You may know him as the skilled rim protector who is getting ready for the NBA. But 12 years ago, players on the Piscataway (New Jersey) Tech High School boys varsity basketball team knew Karl-Anthony Towns as the seven-year-old whose free throw shooting determined whether or not they would end their three-hour practices with sprints. Towns, who participated in the team's drills after school, was tasked with making seven consecutive free throws by his father, Karl Sr., who was the team's coach. If little Karl missed, the players had to run up and down the court seven times. "I was making more than I was missing. But there were some days I did miss a lot," Towns laughingly remembers. "It was bad for the team."
Make or miss, the charity stripe experience prepared Towns for future trips to the line as a 6'11", 250-pound forward for the Kentucky Wildcats. "Moments like that gave me the ability to face any type of pressure," the 19-year-old says. "When I go up to the free throw line or take the last shot of a game, I have no worries."
Towns showed no signs of worry when he sank all seven of his free throws, including two big ones with 1:05 left, to lift UK over Florida in February. He didn't fret when he scored 25 points and nailed 5 of 6 shots from the stripe as Kentucky escaped with an Elite Eight win versus Notre Dame in this year's NCAA tournament either.
Free throw shooting isn't Towns' only strong suit. A shot-blocking, rebound-grabbing force, he is a solid back-to-the-basket low-post scorer. Towns can face up and shoot, as well as pass out of double teams with precision. The do-it-all player earned SEC Freshman of the Year and played a major part in Kentucky's near-perfect season. Now, after one year with the Wildcats, the big man has the potential to be the No. 1 pick in this month's NBA draft.
Towns was always surrounded by basketball, thanks to his father, who was a star rebounder at Monmouth University in 1984. Towns learned basics like ballhandling and defense at Piscataway Tech practices, and he would take 1,000 jump shots almost every day. "My dad would have one of the JV players rebound for me, to speed it up," he says.
As Towns grew (he was 6'5" in the fifth grade), he developed interests beyond the court. Before joining his father's team practices, Towns participated in an after-school art program. "We drew a lot of landscapes and sneakers," Towns says. When he wasn't palming a basketball or holding a pencil to sketch, Towns took piano lessons at school. "I used to play Maroon 5!" he says.
Towns even quit hoops for one summer, before eighth grade, to try something different: baseball. "I felt like basketball wasn't fun anymore," says Towns, who likes to golf and watch Real Madrid soccer matches too. "There was so much talk, 'Oh he's a prodigy.' The best thing for me was to get away from the game for a little bit. Then I started missing it."
Towns — who had been honing his basketball skills with his father — returned to the court, and before long he had sprouted up to 6'9". He had trouble fitting in a school desk. ("I still do!" Towns says.) Classmates poked fun at his size, but Towns always felt comfortable in his skin. "I was raised to not allow anyone to change how I feel about myself. I just laughed with them," Towns says. "If you can do that, then you can get through the teasing."
Towns's game, however, was no laughing matter. Although he had a reputation for being kind and generous, which helped him get elected as ninth-grade class president at St. Joseph High in 2012 (the same year he committed to UK), Towns crushed the competition.
As a senior, Towns averaged 20.9 points, 13.4 rebounds, and 6.2 blocks per game. He also knocked down 127 treys in his final three seasons at St. Joseph. After winning three New Jersey state titles, Towns graduated with a 3.96 grade-point average. Kentucky was getting an all-around student-athlete — one who was ready to progress even further.
When Towns arrived at UK last summer, he was no longer the go-to guy like he was at St. Joseph. Kentucky was bursting with talent, and coach John Calipari used a platoon system that limited minutes and touches for Towns. But that was no problem for him. He just adapted his game. "We already had shooters," he says. "I just knew I had to be a dominant force in the post."
As a UK assistant coach last season, Barry Rohrssen witnessed this improvement. "Even if the stats showed Karl was the best player in a game, it wasn't enough for him. He'd put in extra time at the gym to make corrections and develop more of his interior game," says Rohrssen.
Towns also spent three summers with the Dominican National Team. (His mother, Jacqueline, was born in the Dominican Republic, making him eligible for the team.) He learned about pick-and-roll defense and rebounding position from his teammate Al Horford, an Atlanta Hawks center. When Towns played against Team USA, which was loaded with NBA stars, in 2014, he went toe-to-toe with New Orleans Pelicans star Anthony Davis, a UK alum with whom Towns has been compared. "That taught me I can play with and against anybody," Towns says.
At Kentucky, Towns says basketball was "three, four times harder, physically and emotionally," than he thought it would be. Washing clothes was the other tough part of college. "Doing my laundry was definitely the biggest adjustment I had to make," Towns says. "When to use cold and when to use hot — I'm still a little fuzzy with it!"
Those difficulties didn't hamper Towns, though. His play — he averaged 10.3 points, 6.7 rebounds, and 2.3 blocks in 21.1 minutes per game — helped the Wildcats win their first 38 games. "The streak was a whirlwind. You never knew what night it was going to be — a two-point win or a 25-point win," says Towns. That didn't stop the hard work between games. He adds, "Every time we went to practice, we had no losses. But we were practicing like we lost." Title hopes and the streak were shattered by Wisconsin in the Final Four. "It was surreal that we finally got dinged."
Less than a week after the defeat, Towns declared for the NBA, as did six other Wildcats. Towns continued to attend classes at UK. He's interested in medicine and business, and he plans to get his degree from Kentucky in a few years. "My [UK] basketball career may have finished, but I want to complete my academic career here too," he says.
On the court, Towns is fine-tuning his offense and his footwork. He will also have to work on playing physically without fouling. He picked up 61 fouls in conference play, tops in the SEC. But overall, scouts love his potential and his personality. (Towns posted a thank-you note to UK fans on social media in April to show his appreciation.) "It's all about the upside, and he has that," says Ryan Blake, a scouting consultant for the NBA. "He also brings high character and knows how to share the ball, by playing in Kentucky's platoon system."
Towns is mum about which team might draft him. Could it be the Minnesota Timberwolves, where 19-year NBA veteran and fellow big man Kevin Garnett could mentor him? Or maybe the New York Knicks, the team Towns rooted for as a kid? Or perhaps the Philadelphia 76ers, where Towns could join bigs Joel Embiid and Nerlens Noel?
Wherever he lands, he'll be ready.
Photos: David E. Klutho for Sports Illustrated