In many ways, 2015 NBA Rookie of the Year Karl-Anthony Towns is like the kid he was two years ago when he was a high schooler. Only now he has money, fame, far more muscle, and, from the looks of it, better posture.
At least Towns seems to be standing a little bit taller as he stares down the photographer's camera. We're in the combat training room at Proactive Sports Performance in Westlake Village, California, and Towns is capping off his last major workout of the NBA off-season with a STACK photo shoot.
Not long ago, Towns was reading STACK magazine at St. Joseph High School in Metuchen, New Jersey. Now he's on the cover of its first-ever exclusively digital edition.
"Whenever STACK came to our school, everyone flocked to the cafeteria to get that new copy," Towns says. "It was with me through three years of high school. [Towns reclassified so he could attend the University of Kentucky after his junior year at St. Joe's.] Now being able to have a whole photo shoot and be on the cover of STACK is a huge honor."
It's an honor Towns more than earned with an incredible rookie season in the NBA. Last year, he started all 82 regular season games for the Minnesota Timberwolves, averaging more than 18 points and 10 rebounds per contest. He improved steadily as the months wore on, and the team began to show signs of progress late in the season. A team that had lost nearly 120 games during the past two years ended the season by playing nearly .500 ball (10 wins, 12 losses) in March and April.
KAT's emergence, combined with other young players like Andrew Wiggins, Zach LaVine and Ricky Rubio who are beginning to realize their potential, has fans and pundits predicting big things from the Timberwolves this season.
Towns isn't letting it get to his head though. "I feel like I have so much more to prove," he says. "I feel blessed to have had early success in my career, but it's still early. There are still a lot of things I can improve. That's why I'm [at Proactive] today—to not only be much better than I was in my first year, but to almost seem like a whole different player my second year."
If Towns succeeds, he will have taken the next step in what's already been a remarkable (albeit not totally unexpected) evolution of an athlete who seemingly has been impressive his entire life.
When STACK first spoke with Towns, in 2014, the 7-footer had just won Gatorade's National High School Player of the Year Award. His exceptional height wasn't the only reason he stood out at the ceremony. In the pack of 12 finalists—all of whom were exceptional athletes—the gregarious Towns was the clear leader, smiling and telling jokes with everyone in the group.
Then there was his acceptance speech. Towns delivered a tribute to his parents, Karl Sr. and Jacqueline Cruz. Mom and Dad once used their savings to build a court in their backyard so Towns could practice.
The 18-year-old fought back tears as he spoke. Many older people in the room, including high-profile business executives and famous athletes, were openly crying.
Many things about Towns haven't changed since he delivered that speech. He's still eloquent, poised and personable. But his body is completely different.
Sure, Towns is bigger. His arms and legs are thicker. When he places his hands on his hips, his shoulders ripple with thin black lines that hint of his powerful deltoids lying beneath. However, what's most noticeable is this posture.
Teenage Towns carried himself with a slight hunch. His chin jutted out. His shoulders rolled slightly forward. It's a common issue among tall athletes, perhaps formed from years of having to look or lean down to speak with shorter people.
Today any trace of that hunch is gone. As the photographer's flashbulbs fire around him, Towns stands with his shoulders pinned back, his chest up, and his head in perfect alignment over his torso.
Proactive owner and head trainer Ryan Capretta says the new look is by design, and the improved posture is part of the training plan.
"The first thing we want to do with any athlete is get them moving properly. That means improving joint mobility [and] working to obtain optimal muscle length," Capretta says. "We also develop fundamental strength in the core and different posture muscles in the shoulders and hips."
The result is a workout that's different from anything you've ever seen, starting with the enormous Timberwolves forward working on his lower body mobility with the help of sticks that are nearly as tall as he is (see Stick Mobility, below).
Minutes later, a trainer holding a stability ball tries to shove Towns from the side. It's as if the two were locked in an inflatable sumo suit battle, except Towns can only fight back with one hand (See "Swiss Ball – Partner Lateral Movement"). Then came the chains—large links of silver medal draped over the side of a thick barbell that Towns bench pressed slowly and deliberately ("Fat Bar Chain Bench").
By the end of the session, Towns drips sweat as he shuffles from side to side and jumps to pluck airborne basketballs from the sky. When he leaps, his long arms seem to reach the vaulted ceiling above.
"Quicker reaction, quicker steps equal a better athlete," Towns says. "This workout helps me stay in defensive stances longer, use my legs better, and keep my knees more out [rather than collapsing in], which prevents knee injuries. That's the biggest thing about training here—it's not only about getting stronger, but being healthier."
Want to improve those aspects of your own game? Then sub in some of these moves from Towns's workout.
