They talked about it, joked about it and even dropped hints referring to it many times. But never did they expect it to happen, at least not this quickly.
Yet here Karl-Anthony Towns and D’Angelo Russell are — NBA teammates.
“For it to come true like this, it’s a dream come true,” Russell said. “I’m going to repeat myself, but this is crazy to me to wake up and see the situation that I’m in, to feel the love of somebody wanting me to be here. It’s a surreal moment for me right now.”
Russell and Towns — now the pillars of these new-look Wolves — first met years ago, while in high school. Russell’s team played Towns’ squad in what the center called “one of the best games in New Jersey history last decade.”
“It was one of those games that D’Angelo shouldn’t have won, but found a way to win,” Towns said. “I don’t know. We ran out of gas. He knows that.”
That was the start, but Towns said over time the two continued to cross paths and their respect for one another and their games continued to blossom. Then, they entered the life-altering pre-draft process, where Towns and Russell — the eventual top two picks in 2015 — were side by side for much of it.
“Nothing gets you closer to having to, in essence, spend every single day living with a person and also having to play basketball at its highest level,” Towns said.
Towns said he and Russell were always teammates — never opponents — in pre-draft workouts. The duo was often pitted against Towns’ Kentucky teammates, Devin Booker and Willie Cauley-Stein. They never wanted to lose, and Towns said the tandem consistently leaned on one another to make each other better.
They’ve been close friends ever since. More than that, if you ask Towns.
“He’s never just been a friend of mine. He’s been a brother of mine,” Towns said. “Our families are so intertwined and connected. It’s going to be real fun to be able to be out there with someone I call not only my brother but more like blood to me.”
Towns was the first one at the airport to greet Russell when the point guard first landed in Minnesota late Thursday night, armed with a freshly printed No. 0 Russell Timberwolves jersey and a new coat for his good friend. But it wasn’t until after the hoop-la was complete, and Russell and Towns were hanging out at the big man’s home, that the reality sunk in.
“It’s surreal to really think that instead of us just talking on the phone or playing video games with each other and talking about how our teams are doing and everything, but now we’re getting to do this every day with each other. It’s a surreal moment,” Towns said.
There were those who assumed acquiring Russell was, as much as anything else, a way for the Timberwolves to keep their all-star center happy in Minnesota. Gersson Rosas squashed that notion quickly on Friday. Sure, he noted the existing relationship between the two is nice, but insisted “it’s gotta start with basketball.”
“The reality in this league — and we’re all human; I say it all the time, we’re all flawed — things can change,” the president of basketball operations said. “Guys can be best friends today and they’re not friends tomorrow. I lived that in different situations I’ve been in professionally in my career. So it starts with basketball.”
The fit there is pretty good, too. Russell is a playmaking guard now armed with perhaps the most offensively skilled big man in the league. That will be a potent pick-and-roll combination. Russell noted he already knows what Towns does well and where he can put the ball to get the center comfortable on the floor.
“I think that for us it’s just two basketball minds being put together, just with our abilities to score and our abilities to just be smart, you know, there’s so many things that can happen,” Towns said. “We’ve played with each other in the summer, and we have a lot of experience of playing with each other, and you know, I think it’s going to be very scary for opponents when they’re going to have to figure out ways to guard us. And it’s going to be very scary when they have to see what we can do, especially together with the cohesiveness and connectedness that we have.”
For years, Russell said he has seen the “ship that Karl has been driving” here in Minnesota. He’s witnessed the players who’ve come and gone. Those guys, Russell said, didn’t seem to appreciate the situation at hand. Like Towns, Russell has played in the all-star game. He has helped lead a team to the playoffs. But, now on his fourth team in his fifth season, he’s never played with a big like Towns.
“I’ve never played with a player of his caliber, so it’s a good opportunity to come right in and jump in and help make it easier for him,” Russell said. “With my job and my position and understanding my game, I’m a guy that expects to make it easier for other guys. If that’s me scoring, if that’s me passing or facilitating or just understanding the balance. I think the sky’s the limit. I’m super excited.”