LAS VEGAS -- Minnesota Timberwolves center Karl-Anthony Towns has an alter ego -- now in bobblehead form -- named Karlito, whom the No. 1 draft pick has called his "absolute biggest critic." Karlito is essentially the video coordinator inside Towns' head who offers both tactical guidance and words of encouragement. He even has his own Instragram account.
On Friday, Towns and his miniature doppleganger took the court for the Timberwolves against the Los Angeles Lakers and the No. 2 overall pick, point guard D'Angelo Russell, at the Thomas & Mack Center as the Las Vegas Summer League got underway. For Towns, that interior monologue was pretty on edge at the opening tip.
"I started out like any other rookie -- I ain't going to lie," Towns said. "I had a lot of butterflies. I was very nervous. Legs felt heavy. It's your first game out in front of everyone. You're just trying to change the tide of the organization, especially being the No. 1 pick."
Russell hasn't disclosed the presence of any inner voices in his consciousness, not that he needed any Friday evening. The Thomas & Mack center was packed full of Lakers fans who, for the first time in a good while, had a cause worth cheering. Minnesota prevailed 81-68, but both Towns and Russell showed flashes of brilliance, along with the usual rookie hiccups in their first official competition as NBA rookies.
Let's start with Towns, who finished with 12 points on 4-for-10 shooting, three rebounds, four assists and nine personal fouls. (That's not a counting error. Summer League is very forgiving, permitting players 10 fouls before ejection.) The numbers might not impress, but Towns showed a little range on a silky 17-footer, unleashed his patented hook shot, and performed some quality work against a swarm of double-teams all night.
From the elbow, he fired crisp cross-court passes to the weakside perimeter. And twice against a Lakers blitz, he found Othyus Jeffers streaking down the lane for a couple of buckets, the second of which he actually dished as the second defender was en route.
"I was very comfortable [facing double-teams]," Towns said. "I did it a lot in college. I did it a lot in high school, especially. I was very ready for the double-team when I saw it coming. And just trying to make sure I was not just making the pass out of the double-team, but the right pass that gives us a scoring opportunity."
Though against only one defender, Towns' slick, no-look, behind-the-back shuffle pass from the left elbow to Lorenzo Brown zipping across the baseline might've been the play of the night and further evidence that Minnesota has a highly skilled big man with court awareness and a willingness to play team basketball -- which is usually in short supply at summer league.
If court awareness is the standard of excellence for a rookie, then Russell earns the seal of approval. Summer league has seen a procession of dominant scoring point guards in recent years, but Russell is a master distributor of the old school. Like Towns, his line wasn't exceptional -- eight points (3-for-8), six assists and five rebounds -- but Russell was a pleasure to watch on Friday, as he kept the ball on a string.
It started with a drop-off pass to Tarik Black in the first quarter, followed promptly by a crossover dribble into a high-arcing 3-pointer. Over the course of the game, Russell directed the Lakers' offense with a steady diet of middle pick-and-roll and looked extremely comfortable as a floor general; he delivered a gorgeous outlet pass to Jordan Clarkson in the third quarter for a layup. On the defensive side of the ball, you could spot him at the top of the floor, his hands in puppet motion as a signal of encouragement to his teammates on the back line to communicate.
Karlito might be Towns' absolute biggest critic, but Russell is his own. Though he clearly enjoyed the experience of sharing a backcourt with Clarkson, who dazzled with 23 points, Russell had a bit of pointed criticism for himself with regard to some lapses and five turnovers.
"Personally, I had a lot of mental mistakes -- not paying attention to my guy, sleeping a little bit on defense, the little things you can do in college that you can't do in the pros," Russell said. "One caught me throwing the ball in the backcourt. I didn't know you couldn't do that. At the end of the game, those plays add up. Ball-watching on defense. Guys go back door at this level, so it was just mental mistakes."
Summer league is a stellar platform for young talent, but often it feels like high-falutin AAU ball. That wasn't the case Friday, when Vegas was treated to a couple of smart, self-possessed future stars. Well, perhaps in Towns' case, just plain possessed.