Karl-Anthony Towns's Workout
The first cue you should take from Towns is to focus on movement quality, not quantity—and definitely not on how much weight you can move. "People in high school get hung up on lifting heavy weights and all this stuff," Towns says. "Don't do that. Make sure you do your exercises with purpose and great technique."
Towns and Capretta performed the following workout as a continuous circuit, performing one set of each exercise, resting as needed between sets.
Prepare your body for training with foam rolling. (Click here to see a foam rolling guide for basketball players.) Towns rolls his feet overtop a lacrosse ball to break up knots and adhesions in the tissue known as the plantar fascia.
Stick Mobility: 3 Exercises
RELATED: Get Karl-Anthony's Shoes HERE
Towns starts his workout with three movement drills using Stick Mobility sticks. If those aren't available at your gym, try these hip flexor stretches, holding each for a short duration (about 3 seconds).
Stability Ball – Partner Lateral Movement
Have a partner hold a stability ball at his chest. Get into a wide athletic stance as if you were in a defensive shuffle on a basketball court. Place your right hand on the center of the ball with your right arm fully extended. Have your partner walk toward you, pushing the ball into you gently.
Keep your hand on the ball as you move with him. Switch directions so that sometimes you are retreating, while at others your partner is retreating. Don't let your shoulder hike up toward your ears at any point—the objective is to keep your shoulder down and maintain good posture as you move. Do about 10 steps in each direction, then switch arms.
Stability Ball Plank Hold with Partner Hits
Place your elbows on top of a stability ball, clasp your hands and lower yourself into a plank. Lower your hips so that they are in line with your torso, and push through your heels. Have a partner try to nudge you off balance occasionally as you hold for 30 seconds.
Stability Ball Saws
Starting from the same plank position you used in the last exercise, use your elbows to roll the ball forward and backward slightly.
TRX 1 - Arm Row with Rotation
This is a compound exercise; first a row, then a rotation. Hold both handles of the TRX in one hand, and use your single arm to row your chest to them. Pause for a moment at the top, then lower with control until your arm is fully extended. When you reach the bottom, rotate and open up toward the side.
Reps: 5 on each side
Dumbbell Bench Press Negatives with Neutral Grip
Lower the weights slowly and with control across a four-count. Explode upward to push the weights away from your chest. Keep your elbows in line with your hands—don't let them flair out to your sides.
Dumbbell Prone Rows Negatives
Place your chest on a slightly inclined bench and lift your feet off the floor. Holding dumbbells at your sides, lower the weights slowly across a four-count. Pull the weight back toward your torso as fast as you can.
Fat Bar Chain Bench Press for Speed
This is like a standard Bench Press, except Capretta adds a grip challenge by employing a fat bar. If your gym doesn't have one, you could opt for Fat Gripz. You could also do Resisted Band Bench Presses if chains aren't available.
On this set, Towns' goal was speed of movement—the opposite of negatives. For you, that means lower the weight and focus on going fast.
High Cable Rows for Speed
Stand with your feet wider than shoulder-width apart. Set the cable machine on a high, wide setting. Grasp the handles and sink your hips into a quarter-squat. Pull the handles down and into your armpits as fast as you can.
Lateral & Front Cable Raises on Stability Ball
Adjust the cable machine so the handles are set to a low, wide position. Grasp the handles, bend your knees and place your back atop a stability ball. From this position, you're basically going do Lateral and Front Shoulder Raises just as you would if you were standing: arms straight out to the side, then arms straight in front of your torso. Do 10 reps of each.
Dumbbell Hammer Curls to Push-Ups
Perform three reps of Hammer Curls, then lower the weights slowly to the floor.
Once the weights are secured there and while maintaining your grip on the handles, drop into a push-up position and perform five strict Push-Ups.
On the fifth rep, stand back up and go right into your next set of Hammer Curls. Do three sets total.
Wall Leaning – Band Standing Side Plank Runner
Place a mini-band around your legs just above the knees. Hold a pad against a wall with your elbow, and plant your outside leg firmly against the ground. You want to keep that leg straight and maintain a straight, neutral torso while moving your free hand and leg as if they were running.
"This move requires total body strength," Capretta says. "You have to stabilize the midsection while firing your glutes. You want to maintain a neutral alignment and fight to resist flexion and extension of the spine. For somebody as tall as Karl, it's very challenging."
Midline Hold Lateral Steps With Reverse Diagonal Jabs
Start in a basketball stance with a mini-band around your legs above the knees. Grab the handle of a cable machine set at shoulder-height with both hands. Hold that handle at the center of your chest, then side shuffle away from the machine. Take three steps away, leading with your outside leg and following with the inside. After the third step, take "jab" steps backward with your inside leg.
