Oh, no! Oh, s---!" He never shuts up, writhing when the Timberwolves allowed a bucket and howling when they forced a brick. At one point an amused T-Wolves veteran turned to a reporter and joked, "KG is crazy." Perhaps, but they'd better listen to him. The day Garnett retires, he is expected to become part owner of the franchise, a highly animated boss.
Near the end of the second quarter something happened that got him even more excited. Brown clanked a free throw and Towns corralled the offensive rebound. Instead of retreating for a jumper or rising for a jump hook, both of which are staples in his arsenal, the rookie hurtled toward the rim and jackhammered a vicious dunk over 6'10" Mitch McGary. Garnett leaped from his chair, stomping his feet and snapping his towel. The Big Kat and the Big Ticket, an odd but promising pair, locked eyes and screamed.
THROWBACK: KG THE ROOKIE
Appeared on the June 26, 1995, cover of Sports Illustrated, two days before the Timberwolves took him fifth, making him the first player to go straight from high school to the NBA since 1975.
Coming off a 21-win season, Minnesota added several experienced players to a young team, including two future coaches: Terry Porter and Sam Mitchell (now the T-Wolves' interim coach). The squad's top scorer: Isaiah Rider.
Started half the season, averaging 10.4 points and finishing second on the team to forward Tom Gugliotta in win shares. Minnesota was back in the lottery after going 26--56.
JORDAN JOHNSON/NBAE/GETTY IMAGES (TOWNS)
SHEEP IN T-WOLVES' CLOTHING Towns may never have KG's fire, but they share an intense dedication to their craft.
TODD ROSENBERG FOR SPORTS ILLUSTRATED (GARNETT AND TOWNS)
ANDY HAYT/NBAE/GETTY IMAGES (GARNETT)