A new season brings new players and new stories to tell. Over the next several weeks, CoachCal.com will be profiling Kentucky’s newcomers in its annual and exclusive “Meet the Wildcats” series. Each story will be accompanied with video. Today we kick off the 2014-15 series with the incomparable Karl-Anthony Towns.
There are the necessities: clothes, bed sheets, laundry detergent and hamper. The essentials: TV, laptop, fridge and microwave. And then there are the wants: perhaps a video game console, a DVD or Blu-ray player, headphones, or pictures of mom and dad.
Karl-Anthony Towns’ list looked like most other teenagers when he left Piscataway, N.J., for the rolling hills of Kentucky. It included the bed sheets, the hamper, the TV and the microwave, but there was also an item you wouldn’t find 99 percent of 18-year-old males in possession of that Towns won’t go anywhere without.
A lint roller. Yes, a lint roller.
Date of birth: Nov. 15, 1995
Parents: Jacqueline and Karl Towns
Hometown: Piscataway, N.J.
High school: St. Joseph High School
Nickname: Special K, KAT
Favorite TV show: Bar Rescue
Favorite food: Chicken and rice
Favorite superhero: Superman
Favorite player: Len Bias, Kevin Durant
Favorite hobby outside of basketball: Golf
Favorite movie: Space Jam
Favorite artist: Drake, Mac Miller
“I just always like smelling clean and l always like looking good,” the 18-year-old freshman told CoachCal.com in an exclusive interview last week.
Forget what kind of kid has a lint roller in his possession in college; what kind of kid has four of them so he’s never far away from one?
Check the top of his dresser in his dorm room and you’ll find two of them. Look in his locker at the Joe Craft Center and you’ll see another. And if you peek behind the computer monitor of the check-in desk at the Wildcat Coal Lodge, Towns has another one hidden there in case he forgets to clean his clothes before walking to class.
“I just want to make sure when I leave I look like the best-looking guy possible,” Towns said.
Towns doesn’t need the help of some adhesive paper on a plastic barrel to do that. His work to this point looks plenty good without it.
Three years ago, a baby-faced Towns walked into Dominican Republic training camp with high hopes of playing at the highest level but no real understanding of how to get there.
Blessed with a frame that was quickly nearing 7 feet and with talent that was already warranting looks from the top Division I schools in the country, Towns, whose mother hails from the Dominican Republic, earned a camp invite from the national team’s management. John Calipari, who had agreed to lead the team many months earlier, just so happened to be the team’s head coach.
While Towns was in training camp for those couple of weeks in the summer of 2011, he stood out, but not for the reasons that seem so obvious now that he’s at Kentucky and among the most talented freshmen in the country.
Just 15 years old at the time, Towns was matched up with players twice his age and against NBA stars with 10 times the experience. While in Lexington, Towns was pushed around by the likes of NBA big men Al Horford and Charlie Villanueva. He learned how to grind from a bruiser like Jack Michael Martinez, a player who never received his deserving crack in the NBA but made a professional career for himself nonetheless. He was taken to school by a veteran like Francisco Garcia.
His youth was apparent.
“Being with the Dominican team gave me such a great sense of pride for me and my family and also gave me a lot of experience,” Towns said. “For me it was a little tough just getting to the transition of learning the offense while learning to play the style that Coach Cal wanted.”
Towns wasn’t with the Dominican Republic team that made it to the semifinals of the 2011 FIBA Americas Championship, but putting his feet to the fire those two weeks at the training camp helped him make the U-17 Dominican team and eventually paved the way for his spot on the 2012 national team that came within one win of qualifying for the Olympics in London.
“Being with Coach Cal on the Dominican team just helped our chances tremendously of trying to qualify for the Olympics,” Towns said. “Having a great coach like him on the sidelines makes a big difference. Same thing here. I’m just so glad that I have him on my sideline again and I get a chance to play for him for as many years as I’m at Kentucky.”
Towns didn’t play a huge role in the Olympic qualifiers in Venezuela, but the experience he gained was vital to his accelerated development. Prior to the qualifying tournament, the Dominicans played an exhibition game against the U.S. national team in Las Vegas, and Towns not only got in that game, he hit a 3-pointer over the outstretched limbs of Anthony Davis.
Who, at 16, can say they’ve played against some of the game’s best? Towns could.
“I had a blast just having a chance to learn from such great, experienced players from each side of the world,” Towns said.
When it came time for Towns’ sophomore season at St. Joseph High School in Metuchen, N.J., he had international experience under his belt, was burgeoning into one of the best talents in the country and was receiving offers from a handful of the top schools in the country.
With his academics well in order and his mind already made up where he wanted to attend college, Towns not only picked Kentucky at a grand press conference at his high school, he also announced he was reclassifying to the 2015 class.
“Me and my family talked about it and felt like it was the best decision for me,” Towns said. “I have no regrets from anything. I feel like I did a great job in high school, but it gave me a year closer to be here at Kentucky and it gave me a chance now to be with such a great team. I’m so blessed to have a team like we have right now and have such experience and such talent that we’ve always possessed here at the University of Kentucky.”
Ask Towns why he chose UK and he will eventually rattle off Calipari’s success rate at putting players in the NBA, he’ll tell you about Coach Cal’s underrated ability to develop big men, and he’ll even admit that he got a firsthand view of Calipari’s coaching style with the Dominican Republic team and grew to love it.
But the first answer he will unwaveringly give you every single time might surprise you.