"This exercise puts the athlete in a basketball-specific position," Capretta says. "We're focusing on keeping the hands at the midline while the cable pulls you in the opposite direction. From there, the band helps activate the glutes while keeping the toes straight ahead puts a greater emphasize on the glutes. The final key component is activating the midsection and not letting the shoulders dominate the movement."
Reps: Take 30 total steps, then switch sides.
Med Ball Reverse Pivot Partner Pass
The mini-band that's been around your knees for the past two exercises? Keep it there. In this move, you square up against a partner who tosses a medicine ball to you. Catch it, take one reverse pivot step, then step forward to throw the ball back to your partner.
Reps: 10 passes on each side
One-Arm Battle Rope Waves with Lateral Steps and Tennis Ball Catch
There's a lot going on in this exercise. First, you hold a battle rope in one hand. Move it so that the rope forms a consistent wave against the ground while you take lateral steps from side to side. But that's not all. With your free hand, catch a tennis ball thrown by your partner at random moments. After every catch, toss the ball back underhand.
Reps: Perform this combo movement for 20 seconds on each side.
Drop Step, Jump, Reaction, Rebound
"This exercise puts the athlete through specific movements he will encounter on the court," Capretta says. That's why it starts with a 180-degree Drop Step immediately followed by a Jump—the type of move Towns would have to make if a ball bounced over his head and behind him after an errant shot.
From there he shuffles in the direction called out by a partner or coach.
Last, Capretta tosses a ball high up in the air for Towns to snag.
"In basketball there are a lot of different stimuli that an athlete has to react to while maintaining proper movement mechanics," Capretta says. "Putting an athlete through this exercise allows us to mimic game-like situations and see how our strength program is translating into more efficient movement."
Reps: Perform the drill four times
Raptor Broad Jump, Vertical Jump to Lateral Shuffles
In this drill, Towns is hooked to Vertimax's Raptor, which is basically the horizontal version of the resistance-band system that became famous for boosting Vertical Jumps. You'll can still benefit by performing the drill even if you don't have that specific piece of equipment at your school.
There are several movements involved in this drill, but the pattern essentially is: Broad Jump, Veritcal Jump, Slide, Slide. Those "slides" should be in whatever direction your partner indicates. If your partner can toss a ball up for you to block during the Vertical Jump, even better.
Reps: Perform the drill two times
Raptor Tennis Ball Reaction Drill
It's showdown time. This drill is a lot like the tennis ball drill you may have seen Odell Beckham Jr. blowing up on Instagram. The premise is simple: two people, two tennis balls, and who's going to drop the ball first? The goal is for neither to drop a ball, even though the trainer throws them in tough spots for the athlete to catch. It's designed to keep the athlete on his toes. Towns takes it up a notch by being fastened to Vertimax's Raptor throughout the drill.
Quick Hits from Karl-Anthony Towns
On what it's like to be 7 feet tall: "[I have] longer limbs, longer trunk, and a longer base [than most people]. Because of all of those things, I have a lot more muscle that needs to be stable and controlled than the average human, and that's fine. I just need to work harder."
On his best attribute as a player: "I feel like my biggest weapons are my quickness, my versatility and my ability to use my length. That's what helped me tremendously in my career."
How he recovers from workouts: "I drink a protein shake to get the protein I need to repair the muscles I used, and also Gatorade to replenish the electrolytes I lost. I'll also get a great massage. And I'm a big fan of acupuncture."
On his favorite pregame meal: "I love chicken. Everybody who knows me knows that I don't eat red meat, pork, or beef. I don't eat any of that. Chicken is the only meat that I'll eat. So the night before a game, I'll try to get a lot of carbs in, so I'll have a chicken picatta or something with linguini. Then on the day of the game, before the game, I'm weird. I like having chicken noodle soup." (Strangely, so does Green Bay Packers RB Eddie Lacy.)
What he does in his free time: "I watch a lot of movies, play a lot of video games, and love to golf. I golf a lot."
The best advice he's ever received: "In college [at the University of Kentucky], we were an undefeated team going strong for a whole season. Coach [John] Calipari always told us to play in the present and enjoy the moment, because you never know when you'll have it again. I took it to heart. I never looked at tomorrow. I never looked at next week or next month. I've always played for today."
Advice he'd give to any high school athlete: "Do everything with a sense of purpose."
The Basketball Blowout Issue 2016 features training tips and advice from Paul George, Ricky Rubio, J.R. Smith and many more. CLICK HERE to see the full lineup.
Photo Credit: Getty Images // Thinkstock