LAS VEGAS -- Karl-Anthony Towns' first assignment is to understand that his stat line from his professional debut doesn't matter. Twelve points on 4-10 shooting, three rebounds, four assists and four turnovers doesn't jump off the page. Nine fouls does, but not in a good way. (You get 10 fouls before you're disqualified in Summer League.)
Just completing the experience is what mattered most. That's because Towns entered the game much more tense than usual.
"I ain't gonna lie, I had butterflies," Towns said. "I was very nervous. My legs felt heavy."
Those nerves all came out on the very first play of the game. Towns caught the ball open beyond the three-point line, a perfect spot to get himself going. He fired confidently ... and missed the rim by two feet.
"After I airballed the three at the beginning, the nerves went away," he said. "I didn't even want to shoot the basketball. It was just rookie jitters."
The 39 minutes to follow included many flashes of brilliance and just as many teaching moments. Both are important. Positive plays like the drop step hook shots and the zipped passes to cutters should give him confidence. Negative plays like being dunked on by Tarik Black and those nine fouls become tangible moments for growth.
That's why there was a palpable sense of optimism among the Timberwolves even though Towns' line failed to overwhelm. The passing -- undersold by the four assists -- was a pleasant surprise even to those who have watched Towns for a long time.
"You know, despite the jitters, he handled himself great," assistant coach Ryan Saunders said. "His finishing, them trapping him in the post to start the game, that shows the incredible respect he's already getting in this league. He had a couple turnovers, but he's really really patient and he found cutters."
The fouls were problematic, but can be fixed once Towns builds strength and learns to match the physicality of NBA frontcourts. And while Towns mostly operated out of the post, he also hit one pick-and-pop jumper and delivered a gorgeous shovel pass after catching the ball near the elbow on a side pick and roll, an advanced move players Towns' age shouldn't be able to pull off.
"That's the thing. You can't really pinpoint and say he's going to do this," Timberwolves' GM Milt Newton told SB Nation. "He has the ability to exploit any kind of mismatch. So if you pinpoint and say he's only going to play inside, you're doing a disservice to him. If there's an advantage, he can take a bigger guy off the dribble."
There was never any real doubt that Towns would be the choice at No. 1, though Newton reiterated that the Timberwolves made sure to do their "due diligence" during the draft process before making the pick official. Towns' ability to play inside and out aligns perfectly with Flip Saunders' offense, which frequently sends smaller players to the post. Towns can take post entry passes from Andrew Wiggins, yet their roles can easily be reversed. Few centers offer that kind of option -- and yes, that is the position Newton ultimately sees Towns playing.
That there's still so much for Towns to learn isn't a surprise. Not only is he still just 19, but he's also not used to playing extended minutes after averaging just 21 for a loaded Kentucky team.
That fatigue showed on many sloppy fouls, particularly when his arms dropped instead of staying straight up. The Lakers trotted out an NBA frontline of Julius Randle, Black and promising undrafted prospect Robert Upshaw, all of whom challenged Towns on both ends. Towns won some battles, but lost others. Everyone knows he needs to get stronger and improve his conditioning.
"I played 32 minutes, and I'm used to a platoon system," Towns said. "That's nineteen minutes, 20 minutes and I'm playing in five-minute spurts. Tonight, I was playing 10, 11 minutes straight. It's different, obviously. I'm not going to lie."
Yet Towns is in a good position where he doesn't need to ace every test in a few months. The Timberwolves won just 17 games last year, but were also victimized by a horrendous run of injuries. They have a cornerstone already in Wiggins, an excellent point guard in Ricky Rubio and some old pros like Kevin Martin and, yes, Kevin Garnett to provide leadership. Contention for a playoff berth is out of the question in the loaded West, but they should be better no matter how quickly Towns develops.
"We won't ever put a number on how many games we think we're going to win, but you hit it right on the head," Newton said when asked about the team's injuries. "We had, I think, the second-most injuries in the NBA last year, and when we have our veterans back healthy, we're definitely a better team.
"The silver lining on last year is that it allowed the young players to get quality minutes so they could grow and develop at a faster rate. So, you can improve your playing style. With the healthier players in question back, we'll do better."
That allows the Timberwolves to give Towns a lot of different tests and wait until he passes them. Eventually, he will. When he does, the NBA is in trouble.