The other night, in Los Angeles, something kind of sad happened:
Karl-Anthony Towns went 0-for-6 with a turnover when guarded by Tyson Chandler.— Joey Ramirez (@JoeyARamirez) November 8, 2018
Gave him zero ground on these three post-up attempts. pic.twitter.com/vw0Wpv85hu
That’s Karl Anthony-Towns, the Timberwolves starting center and kind-of-best-player, trying to exploit single coverage against Tyson Chandler, and just… smashing into him, trying to post up a brick wall, over the course of six possessions. It’s a huge bummer, one in a long series of huge bummers that KAT is living through over the course of this year. His erstwhile teammate, entirely-too-high-on-his-own-supply wing Jimmy Butler, has all but stopped playing for the team in service of forcing a trade to a team Towns is not on.
The reporting scuttlebutt, fueled by leaks that are just, like transparently the providence of Butler and his agent, depict Butler as being frustrated by Towns and his fellow-traveler in underachievement, Andrew Wiggins, openly implying they have no work ethic, killer instinct, and that Towns plays too much Fortnite. Butler clearly sees Towns, a seven-foot tall star recruit who went to Kentucky, for god’s sake, and he sees a dude who had every advantage he wasn’t afforded and he uhh, gets extremely mad about it and blows up the team that’s paying him because of it.
That’s probably too extreme a response, a real display of pretty awful problem solving skills on Butler’s behalf, but there’s a little grain of truth in that Towns really has been kind of disappointing. When he came into the league, Towns was universally thought of as the answer to a problem: how a big man can operate in an era where their traditional skills are becoming more and more obsolete? Towns had the full package: he was fast and athletic, with all the physical tools you would need to be able to cover pick and rolls and make switches with ease. He had flashed some skills in the post, a skill that could blow up small lineups. He was also a decent shooter, making him a perfect five-out-five.
None of these things have translated into the kind of sustained excellent that was expected of him. The Wolves have tried to get the spirit in him, trading for Kevin Garnett to mentor him in the ways of competitive madness as a rookie, getting Tom Thibodeau, who worked magic with Joakim Noah in Chicago, to implement a tactical structure that would make him a defensive starwalt, and yet, here he is, drifting through games while the Wolves fart out hideous defensive squads (27th, 27th and 29th in DRtg) year after year. His career has, up to this point, been a disappointment, the wild dreams of success his profile suggested, buried in a swamp of organizational malfeasance and maybe a uhh, lack of ambition that lives deep in his bones.
Zion Williamson. Holy moly. Look at this guy!
Those shoulders, those dunks, that vertical leap. Look at this guy get the ball, dribble it, rise in the air, and sail in a layup. He’s a slam dunk NBA prospect, so to speak. It’s enough to make you root against your lottery bound team, a dream of a better future, all packed into a 6'7 frame. Charles Barkley with a jumper and and a few extra inches. Moses Malone but meaner and smaller. The next LeBron. You name it, you can say it about him in print or on Twitter and people probably won’t give you grief for it.
But, when I see this enthusiasm, I just can’t help but feel a little like Dr. Manhattan, seeing all of time happening at once. Because, yes, Zion looks like an unbelievable prospect, but so did Towns, and everyone at that age. I was sitting nearly front row for a 17-year-old Andrew Wiggins' single-handed domination of the United States at the 2012 Hoop Summit. He looked incredible, drifting across the court like it was nothing, Kevin Durant but with a higher defensive ceiling. In that same game, his team beat Shabazz Muhammad's USA squad, who scored like 30-some-odd points on a variety of high difficulty moves. I would not have blamed anyone for saying, on that day, that either of these dudes were future NBA All-Stars or maybe more. Wiggins-mania, in particular, was deep and deeply felt.
The world of prospect writing is littered with the bones of scouting reports that were wrong, and there’s absolutely no reason that Zion couldn’t join the likes of the Wiggman and indifferent-ass Karl Towns in the purgatory of NBA Mediocrity. Look at that jump shot: it’s rough, man. And will that overwhelming athleticism mean as much in the NBA, where everyone was forged from hellstone and injected with testosterone straight from the glands of T-Rexes? Seeing Towns struggle to post Chandler, you can’t see the shadow of Zion wearing some Eastern Conference NBA uniform and getting repeatedly stripped by Paul George during some mid-season game in 2021? Don’t get me wrong: I would take him No. 1 and I suspect that it what will happen. But, what, if he doesn’t do everything someone dreams he will do as he bumslays in the ACC, am I going to hold it against him?
And look-- this isn’t some flaw or failure with scouting or prospect writing or anything like that. It’s a failure of human nature. Our minds are apt to fill in favorable outcomes to pretty much anything. Did you know one single liberal-minded person who thought Donald Trump was actually going to beat Hillary Clinton? I didn’t even worry about it! We are wired to feel optimistically about outcomes, to project that optimism onto pretty much everything, to count on the scraps of data we have about stuff will spill out into something amazing.
And then, we’re disappointed. And it doesn’t matter how successful someone manages to be: every NBA player is a disappointment in some way. LeBron has been unbelievable, but he could have won more titles. Durant has the skills and the titles, but… did he have to go to Golden State? Jimmy Butler, junior college to the All-Star game, but what a jerk. What if Shaq was better at staying in shape? Hakeem, unbelievable stuff out there, but MJ went two picks later, you sure you want that flippy post genius stuff when you could have had MICHAEL JORDAN? Even Michael Jordan was a disappointment! His baseball career was awful and when he returned to the league with the Wizards, he didn’t even reach the playoffs.
This is all to say, it’s not that people’s expectations of Zion or Towns or whoever are misguided or wrong in and of themselves. It’s that ALL expectations are wrong, and operating from them as a starting place is stupid. NBA careers rise and fall on a series of mental and physical and contextual nonsense, that rating the way someone turns out based on anything but their performance in the broader league is completely asinine. Just watch Butler stomp around the Wolves, only playing on national TV because he is mad that Towns got to go to Kentucky and might plays too much Fortnite. Is this approach useful in, like, any way? Wouldn’t dealing with KAT as he ACTUALLY IS, instead of as Butler’s mind does, filling in what he theoretically could be, going to reap better returns? Operating out of expectations instead of realities is the providence of fools. Sports should try to stop doing it.