Karl-Anthony Towns has the kind of support Jahlil Okafor needs


NEW YORK — No wonder Karl-Anthony Towns wakes up every day and feels blessed.

It’s not just that he’s living the dream of a 20-year old NBA player for the Timberwolves. It’s not just that he’s already shown signs that he one day he could be among the game’s elite players. Every day, he gets to be around Kevin Garnett, Tayshaun Prince and Andre Miller. That’s 39 of NBA experience to draw from, along with glowing resumes that boast two titles, four trips to the Finals and 346 playoff games.

MORE: NBA scout breaks down all the top rookies | Towns is refusing to wait his turn

“I feel very fortunate, not just because Kevin’s a veteran, but because he’s an all-time legend,” Towns said Thursday night in Madison Square Garden before his Timberwolves lost to the Knicks in his homecoming. “I was asleep one day, I woke up and came to practice and I was telling Kevin how blessed we are because not only do we get to be with vets, but with all-time greats. It’s a blessing for our team.”

Other rookies should be so lucky. The Sixers’ Jahlil Okafor, who’s already had enough off-court problems to last an entire NBA career, could use a veteran’s helping hand.

But it wasn’t luck that brought Garnett to the T-wolves. That was the game plan all along, as executed by late team president and head coach Flip Saunders. He made the trade for Garnett at last season’s trading deadline, several months before Minnesota won the draft lottery for the first time and before Saunders knew that he’d be getting the No. 1 overall pick in the 2015 NBA Draft. Then the plan to re-sign Garnett had everything to do with him showing a young player how to conduct himself, on and off the court.

Besides letting him know why interim coach Sam Mitchell has benched him in some recent fourth quarters — he needed to step up his defense and block some shots, rather than just focus on shooting the ball — Garnett is teaching Towns how to be a professional, something you can never learn no matter how much success you had in one season Kentucky, until you’re in the NBA.

“I had KG and he’d be here, every day for practice, at 8:30,” Nets coach Lionel Hollins said the other day. “Practice didn’t start until 11:30, but he’s there going through his workout. So if young guys are coming in late he can get on them and tell them, ‘Hey, this is how you do it.’ And then he’d say, ‘Hey, be here when I’m here.’ That always helps when your best players are doing it. But if you’ve got some veteran players who have already done it, then they can contribute as well.

“It’s funny how it works in this league,” Hollins continued. “If a guy is sitting at the end of the bench and doesn’t play, his leadership means nothing. Absolutely nothing. Nobody’s listening. If you just have vets who don’t like to work, and are just in the league to get another contract, or get another year in, that doesn’t help your young guys, at all. You’ve got to have guys who are solid citizens and very professional and come and work hard every day. That’s what leadership is. That’s what you want.”

Leadership works both ways. Sometimes, there are bad leaders, and those are what coaches are constantly on the lookout for and fear when they’ve got young, impressionable rookies.

Years ago, Adrian Dantley advised a promising rookie with the Jazz not to practice hard but to save himself for games. He also advised him not to dive on the floor for loose balls so that he wouldn’t risk injury. As prolific a scorer as Hall of Fame-bound Dantley was, coach Frank Layden felt that he had to trade Dantley because he was being a bad influence and sent him to the Pistons. The rookie? Karl Malone.

Some rookies, like LeBron James, don’t lean as heavily veterans to help them adjust to a new world, where they’ve got more money than they’ve ever seen and the temptations to go astray are there on a daily basis, in some new city. They’re mature enough to handle everything thrown at them while performing at a high level on the court. Towns, who often credits strong parenting for his success, looks to be in that mold.

MORE: Garnett embraces his role as voice of Timberwolves

Others, like Okafor, do need a mentor, which is why the Sixers’ new chairman of basketball operations, Jerry Colangelo, has plans to bring in some seasoned pros who will be able to teach Okafor the do’s and don’ts of NBA life. For Colangelo, the void must be filled to ensure Okafor’s success and it’s a sentiment shared by many teams.

“There’s a thing we call the ‘pro light bulb’ and for some young players, that can come on early,” Magic coach Scott Skiles said. “They get it. They understand the grind of this, how to get themselves ready, how to

take care of themselves, how to be a professional. Then there some young guys who really need positive influences on the team that they look up to, to help them in those areas. But if you’re going to have veterans who you think are providing a positive influence, you’d better be right. It’s not just that they’re veterans, but they have to be the kind of veterans where the pro light bulb has come on for them, and they understand it, too.”

The Minnesota locker room definitely has those kinds of veterans — the good kind.

“Those guys do know what they’re talking about,” Towns said, walking into the locker room in the Garden.

And that’s why he counts his blessings, every single day.

Slam dunks

• It’s fine for Minnesota coach Sam Mitchell to rip the media any time he wants, which seems to be practically every day, but it’s not as if he’s being judged on wins and losses. Crabby as ever, Big Sam needs to remember that he’s going to be judged on how he develops his three key 20-year-old players — Towns, Andrew Wiggins and Zach LaVine — and not how many wins he collects. By the way, Garnett has advised Towns not to be so media-friendly. Let’s hope that piece of advice went in one ear and out the other.

• I get that Jerry Colangelo wants to hire the best people out there for key positions with the Sixers. But does everyone need to be either a Duke grad or have Team USA connections?

• Golden State’s 24-game winning streak is all the more impressive given that the Warriors didn’t have Harrison Barnes for eight games and got win No. 24 without Barnes or Klay Thompson in Boston. Right now, the Sixers, Nets, Lakers and Pelicans would sign for 24 wins all season.

• You see so many bad things about Memphis now — Zach Randolph is fading, Marc Gasol has taken a step back from last season, the Griz doesn’t have enough perimeter shooting, Jeff Green is too inconsistent — it’s hard to see them getting it together.

• The big question in Los Angeles is whether veterans Lou Williams, Roy Hibbert and Brandon Bass last the entire season or if one or more is shipped out by the trading deadline.

• When Rajon Rondo offers what is supposed to be an apology, can he at least use the words, “I’m sorry”? And can he do it facing reporters who might want to ask him a follow-up question or two about his views on gays like referee Bill Kennedy, rather than do it in absentia while hiding behind his Twitter account, or via a team release in his follow-up?