“The whole time I’ve been here I’ve always stressed one thing and that’s education,” Towns said. “I’m having a great time here learning in my major of kinesiology. Kentucky’s top three in the country and I’m having a great time learning under the best. I came here to be the best person I could be, not the best player I could be, and that’s what Kentucky’s offering me every day.”
OK, stop right there. A 6-11 elite basketball player who very well could be in next year’s NBA Draft is talking about education first? That’s too good to be true, right?
Towns said his love for something other than basketball was fostered from basketball and his mother’s occupation as a nurse. The more he became interested in sports, the more he gained an interest in kinetic movement of the body. The two (basketball and kinesiology) sort of just went hand in hand and drove him to do well off the court.
“With my mom being a nurse and my dad being a teacher, education has just been flowing through my bloodlines,” Towns said. “Having such great background and having such a great supporting cast back home has always given me the chance and the ability to do well in class. The support I’ve had has made me the best person that I can be.”
Talk with him for just a few minutes and you get the sense that there is more to this kid than just basketball. Whether it’s the 3.66 grade-point average he posted in high school – remember, he graduated a year ahead of schedule – or the fact that he met with a professional in the field of kinesiology before coming to UK, there seems to be a genuine belief for Towns that there is, indeed, life after basketball.
“I’ve always been known to have a plan B, a plan C and a plan D,” Towns said. “I’m just happy that I have a chance here at UK to broaden my horizons, not just through sports but also education. During the summer I’ve been taking all the chances to enjoy the classes, look at all my options and look at what’s the best for me and my family and what I want to do with my future. UK has given me every opportunity in the world to do that.”
As Towns delivered an eloquent, heartfelt speech in Los Angeles two weeks ago for winning Gatorade Male High School Athlete of the Year – a speech he swears he “winged” – he looked beyond the glare of the bright lights on stage, the eyeballs of hundreds in the crowd and the pressure of the moment and found his parents at his table looking up at him with such pride, such wonder at the son they had molded.
Reflecting upon what got him to that stage in the first place and what gave him the opportunity to walk the red carpet at the ESPY Awards the next night, Towns could think of nothing else but his family and his parents.
“My parents are the reason I am who I am,” Towns said. “The way they brought me up, the way they’ve taken their time with me has just reflected off me as a person and as a player, I just go out every day and try to be the best person, the best player, the best athlete I can be every day I walk this earth.”
Because if it wasn’t for his mother, Jacqueline, not only would he have never have gained an interest in kinesiology, he likely never would have become so well-rounded.
“My mother has shown me the way of being a great teammate, to be caring to everyone else and just being a great human,” Towns said.
And if it wasn’t for his father, Karl Sr., who found time for him between multiple jobs to teach him sports and to make him understand what it meant to work hard, he probably would have never made it this far in basketball.
“My dad has been my rock,” Towns said. “My dad made a lot of sacrifices in my life to make time for me and my family. It may have been 15 minutes one day, 45 minutes the other day, but my dad always made sure he made some time where I could play baseball or I could play basketball or I could just play video games with him.”
That’s why winning the Gatorade Male High School Athlete of the Year two weeks ago was, for Towns, as much about his parents as it was about him.
“They’re my shining stars, I guess you could say,” Towns said.
Now that Towns has gotten this far, it will, for the most part, be up to him to reach his dream of making it to the next level.
Towns had a prolific career in high school, etching his name among St. Joseph greats Jay Williams and Andrew Bynum by winning the New Jersey Tournament of Champions, the first in school history. He also averaged 21.5 points, 13.7 rebounds and 6.4 blocks en route to New Jersey’s Gatorade Player of the Year honors.
But his accomplishments of the past are nothing more than that for Towns – they’re in the past.
“My focus right now is trying to get No. 9 here,” Towns said. “We did a great job in high school, but it doesn’t mean anything in college. This is a new goal I have to chase and a new championship I have to chase for.”
Towns could be the piece to help the group of Wildcats that decided to come back for another season get there.
In Towns, not only is UK getting a still-growing 6-11 player (doctors have told him he could still grow another 3-4 inches), it’s getting a rare big man who can step outside the 3-point line and hit shots and take slower, plodding players off the dribble.
“If I had to describe my game in one word it would probably be versatility,” said Towns, who is near the top of most 2015 NBA mock drafts. “I feel that I have the ability to do anything that Coach asks. Can shoot, can dribble, can post up, can play inside-outside, and I also feel that I can be a great defender for any team. I’m just glad that I get to put on a Kentucky jersey every day.”
Where exactly that versatility fits in this season remains to be seen. Is it at the five with Trey Lyles and Alex Poythress on the floor? Is it alongside Willie Cauley-Stein or Dakari Johnson since Towns can play on the perimeter? Or does it mean less minutes for someone else?
Towns is taking nothing for granted on a team with an embarrassment of riches in the front court.
“I feel I need to work on everything,” Towns said. “There’s not a day I feel I shouldn’t be working on something and I feel like every facet of my game can get even stronger, can be even tighter. That’s why I’m so happy to be here with such great talent, some of the most talented players in the country here at Kentucky.”
His only focus is on joining this team and taking it over the top.
“The experience that those guys have is insurmountable,” Towns said. “We have so much experience. The national championship game by itself, they’re hungry to get back there and we’re hungry to help them get back to their goals. The best thing about this team is it seems to be jelling and we’re doing a great job. The experience that they have and the talent that they already possess, the sky’s the limit for us. We just need to chase it.”
Wherever Towns fits in to that, chances are, based on what he’s done so far in every other phase of his life, he’s going to look pretty good doing it.
Building the foundation