Wolves take Towns with No. 1 pick

Published 8:14 pm Thursday, June 25, 2015

MINNEAPOLIS— Thousands of long-suffering Minnesota Timberwolves fans filed into Target Center on Thursday night to see their downtrodden team enjoy a rare moment in the NBA’s driver’s seat.

They came to see their team select Kentucky big man Karl-Anthony Towns with the No. 1 overall pick, and they did not go home disappointed.

The Wolves wasted little time on Thursday night, turning in the card almost immediately after the broadcast began to grab the versatile power forward/center with the first No. 1 pick in a franchise history filled mostly with failure. Now, with Towns joining a promising young roster that includes reigning rookie of the year Andrew Wiggins, Ricky Rubio, slam dunk champion Zach LaVine and franchise icon Kevin Garnett, there was finally a feeling of optimism in the dusty old arena.

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And Towns fanned those flames while speaking to the party on a speakerphone.

“We going to the playoffs!” he hollered.

The Wolves haven’t been there in 11 years, the longest-running active drought in the NBA. Next year may be a little ambitious, but the Wolves think they’re closer than they’ve ever been.

“It really was a no-brainer,” President and coach Flip Saunders said of the decision to draft Towns.

For a franchise that has endured so much misery, made so many mistakes and lost so many games over the last decade, landing the No. 1 pick and the buildup to Thursday night have served as a giant jolt of much-needed optimism.

More than 9,000 fans RSVP’d for the draft party and they waited in long lines to get into an arena where they watched their team lose a league-high 66 games last year. It was the fourth time in the last eight years that the Wolves have lost at least 60 games, a string of futility that prompted everyone aside from the most passionate fans to turn away from the team.

But all the injuries, all the misfortune, all the ineptitude of last season became worth it when the Wolves secured the top pick for the first time in franchise history. Saunders and GM Milt Newton have assembled a roster teeming with young talent. Rubio is returning healthy from a season in which he only played 22 games because of ankle issues, veteran shooting guard Kevin Martin is back and Garnett, the franchise icon who returned in a trade deadline deal last February and is expected to sign a new contract in July.

“We’ve been waiting for this for years,” said Justin Glomski, one of four friends wearing a blue t-shirt with “KARL!!!” in white letters.

The Timberwolves had several options at the top, hosting Duke center Jahlil Okafor, Ohio State point guard D’Angelo Russell, Emmanuel Mudiay, a point guard who played in China last year, and Towns for individual workouts and visits last week.

So how did they arrive on Towns?

For much of last season, Saunders was believed to have favored Okafor. Before returning to the Timberwolves two years ago, Saunders spent a year away from the league and thought he might return to coaching at his alma mater, the University of Minnesota. He spent a lot of time scouting Tyus Jones, who grew up in suburban Minneapolis, and Jones’ close friend Okafor, one of the most gifted low-post scorers to come along in years.

But Saunders had little time for scouting during last season while he was coaching the Timberwolves, and Towns gradually started to climb to the top of draft boards with an impressive freshman season at Kentucky. In the end, Towns’ superior free throw shooting, defensive instincts and mid-range game sold the Timberwolves on his ability to complement Wiggins.

“He’s the best player and he’s versatile,” Saunders told the fans. “He’s got a chance along with Wiggins, with LaVine, with Kevin Garnett, with Ricky Rubio. There’s going to be a lot of excitement.”