Kentucky recruit Karl Towns Jr. eyes success at next level
A flash of orange twirled around Karl Towns Jr.'s ankles as he stood on the baseline and gazed ahead. Two basketballs, two red, size 20 Under Armour sneakers and one sensationally gifted high school hoops star huddled over the tight square of court space below as he paced through a rigorous dribbling routine. A sterling long-range shooting display came next, followed by a vicious between-the-legs dunk and a satisfactory grin signaling the end of his routine.
This summer Towns trains four days a week at East Coast Conditioning in Edison, N.J., refining the physical and tactical aspects of his game. Towns typically arrives at the facility around lunch time, engages in speed and conditioning drills, intense weight training sessions, mixes in a short break for icing and stretching with a physical therapist and finishes his day with the best part of his workout. "What's a better job than just going out there and dribbling a basketball?" he asks.
If Towns, a top-10 player in the class of 2014, continues to improve his strength and conditioning and continues to drive himself to become the best player possible, he will continue on his fast track and will accomplish his dream of playing in the NBA.
At 7-foot-1, 245 pounds, Towns is one of the most uniquely gifted high school players in the country. He has the size to play power forward or center, the perimeter skills and shooting stroke to play small forward and the passing ability to play point guard. It's no wonder why Towns himself can't even name his own position.
"I can't," he says. "You saw me dribbling. I don't see anybody doing that. I shoot the three lights-out. I feel like my post-up game is above average. Everyone always asks me what position I am, and I always say, 'I really don't know. Whatever you want me to be.'"
His former coach at St. Joseph's in Metuchen, N.J., Matt Gigliello, offered his best description. "It's pretty much a matter of where they want to put him," he says.
In the formative stages of his basketball development, Towns honed his perimeter skills with countless hours of shooting practice and rigorous dribbling work. As he filled out his lanky frame, Towns preserved his guard-like skillset while mastering post moves and learning how to defend opposing forwards. Now Towns, the 2013 New Jersey Gatorade Player of the Year, is comfortable playing just about every position.
To diversify his game, Towns pores over film highlighting players of all different sizes, skill sets and generations -- from the astounding athleticism of Len Bias, Towns' "favorite player ever," to the low-block mastery of Hakeem Olajuwon to LeBron James' do-it-all repertoire. "I like to implement a lot of different flavors," he says. When pressed to offer a modern comparison, Towns deliberated an acceptable analogue before finally landing on Kevin Love. "An animal," he says of the Minnesota Timberwolves' forward.
For most elite high school basketball recruits, the summer months are filled with various AAU tournaments, showcase events where college coaches convene to scout the nation's best talent. Towns stopped playing AAU nearly two years ago out of a realization that, after making a verbal commitment to Kentucky, he would do better without the pressure and scrutiny that often comes with high-profile grassroots fixtures. In the meantime, Towns dedicated himself to helping his high school team, which has produced NBA players Jay Williams and Andrew Bynum, win back-to-back NJSIAA Non-Public A championships, the only teams in the school's history to earn that distinction.
This season, Towns will be gunning for a third consecutive state championship. It will be his last chance to claim a championship ring; "My third baby," he calls it. His reclassification to 2014, a switch he made upon committing to Kentucky in December, means Towns will graduate after just three years of high school.
Two years ago, Towns -- one of the players featured in a recent story on basketball prospects repeating middle school grades --had an important decision to make. He was one of the best middle school players in New Jersey and his high school choice was, on a smaller scale, something like a modern college basketball recruitment. After touring some of the state's top basketball prep programs, Towns settled on Pennington, a boarding school with strong academics. His choice was highly anticipated; Pennington was getting a player capable of elevating their basketball program to new heights.
Three weeks before his first day on campus, a Pennington school official called Karl's mom, Jacqueline, to notify her that her son had been denied admission. Pennington had decided not to accept Karl in the interest of warding off media attention and persistent college recruiters. "We don't want the media attention he brings -- honest quote," Towns recalls of the conversation. "I had committed. I had signed and everything."
The unexpected rejection turned into a blessing. Over the next few weeks, Towns searched for a school that would accept him on short notice. It was only after a conversation with coach Dave Turco at an AAU event that he considered St. Joseph's. Days later, after visiting the school located 10 minutes away from his home, Towns concluded his high school search and made a promise. "You're going to be putting state titles up," he told athletic director Jerry Smith.
Following up on his promise was the easy part. Towns needed to transcend the high school circuit to test his basketball limits, and after winning one state championship his freshman season, an enormous challenge awaited. Towns, whose mother is Dominican, quickly climbed the ranks of the Dominican Republic youth basketball system. When it came time to assemble a team to qualify for the 2012 London Olympics, a 16-year old Towns, despite a lack of physical maturity, was selected for competition. "That's the highest plateau you get in basketball," he says. "Playing with the senior team. I was ready for it."
