New Jersey prep standout Karl Towns Jr. got a feel for what Kentucky basketball was like when he was part of the Dominican national team last summer that trained at UK and was coached by John Calipari.
However, he was expecting to get an even better feel for the UK¿fans Saturday when he played in the Red State Blue State Series at Broadbent Arena in Louisville. His St. ¿Joseph’s team was scheduled to take on Ballard and Louisville commit Quentin Snider followed by Whitney Young (Ill.) that featured Jahlil Okafor, the nation’s top-ranked junior, against Evangelical Christian (Tenn.) and top five sophomore Skal Labassiare.
“I just really can’t wait to play in front of my soon to be home crowd,” Towns, a 7-0 junior said eralier this week. “I can’t wait to see the turnout and to be in the Kentucky atmosphere. It will be a special moment. My team is very excited to be coming to Kentucky. They can’t wait to see where I¿will be playing in a couple of years, and we get to play a great team. I had no idea something like this would happen. I thought they were just playing with me when they told me at school we had a game in Kentucky. I can’t wait.”
However, he’s going to have it wait because the games have been cancelled. All tickets purchased for Broadbent Arena will be refunded. As of now, a game March 3 at Freedom Hall matching Huntington (W.Va.) Prep and UK¿recruiting target Andrew Wiggins against Montverde Academy (Fla.) and UK¿signee Dakari Johnson is still scheduled.
Kentucky fans were slated to get a look in person at Towns, an extraordinary player who felt comfortable playing against NBA stars like Kobe Bryant and LeBron James in an Olympic exhibition game last season. Earlier this season he had a quadruple double — 16 points, 17 rebounds, 11 blocked shots and 11 assists. To put that in perspective, there’s never been a quadruple double at UK and has only been one triple double. In NBA history, there have been only four quadruple doubles.
Towns had another game in January where he had 31 points, 17 rebounds, eight blocks and four assists. After his quadruple double, he came back with 23 points, 17 rebounds and 11 blocks. Last week he had a game with 20 points, 18 rebounds, 12 blocks and eight assists — and didn’t play in the fourth quarter because his team had such a big lead. His coaches and athletics director even reviewed that game tape to see if he might have had more assists to have made that game another quadruple double.
Towns said the quadruple double was “one of those special moments” he won’t forget.
“It’s something I¿will probably tell my kids and family about for years. It was kind of surprising and made me realize all the work I’ve put in has paid off,” Towns said.
He announced in early December that he would play at Kentucky and reclassify from the 2015 recruiting class to the 2014 class. He says those decisions have taken a lot of stress off him this season.
“I am not worrying about anything except basketball. I have some flaws in my game, but at the same time they will be strengths in our championship run,” Towns said. “I am putting up good numbers, have pride in myself and am trying to make sure I¿play well and give my team all I have every game.
“I am a very versatile player. I didn’t just go to Kentucky because I am big guy. I¿am very versatile and can do anything on the court that the coaches ask. People from Kentucky know I can play. I just want to play the game I¿know how to play and play St. Joe basketball. We win and lose as a team. I want to do best and let fans see I always try to do my best.”
He had been looking forward to interacting with UK fans who have been supporting him since his commitment to Kentucky.
He’s not sure how much time he’ll have to interact with UK fans, but he wants to meet as many as possible.
“I¿always enjoy meeting fans. I love interacting with fans. When family is not there, the Kentucky fans will be there and supporting you. I try to give back to fans all I can,” Towns said.
He doesn’t get to talk to Calipari or UK assistant coach Orlando Antigua often because they are not allowed to contact him directly since technically is still only a high school sophomore even though he has reclassified. Instead, Calipari contacts his coach and then information is relayed to Towns.
“Coach tells me what they say and I tell him to tell them hi and wish them the best this year,” Towns said. “They tell me just to run the floor hard and stay positive and do all they taught me (during the summer). They tell me to remember all they told me and I try to use all the assets God gave me and dad and coach Cal taught me.
“Coach O (Orlando Antigua) is a great guy and I love him. But I went to Kentucky because it has the major I wanted, is a great school and has a great team and coaches. At the end of the day, that’s where I feel I¿can blossom into the player and person I want to be.”
He’s followed Kentucky’s up and down season regularly.
“I watch every game. I rush home to watch on TV or I am on my phone watching,” Towns said. “I¿am always up to date on Kentucky and making sure the Wildcats are doing well. They’ve had a hard road, but they will pick it up at the right time. Coach Cal will get them there. He’s just a special coach and will get it done.”
Towns got to experience that coaching first-hand during his time with the Dominican team when he had NBA players as teammates and played against NBA players and college players in exhibition and tournament games.
How hard was it to adjusting to playing against normal high school competition after that summer experience?
“It was very difficult to adjust to high school again. It was so different,” Towns said. “The physicality is so much less in high school, especially in New Jersey where they are very picky about touch fouls. With the Dominican team, I went against LeBron James,¿Kevin Love and others who were all very physical. I am always a physical guy and to be in high school and not be able to touch anybody is hard. It’s like I am intimidating and they (officials) have to give fouls to kids smaller than me. I¿have had to tone down my physicality and a lot of the things I did against NBA players. It just took me a little time to adjust to that, but I was fine by the time the season started.”
Towns plans to join the Dominican team again this summer even though Calipari won’t be coaching.
“I want to see who the coach will be, but I want to go out and work hard and lead the team to the Olympics (in 2016). It is so much fun playing with those guys. It’s great to play with competitive people like that. They make sure you play hard and get better. We learn from each other and how to fix flaws in our game and have fun doing it for us and our country,” Towns said.
His parents have both been major influences on him. He’s an honor student, one reason he’s been able to reclassify to the 2014 recruiting class, and says his mom, a nurse, has always stressed academics first.
“She wants me to excel in all areas of life. She is always trying to keep me well rounded, and I¿appreciate that,” Towns said. “She is the reason why I was put here and I owe it to her to make sure my time here is special.
His father, a former college standout, was the first one “to put a basketball in my hand” and took him to practices for the AAU team he coached.
“He gave me a chance to play this sport. He’s had a huge influence,” Towns said. “He taught me to dribble and shoot. He gave me an opportunity to get better. I just hope I can make it to the league (NBA) one day and show him all his work paid off. My dad could be a little tough on me times because he wanted me to be the best. He always pushed me. There would be days I wanted to be home watching cartoons and he wanted me in the gym to shoot or work out. That frustrated me, but now that I am going to Kentucky to play at the highest level, I think back and realize how much he did for me by getting me in the gym.”
Still, there was a time when Towns walked away from basketball.
“I actually quit basketball and wanted to be a baseball star,” Towns laughed and said. “I didn’t want to play basketball any more. That was about three years ago I think. But after three weeks of playing baseball, I missed basketball. I was a pitcher, first baseman, outfielder, third baseman. I loved it. My dad was a little irked that I quit basketball, but he supported me and went to all my games across the country.
“I sill love baseball, but since I took that break from basketball and came back my drive for basketball has been at a high level. That break gave me an even greater passion for basketball, and I¿needed that.”