UK Men's Basketball

John Clay: Karl-Anthony Towns a leader in the cavalry charge

Kentucky forward Karl-Anthony Towns dunked against Pikeville.
Kentucky forward Karl-Anthony Towns dunked against Pikeville. Herald-Leader

He's a sly coach, that John Calipari, who for Kentucky basketball's televised exhibition tour of the Bahamas in August played hide-and-seek with his platoons of powerful performers, mixing them together like a blended Smoothie full of delicious if not indistinguishable delights.

If Calipari meant to keep one talented player on the UK roster from rising above another talented player on the UK roster, the master plan didn't work in one important regard.

There was no hiding Karl-Anthony Towns.

The 7-footer from New Jersey, by way of the Dominican Republic, was certainly a heralded prep prospect, near the top of his 2014 recruiting class, named the Gatorade National Player of the Year.

And yet there was that one possession in that one exhibition game in the tropics in which Towns held the basketball at the top of the key and there to his left was guard and teammate Dominique Hawkins breaking quickly toward the basket.

The opponents may not have noticed Hawkins, after all their eyes were on Towns, whose eyes were diverted as if plotting his next move.

But Towns noticed Hawkins breaking toward the basket and delivered a perfect no-look bounce pass that hit the sophomore just as intended for an easy dunk.

You said to yourself, "Wow."

To be sure, Kentucky is preseason basketball's No. 1 and the early favorite to win the national championship because of the ridiculously deep roster Calipari has put together. A group of four fantastic freshmen is expected to blend with an unusually large number of Calipari holdovers for what promises to be a memorable campaign.

To win a national title, however, you often need that one star who rises above the rest, be it Anthony Davis in 2012 or Jeff Sheppard in 1998 or Tony Delk in 1996 or Jack Givens in 1978.

For Kentucky, that could be Towns, the 6-foot-11, 250-pounder who first caught Calipari's eyes when he participated for the 2012 Dominican National Team tryouts at the Joe Craft Center when Calipari was the head coach.

Even after getting that early taste of Towns' talent — as Towns got that early taste of what it might be like to be a Wildcat — Calipari admitted that when he signed the now 18-year-old and sent him through those pre-Bahamas practices, "He's better than I thought he was."

The 90-plus scouts and NBA-management types who attended Calipari's Combine last month seemed to agree. Invited to watch the plethora of Cats work out at one time, the scouts scanned the skill level at hand and (anonymously) indicated Towns owned the biggest up-side.

Scout's Evan Daniels tweeted that he was told by one NBA scout on hand that Towns and fellow frosh Trey Lyles were the best pro prospects.

"He has a chance to be a more mature DeMarcus Cousins," one scout told ESPN's Chad Ford.

"Watching him," one scout told USA Today, "he should be a main focus of what they do this year."

That he should, but then this is Kentucky 2014-15 with an (even for Kentucky) unusually rich roster to the point where the head coach says he will use a platoon system.

So how good can Karl-Anthony Towns be, and what does he need to do to be as good as he can be? That's the question I put to Calipari on UK's Media Day.

"Karl is established, like some of the great players that I've coached here. He's established," said the coach. "Now because of what's happened to this point, OK, he's established himself. The best players — I'll give you an example, like an Anthony (Davis). He had one question. How do I make the team better? What do I have to do to help the team win? Which means all the ego stuff has to be out the window. If you're worried about touches, minutes and shots, you will never be the true player you can be."

That is Calipari re-direct at its finest, of course. The question was about one thing, the answer was about something else entirely. Calipari didn't talk about passing or rebounding or playing better defense in regard to Towns and improvement, he talked about sacrificing yourself for the team — which is this year's theme.

Towns knows that.

"Whatever I have to do for the team will come easy," he said. "We are going to have a lot of roadblocks this year. We are going to have lot of challenges, but we have a great team, we have veterans. For me, especially, with Dakari Johnson, Willie Cauley-Stein and Alex Poythress we have some great leaders who can make my transition to be the best player I can be for this team a lot easier."

On this particular Kentucky team, Karl-Anthony Towns may not be the only one to watch, but he's sure going to be fun to watch.

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