Team USA smothered the Dominican Republic at Madison Square Garden on Wednesday night, the inconsequential final score was 105-62, but the Americans didn’t have the tallest or most intriguing player in the game. In fact, the tallest and most intriguing player in Wednesday’s contest hasn’t even started college yet.
Meet Karl Towns, the 7-foot-1 big man from New Jersey who plays for the Dominican team and will soon start his freshman year at the University of Kentucky as one of the top NBA prospects in the 2015 NBA draft (DraftExpress has him currently ranked 4th).
Towns, born on Nov. 15, 1995, is not your ordinary 18-year-old top collegiate recruit. He may have grown up in rural New Jersey, where he attended high school, but he played for the Dominican national team in 2012, at the age of 16 (sixteen!), in Olympic qualifying. So this wasn’t even his first game against Team USA.
Towns didn’t score in just under 10 minutes of playing time and grabbed two rebounds on Wednesday, but said he felt confident because of that experience he got two years ago.
“It’s been a great experience,” Towns told SheridanHoops. “I played against them two years ago with LeBron James, Kevin Durant and everyone. This is a more youthful group, a little more athletic. It goes to show that in two years I’ve grown a lot as a player and my body has definitely grown. I felt like I did a good job of holding myself down there and being active and playing like I should be.”
This is all coming from a kid who’s about to start his first semester as a college student in a matter of days, classes start on Aug. 27, and he held his own against NBA All-Stars like Anthony Davis, DeMarcus Cousins and Andre Drummond just days before having to go get textbooks and read each class’ syllabus.
“I felt right when I stepped on the court that I could contribute to the team right away,” Towns said. “Playing against Team USA two years ago made me so much more comfortable in today’s game than two years ago.”
Towns looked a little bit tentative at times, which is to be expected from a recent high school graduate going against the best players in the world, but he ended not embarrassing himself out there. That’s something that Dominican Republic head coach Orlando Antigua, a former Kentucky assistant who is now the head coach at the University of South Florida, was not surprised about.
“Aside from his god-given talents and abilities, he has an unbelievable will to compete and that’s special,” Antigua said. “It’s something that ticks inside of him. I know he wanted to be out there more minutes and I wish I could have had him out there more minutes, but when he was out there he impacted the game.”
Towns’ ability to impact the game in a small way was something that his opposing coach noted as well.
“I know Karl,” said Team USA head coach Mike Krzyzewski. “He’s one of the top high school players in the country, and I’m sure he’ll be an outstanding college player at Kentucky. He’s a great kid. He’s not just a big guy, he’ll do stuff on the outside and he talks, he’s smart. He’ll be in the NBA pretty soon.”
Towns did struggle to fill up the stat sheet in his limited minutes, which should be expected from someone at Towns’ stage both physically and mentally. Just ask Team USA assistant coach Jim Boeheim, who discussed Towns and his stiff competition with reporters after the game.
“When a kid like that is going into a competition like this, that’s pretty tough,” Boeheim said. “You can be talented, but when you play against pros, players that have been around for a while, it’s a different ballgame. It’s just a different game. I see good college players all the time, either on my team or teams that we play, but when you see these guys it’s a different level.”
So even having Towns on the floor with these incredibly talented professionals is a testament to his abilities at such a young age.
Just last week, Towns was in the Bahamas on an exhibition tour with his Kentucky Wildcats teammates, playing several games alongside fellow student-athletes who were actually close to his age. He even got to play the Dominican team twice down there, in an odd twist than Towns really seemed to enjoy.
“Those were probably my favorite games, not wearing the Dominican jerseys and playing against them for the first time,” Towns said. “It was just humbling to be on the floor, on the opposite side, and to show the Dominican squad what I have to offer.”
Having played international basketball over a few years now at such a young age, Towns’ growth is noticeable to both himself and Antigua.
“He’s grown over the last few years, and it’s been exciting to see him continue to flourish to where he’s at now,” Antigua said. “He has a lot to do, he still has a lot to work on, but he’s an unbelievable talent. I think he’s going to do great things out at Kentucky.”
Towns told SheridanHoops that “there’s not one thing I never want to work on.” He’s still growing into who he is as a basketball player and as a young man, but he felt confident that he could be out there on the floor with some of the best forwards and centers on the planet.
“I felt that I could be out there and that I could play the way I play,” Towns said. “I felt very confident in my game and in my body.”
Now comes what could be the biggest adjustment of Towns’ life, going down to Lexington to start his collegiate career and getting an education for however many years he remains at Kentucky. He is grateful to have an understanding coach like Antigua, who, as a former Kentucky assistant, knows what it’s like more than anyone else to balance the UK life with being on a national team.
“He wanted to be part of the team, but we know in the end that he has other responsibilities,” Antigua said.
“It’s going to be a lot different than I expected,” Towns said, “but at the end of the day my priorities come first and my education comes first,” Towns said. “I have to do what’s best for me and my family and that’s going back to UK.”
That education probably won’t be at Kentucky for long, but his education as a basketball player and his growth as an athlete and future NBA star, seems to be just beginning.
Shlomo Sprung is a national columnist for SheridanHoops who loves advanced statistics and the way they explain what happens on the court. He is also the web editor of the Brooklyn Daily Eagle. A 2011 graduate of Columbia University’s Journalism School, he has previously worked for the New York Knicks, The Sporting News, Business Insider and other publications. You should follow him on Twitter.