Kristaps Porzingis is a big man with a big personality who can suck the air out of a room or, in this case, an exhibition basketball game. The first three-point heave goes in sweetly — let’s see if I can do it from a bit farther out. A-a-a-nd farther still …
No wonder he garnered a quarter-million all-star votes as a rookie. And while this night that was supposed to be all about hometown guys Andrew Wiggins and Dwight Powell and Saskatoon’s Trey Lyles, in the end it was second-year player Zach LaVine walking off with the most valuable player award in Team USA’s 157-154 win over the World Team — with Porzingis stating his own case, racking up 30 points and five rebounds.
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Looking on was Karl-Anthony Towns, the first-overall choice in the 2015 draft who was reminded about the first time he met his cohort as part of the NBA’s Rookie Transition Program. Towns and Porzingis are locked in what should be an intriguing race for rookie of the year. And while Towns, who lit up the Toronto Raptors for 35 points and 11 rebounds in a win just before the all-star break, was willing to take a back seat to teammates Wiggins and LaVine, he admitted that he’d noticed he was getting a lot of questions about Porzingis.
"This is just something that … he’s such a talented player," said Towns, who had 18 points and seven boards in just under 22 minutes played. "I expect to see him for 10-plus, 15-plus … 20-plus years.
"This is cool," he continued. "I mean, the last time all of us got together in one room was RTP. They told us we were the future of the league, and that it was important that we take our chances to bond. This is another chance for that.
"I think we all realize, a lot of us at least, that we’re going to be seeing a lot of each other. RTP kind of gave us a chance to get those initial relationships — guys from all over the world — and I think we’re building that relationship even more."
It is a two-player race for NBA rookie of the year right now, between Towns, the first choice overall out of Kentucky and fourth pick Porzingis from Latvia — Jahlil Okafor figures somewhere in there, maybe — both in terms of press clippings and statistics. They are an intriguing pairing, because at a time when the NBA is becoming more and more perimeter conscious, here are two big men cut a little out of the cloth of Chris Bosh; players who are capable of stretching the floor and holding court under the basket.
Towns’ performance in the win over the Raptors made him the third-youngest player in NBA history with 35-plus points, 10-plus rebounds and three-plus blocks in a game. Kevin Durant accomplished the feat 17 days younger than Towns; LeBron James is the youngest to do so, at the age of 19 years, 316 days.
Towns has even figured as an Instagram prop of sorts ahead of Saturday’s dunk contest, as teammate and defending champion LaVine posted an Instagram of himself bouncing the ball in front of the hoop and taking off … only to have the camera turn away and follow Towns, who couples over and walks away in disbelief.
Towns predicted on Friday night that LaVine was "going to take over All-Star Weekend. Tomorrow (Saturday) is another chance for him to take home more hardware."
Towns will take part in Saturday night’s skills competition, and has a meeting set up with the legendary Oscar Robertson on Sunday morning. In a league where young men make a great deal of money in a hurry — and can find themselves confronted with decisions requiring nuance and delicacy beyond their years — this process of mentorship can make a huge difference, providing the younger player is aware enough to soak up the knowledge that is readily available.
It might also help him deal with Timberwolves head coach Sam Mitchell, who has fought a battle all season long with Twin Cities media and fans who want to see Towns spend as much time as possible on the court. Wiggins played 2,969 minutes in his rookie season, the second-most in the league. Mitchell has said, pointedly, that this year’s prize rookie won’t challenge that figure. Towns’ response has been to duck and cover, for the most part.
And so the learning process continues for the NBA’s two prize rookies, who are coming off being named Eastern and Western Conference rookies of the month for January. We’re going to be seeing a lot of these two players, who through the luck of the draft will find their careers on a collision path. Days like these, then, are to be enjoyed.