The team was coached by Kentucky coach John Calipari, who instantly connected with Towns on a personal level. Calipari offered a helping hand off the court and showed Towns how to play against seasoned professionals. Towns would routinely leave practices needing extensive cold-tub sit-downs, fatigued after banging in the post with the likes of Charlie Villanueva and Al Horford. "They treated me like any other player," Towns says. Playing limited minutes, Towns and his team failed to qualify for the Olympics after finishing fourth in the FIBA Qualifying Tournament in Venezuela.
Not making the Olympics was disappointing for Towns, but the most memorable experience from his first run with the national team came when, in the final game of the Dominican team's international tour, Towns stared down a collection of the NBA's brightest stars on Team USA. The game itself was not competitive, but Towns finished with three points, two rebounds and one no-look assist. "I really wasn't scared at all," he says. "That's what really opened my eyes after the experience was how fearless I was and how I really just loved the experience. It made me a different person because it gave me this new confidence." After the game, a 113-59 Team USA victory, Towns couldn't resist standing for photos with LeBron James and Carmelo Anthony and consulting Kobe Bryant about his path to greatness.
But for the post-game exchange, Towns likes to think of the experience as just another in a line of international competitions. "For me, it just felt like another day at the job," he says. "We were going against people that we had gone against for the past two months. Now, of course, these are the best pros in the world, but for me, it was no different."
Months later, Towns was sitting at a podium in front of a packed high school gym, his parents propped beside him, preparing to end a heated but brief college recruitment. Before announcing his commitment to Kentucky, the running favorite among Towns' numerous suitors ever since playing under Calipari with the Dominican team, Towns reclassified to 2014. And with that, two decisions shaped his future in college basketball.
The selection process was less simple and less open than anyone might have guessed. Towns was still weighing four schools the morning he made his commitment. When he woke up, Towns anxiously locked his bedroom door and took two showers -- "the best place to think" -- to help him clear his mind. NC State, Florida, Kentucky and Duke -- his mom's preferred choice -- were all up for consideration. Each school had its own unique selling points: Towns grew up a Florida Gators fan; Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski "doesn't know how not to win,"; NC State is an "uprising program"; Kentucky represented a direct link to his Dominican team coach.
In the end, without telling his mom beforehand, Towns leaned into the microphone and chose a school where he could pursue the kinesiology degree he had long since committed himself to completing, and the program that offered the clearest path to a national championship. "At the end of the day, that's what it came down to," he says. "I thought Kentucky was a good fit for my family first of all and second, I thought I could go there and have the highest chance of winning a title. You don't go to college to lose."
Another year of high school stands between Towns and his first college game. Kentucky won't waste any time waiting. The Wildcats will attempt to rebound from a disappointing 2012-13 season with another star-studded freshman class. The group runs seven strong, features four players ranked number one at their respective positions and six McDonald's All-Americans. The 2014 crop includes but one player, Towns himself, but he's already putting his class in the same discussion. "Can it [the 2014 class] be better?" Towns asks rhetorically. "It can be."
The more relevant question, as far as Towns is concerned, is how the two classes will mesh in one year's time to form what he hopes will be "a dream team." Many of this year's freshmen could enter the NBA draft after one season. Depending on who sticks around, and which freshmen join Towns in the 2014 class, Kentucky could field a roster with the talent and depth to push Towns closer to his foremost college goal. The composition of that group remains uncertain, as many of Kentucky's targeted prospects in 2014 have yet to decide on a school.
Towns has one demand any prospective Wildcats should consider before following him to Lexington: the desire to win a national championship. "I'll play with anybody who wants to play for a national title," he says. "If you have a desire to win, and you work hard, chances are we're going to come close to winning one."
Between now and his first game in Rupp Arena, Towns will continue to improve his game individually, mount another state championship run with St. Joseph's and attend several high-profile amateur events. The Jordan Brand Classic and McDonald's All-American game are high on his checklist, but if you expect Towns to try and persuade some of 2014's brightest high school stars to join up with Kentucky, Towns prefers to leave the recruiting to coaches. Case in point: When he roomed with Kansas 2013 signee Andrew Wiggins at the Nike Hoops Summit in Portland this April, Towns declined to attempt to sway him toward Kentucky. "I just said, 'let this boy breathe,' " Towns remembers of his time with Wiggins, who he later beat in an impromptu three-point contest.
The 2014 class will fill out over the course of the 2013-14 season, and some of its highest-rated players -- including point guard Emmanuel Mudiay, power forward Trey Lyles, center Cliff Alexander and shooting guard Stanley Johnson -- have already placed Kentucky near the top of their lists. Towns has no specific preferences about who he may want to play with. "Doesn't matter," he says. Whoever does decide to sign with the Wildcats, the player they join will have one goal overriding every small detail that goes along with being a freshman basketball player at one of the nation's top programs.