CHICAGO — In a youth basketball landscape dominated by the AAU scene, University of Kentucky signee Karl Towns Jr. is somewhat of an enigma.
The 7-footer from New Jersey didn't spend his past few summers playing for a team backed by Nike or Adidas or Under Armour. He didn't appear at many of the invitation-only camps that bring in the best players from around the country. His high school team didn't play many games outside of the state.
There was a time, not long ago, when many of the country's top recruiting analysts had never seen him in person. As soon as word spread that he was going to appear at an event — like last year's Summer Jam in Milwaukee — the people who cover basketball recruiting for a living would go out of their way to catch Towns in action.
Most of his peers on the court didn't have that option. To them, he's still a point of puzzlement.
Arizona signee Stanley Johnson is one of the best high school players in the country and a veteran of the summer basketball circuit. He started laughing Tuesday when asked to recall the first time he saw Towns play in person.
"This weekend," Johnson said. "It's really strange. I've never seen him play."
Even his future teammates at UK are still getting to know him.
Towns and Trey Lyles interacted during their visits to Big Blue Madness the past two seasons, but that's been their only in-person contact. Tyler Ulis was introduced to Towns during last year's Madness, but they were only in town together for a few hours.
Devin Booker had never met Towns until this week's McDonald's All-American Game. None of the three had seen him play until they got to Chicago.
"You have to be extremely talented to not go to any events and still get invited to a game like this," Booker said. "Obviously, Karl is one of those talented players. Seven foot. Can shoot the three. He's just a great player. And I'm just now seeing his game for the first time."
Johnson said that Towns is "obviously a great player" and will be fine in the long run, but he predicts a tough adjustment to college basketball.
"I think not playing against the best players all the time, that's going to hurt you in the long run," Johnson said. "He hasn't been playing against us all year."
Lyles, Booker, Ulis and Johnson are all alumni of the Nike Elite Youth Basketball League. Nineteen of the 24 players in the McDonald's All-American Game were in that league last year, facing off on the court and becoming friends off of it. The others played some other form of AAU basketball.
Everybody but Towns. He went a different route.
His mother is from the Dominican Republic, and that made him eligible to compete for their national team. He took the opportunity. As a result, he played the last three summers under the tutelage of John Calipari and Orlando Antigua.
He practiced against players like Al Horford and Francisco Garcia. He played against Anthony Davis and other NBA stars.
"I got to improve my game against the best competition in the world, not the best high school players in the country," Towns said. "And that's no disrespect, but I wanted to take the chance to play with professionals and grow my game. And be able to learn different styles from the best players the world has to offer."
Towns — ranked anywhere from ninth to 11th in the class of 2014 — says he and his future teammates are already hitting it off.
"We came here and we felt like we had known each other for about 20 years," he said.
If that feeling translates to the court, Towns says UK fans will see something special next season.
Ulis is ready to make that happen.
"He's still, what, top 10 in the country?" Ulis said. "He's a McDonald's All-American. He's going to Kentucky. And he's played on the Dominican Republic team. He's played against pros — Anthony Davis and people like that. He's a great player. He's going to be a pro soon. And I just can't wait to play with him."
Ben Roberts: (859) 231-3216. Twitter: @NextCats. Blog: ukrecruiting.bloginky.com.Ben Roberts: (859) 231-3216. Twitter: @NextCats. Blog: ukrecruiting.bloginky.com.