The day will come when Karl Towns Jr. emerges as a topic to discuss on every national sports talk show. It's going to happen sometime early next season, when he inevitably goes off during one of Kentucky's zillion nationally televised games.
I can see it now—a stretch that includes a hook shot followed by a three-pointer capped off by a dunk on a break he led himself. You can already hear the announcers highlighting his extraordinary versatility and potential as an NBA prospect.
Towns, a consensus top-10 recruit and Kentucky's prized freshman center, has an unusually high skill level and natural feel for the game. He turned heads in Portland at the 2013 Nike Hoop Summit and followed Andrew Wiggins in 2014 by winning the Gatorade National Player of the Year award.
His talent has been well documented by scouts over the past 18 months or so. And now Towns will be looking to make his case for the top spot on 2015 draft boards.
I wouldn't call him the favorite at this point, three months prior to the season. Based on buzz from scouts and personal opinion, I'd give that honor to Duke freshman Jahlil Okafor, whose 6'11", 272-pound body, dominant inside game and basketball IQ help create a sense of certainty and assurance you don't get from any other prospect.
Okafor is your more traditional center. Towns is not, and that could ultimately work for or against him. Towns has to ultimately convince the NBA guys his loose but diverse offensive game is more attractive than the concentrated one Okafor masters as an inside force.
And Towns' margin for error might not be very big. Given the ridiculous depth of Kentucky's current squad—ESPN.com's Jeff Goodman (subscription required) called it the "deepest I've seen in the past decade"—his scoring and playmaking chances won't exactly be unlimited.
Towns will be competing for minutes and touches with junior Willie Cauley-Stein and sophomore Dakari Johnson—two older 7-footers expected to play significant veteran roles. And don't forget that junior Alex Poythress, sophomore Marcus Lee and fellow top-shelf recruit Trey Lyles are all expected to log minutes at the 4.
Coach John Calipari will find minutes for Towns—he's just too talented and useful, even as a teenager, to keep on the bench for long. But there's no question he'll have to find a way to stand out on an insanely crowded stage.
There are going to be games where Towns ends up with duds in the box scores. It just comes with the territory of playing alongside All-American teammates.
Lack of opportunity to dominate, coupled by his specific weaknesses as a prospect could lead to inconsistency next season—inconsistency we're unlikely to see from Okafor as Duke's top gun.
Towns' weaknesses center around his on-and-off interior presence. Despite possessing a 7'0", 248-pound frame, he doesn't always use all of it.
I wouldn't consider it a major concern—we've seen Towns do his fair share of bullying around the rim.
The question is whether Towns' draft stock can handle the wavering production likely to result from a reduced role and an interest in proving he's a threat on the perimeter.
Meanwhile, Okafor might as well set up a La-Z-Boy couch in the lane, because that's where the Duke guards will be feeding him all day long. There's no question as to where he's most effective on the floor.
Okafor is going to be putting up double-doubles on off-games. He's just got too much size, skill and opportunity. The points and boards will be there for him regardless—like they were for Jabari Parker last year.
On the other hand, Towns won't be featured the way Okafor projects to be in Duke's offense.
Kentucky is currently playing exhibition games in the Bahamas against legitimate international competition, and though it's obviously early, we've gotten a sense at how Calipari will be using each player.
Towns has played 18 minutes, 21 minutes and 21 minutes through three games, respectively.
|First Three Games of Kentucky's Bahamas Trip|
|vs. Chalon Reims||21||7-of-11||19||10||3||0-of-1||0|
The offense didn't quite feature Towns, but when in the game, the ball did find him for the most part. Still, with so much sharing going on, it's easy to see how Towns could go quiet from time to time.
He did look awfully good against older, more experienced frontcourts in the Bahamas. Though Towns will run into a few college and plenty of NBA centers who can match up with him physically, few can do as many things as he can with the ball.
Offensively, his skill set is just so well-rounded.
Towns has excellent touch in the post, with a good idea of what he's doing in terms of creating his own shots. He's shown the ability to turn over his shoulder for jump hooks and the agility to slip off his man and separate with jukes or spin moves.
When he's able to get position and there's space for him to operate, Towns can serve as a viable go-to option for offense with his back to the rim.
He also finished a number of pick-and-rolls as the roll man in traffic. Towns has good body control on the move—he's able to catch, duck and weave for buckets while improvising on the fly. And if there's a lane, he's shown he can put it on the deck and attack the rim off a dribble or two.
Towns also showcased his vision and passing instincts on a number of different occasions. His ability to see the floor and facilitate from the elbows will certainly play to his appeal over the course of next season.
Athletically, Towns is nothing to drool over, but for a guy his size, he moves pretty effortlessly out there, both as a leaper and runner.
And it certainly didn't look like he'll have much difficulty taking contact inside, though it's something he's been dogged for in the past. He ripped down a couple of tough offensive boards by outworking and outmuscling opposing big men in the paint.
“I struggled in the beginning so I felt the best thing I could do was switch my game and go more inside attack and it worked,” Towns said following his 18-point, 12-rebound effort against Chalon, via Darrell Bird of Kentucky.247sports.com. “I kept pounding away and stayed active like coach Kenny Payne told me to do. I think I did a good job of that.”
On the downside, Towns missed all of his three-point attempts, as it looks like it could be a while before he's regularly stretching the floor or pick-and-popping like a pro.
He's also not the most explosive—he came up short around the hoop or failed to separate a couple of times from his defender.
And he hasn't blocked a shot through three games despite his size, mobility and 7'3.5" wingspan. Defense and rim protection don't come as naturally to Towns as they do to guys like Nerlens Noel or Joel Embiid—two high-profile centers from the past two drafts.
The good news is that Okafor isn't overly dominant defensively, either. And though I hate to compare the two, you kind of have to when debating who the top pick will be.
I'll throw in Kansas freshman Cliff Alexander's name as well, though despite his towering upside powered by elite-level athleticism, I'm not sure he's polished enough to take the cake over Okafor and Towns.
Relative to the field, Towns has the all-around package to trigger No. 1 overall interest. He might not be the favorite to start, but he's certainly established himself as a candidate.
"He's very skilled and has a very good feel for playing the game of basketball," one NBA scout told Yahoo Sports' Marc J. Spears. "He's strong. He plays his position well. There are not a lot of basketball players with his feel for the game. He can face up and make jump shots. He's special."
For Towns to leapfrog the field and take over the No. 1 spot, he'll have to silence the critics who've questioned his toughness on the interior. He's going to have to match Okafor and Alexander's presence in the paint and then move the needle with his versatility as a passer and shooter.
It's not an unrealistic goal by any means for Towns, who I'd vote today as Okafor's biggest draft-day challenger among Division I NBA prospects.
We're going to have to see frequent enough flashes of greatness to make up for what could be an up-and-down season in the box scores, given the number of mouths Calipari will have to feed.
But there's no question Towns has the skills and upside to pull it off.
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