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Why Karl-Anthony Towns is already a star, and why Zach LaVine should be — yes — starting

What we learned from the Wolves’ latest road trip.

Zach LaVine, right, dribbling the ball against Miami Heat guard Goran Dragic during the first half of Tuesday night's game.
Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports

What a wonderfully capricious road trip the Minnesota Timberwolves just completed in Florida.

On Tuesday night, the Wolves trailed most of the game to a formidable Miami Heat team that had administered Minnesota’s ugliest loss of the season less than two weeks ago at Target Center. In the first half in Miami, the score was closer than the physical superiority exerted by the Heat, especially center Hassan Whiteside, who was dominating the Wolves’ perspicacious rookie, Karl-Anthony Towns, for the second straight encounter.

But, as they had done in previously impressive road wins in Chicago and Atlanta, the Wolves overcame daunting adversity as the fourth quarter steamrolled into crunch time. The impetus came from some unlikely sources, including Shabazz Muhammad, who alone seemed to blend the quickness, strength and willpower to overcome Whiteside’s rim protection for much of the game; Adriean Payne, who effectively mucked in the paint against power forwards Chris Bosh and Josh McRoberts, and hit a couple of shots besides; and Zach LaVine, who had his pogo-stick strut game in full effect, dishing for a pair of early dimes, knocking down a pair of threes, and finding ways to bedevil the Heat with his shooting eye and athleticism while playing the entire fourth quarter.

Kudos for Mitchell

The win in Miami marked Sam Mitchell’s best coaching performance of the young season. Mitchell has been encouraging out of the gate in his ability formulate and execute set priorities. He has established a defensive mindset for the ball club and fast-tracked the development of franchise cornerstones Andrew Wiggins and Karl-Anthony Towns.

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But Mitchell has been less successful at putting his bench players into a position to succeed — in large part because his implementation of a defensive culture requires him to reserve the limited effective minutes he can wring out of aged veterans Kevin Garnett and Tayshaun Prince predominantly for the starting lineup. Thus, when the other three starters require rest, Mitchell often resorts to a wholesale, “hockey style” substitution, an all-bench lineup.

But on Tuesday, the bench unit provided a rare jolt of positive results in the second quarter. Mitchell shrewdly noted that the Payne-Muhammad-LaVine troika were the catalysts for that boomlet. As the Wolves started mounting their comeback early in the fourth quarter, the coach filtered in his cornerstones — first Towns, then Wiggins — with that threesome, creating a 14-2 run that changed the entire dynamic of the game.

Then, with the score tied and 4:51 left to play, Mitchell brought in Ricky Rubio and Garnett to go with LaVine and the cornerstones. Payne and Muhammad went to the bench with an unfamiliar glow: knowing they had been valuable contributors. Rubio, fresh off a four-game absence due to a strained hamstring, and KG, now among only four players to log more than 50,000 regular season minutes in the NBA,  had been conserved for this stretch of maximum impact.

Boom! Abetted by Mitchell’s decision to purposefully foul the poor free-thrower Whiteside, the Wolves parlayed another round of crunch time scoring by Wiggins with staunch team defense and blitzed the Heat 10-1 over the next 2:24 to put the game away.

On the tail end of this back-to-back, Wednesday night in Orlando, it was the Wolves who dominated for much of the contest only to wilt midway through the fourth quarter and suffer a somewhat surprising overtime defeat.

Two torpid stretches contributed to the defeat. In the first, Mitchell deployed four substitutions while the Magic buried five straight shots and forced two turnovers during a 15-0 rout in a span of 2:34 to take a one-point lead. In the second, Minnesota was held without a field goal for more than six minutes in the fourth quarter, triggering a 13-1 Magic run. Practically every player on the roster contributed to the carnage in these droughts.

The cornerstones in crunch time

Ah, but the takeaway from this road game split was the crunch time gumption of
Wiggins and Towns.

By now, every scouting report on Wiggins underlines that he is the go-to guy in the clutch for this team, and that he will almost certainly try to score via dribble penetration toward the rim.

Indeed, nobody in the NBA has more field goal attempts in “clutch” situations, defined as the teams being within five points of each other with less than five minutes to play in the fourth quarter or overtime. And only Lebron James has more points in the clutch thus far this season.

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Even so, it is a practice of diminishing returns. Wiggins is a robust 9-for-20 in fourth quarter clutch situations, and over 50 percent when you omit his trio of missed three-pointers. But in overtime, he plummets to 1-for-8, as opponents begin to realize that he is hell-bent for the basket and gang up to stop him. It would be nice if he could dish it — he has exactly zero assists and four turnovers in the clutch overall — but that is counterbalanced by his ability to knock down the free throws at an 81 percent clip (11-for-13) when he is fouled.

Remember when the prevailing whispers about Wiggins were that he was too passive, and didn’t seize control of the game? Those doubting fools are silent now. At the age of 20, Wiggins is not only accepting the challenge, he’s forcing the issue when it matters most. He made only one of five shots in overtime on Wednesday (and sank two free-throws after a foul on another attempt), but has established the crunch time pecking order on offense for this franchise for the next decade or so.

Towns has his back at the other end. He is nine months younger than Wiggins, having just turned 20 last Sunday, but after a dozen games of his rookie season you can already take it to the bank that he is a full-blown star in the NBA. The type of comprehensive consistency he has demonstrated — both from game-to-game and skill-to-skill — puts him beyond the realm of a fluke phenomenon.

Nit-pickers can probably kvetch about his shot-selection, as the seven-footer uses about a third of his attempts between ten feet away from the hoop out to the three-point arc. Uh, but Towns is making 45.5 percent of his shots from 10-16 feet out, and 47.4 percent from 16 feet to the arc — not too shabby. Those who like their big men muscling up shots in the paint might be a little disappointed — until it is pointed out that many of those bigs are subject to hacking strategies because they can’t make their free throws. Towns? He’s 37-for-41 from the line this season, a cool 91.3 percent. He’s also got more blocks (29) than turnovers (28), and is grabbing nearly 11 rebounds (10.7) in less than 30 minutes (29.6) per game, so I’d guess his behavior in the paint is sufficient.

But we were talking about crunch time, where the stars rise to the occasion for flagrant failure or success. Twelve games in, Towns has risen successfully, and isn’t going away.

In 37 minutes of “clutch” basketball (within five points on the scoreboard and within five minutes of the end of the game), Towns has an NBA-best 16 rebounds, including an NBA-best seven offensive rebounds. He has an NBA-best seven blocked shots, including a mighty swat at the close of regulation that send the game into overtime on Wednesday. He has three assists and two turnovers and his team is plus 13 when he is on the court in these clutch situations.

A common measurement of NBA performance is “per 36 minutes,” since that is the average time on the court per game for a valuable starter in this league. In the clutch, Towns’ per 36 minute totals are 10.7 points, 15.6 rebounds and 6.8 blocks.  People don’t have to talk about what this rookie is “going to be.” They can simply revel in what he “already is.”

Time for LaVine

Let’s close with a suggested change in the starting rotation — Zach LaVine in for Tayshaun Prince.

Surprised? Even irregular readers know that I have been extremely critical of LaVine since he started playing for the Wolves. And a lot of my distaste for his game remains.

But a situation exists on the Wolves that would be mutually beneficial for both LaVine and the franchise moving forward. Not even I would deny (and I never have) that Zach has beautiful form on his jumper, and off-the-charts athleticism.

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My ongoing issues involve his court vision and his decision-making, and the best way to minimize those flaws is by placing him in a lineup with Ricky Rubio and Kevin Garnett, who set such blatant examples of fundamentally sound basketball that even LaVine will improve by osmosis.

Besides, LaVine possesses something the current starting lineup badly needs — a floor-spacing option on the weak side, who can bury the three-pointer or penetrate to the hoop before the defense can rotate over in time. By contrast, Prince is still a very solid defender who is vastly underrated by the casual fan, but easy to ignore on the offensive end.

LaVine starting also removes the problem of LaVine playing point guard for the second unit. As it now stands, wing scorers like Kevin Martin and Bazzy Muhammad don’t get the ball enough in the right spots and the right rhythm. And together with LaVine, they create an on-court sequel to the “3 Amigos,” with each taking his turn as the matador on defense.

The symmetry is beguiling. Neither Rubio nor Garnett (not to mention Prince) are prolific scorers. LaVine can help fill that void. But both Rubio and KG are exquisite on-ball and help defenders, which addresses LaVine’s needs at that end of the court.

It is a very small sample size, but we already have an idea of the synergy between Rubio and LaVine out on the court. There are currently five two-player combinations that have yielded a plus-30 or better total together out on the court. Not surprisingly, Rubio is one-half of every combination.

Rubio and Prince are a team-best plus 45 in 119 minutes together on the court. Rubio and Towns are plus 36 in 212 minutes together. Rubio and KG are plus 34 in 103 minutes together, and Rubio and Bjelica are plus 31 in 93 minutes together.

In the middle of the top five, are Rubio and LaVine. But they have compiled their plus 35 in a scant 28 minutes together. All of those minutes have included Wiggins, so that trio is likewise plus 35 in 28 minutes.

A column last week dealt with the fact that the ongoing presence of Martin on the roster makes starting LaVine at shooting guard more problematic. But even if you believe that mollifying K-Mart is worth retarding the progress of LaVine (and the team), consider some of the synergies that are suddenly created on the second unit.

Martin is loath to transform a touch into a pass when he retain possession of the rock and contort himself to draw a foul, or perhaps even made an earnest attempt at sinking a field goal. Prince would just as soon not touch the ball at all — his usage rate of 7.6 percent is the lowest on the roster. Sure enough, the most successful two-player tandem involving Martin is Tayshaun Prince — they are plus 22 in 40 minutes together.

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Then there is poor Nemanja Bjelica, who loves to pass so much that he often negates his biggest strength — accuracy from three-point range — in favor of ball movement. Except that most of his teammates on the second unit don’t reciprocate in the ball-sharing strategy, diminishing his effectiveness.

Bjelica is minus 37 with Bazzy, minus 27 with Gorgui Dieng, minus 19 with K-Mart. But there could be some interesting high-low action between Bjelica and Andre Miller in the second unit. Miller loves to move without the ball and Bjelli love to hit cutters heading for the rim. Miller loves to post up and then either try and score or kick out to an open man. If that open man is Bjelica, and he receives a pass, he is more likely to let it fly.

Right now, Bjelica is minus 2 in tandem with LaVine over 171 minutes and minus 2 with Miller in 62 minutes. But the field goal percentage is significantly higher with the Bjelica-Miller combo.

Bottom line, the improvement of Zach LaVine should be rewarded by putting him in the best position to succeed. The overwhelming evidence is that shooting guard is his natural spot.

Why not make an already enjoyable season that much sweeter and execute the switch?