UK Men's Basketball

Determined Karl-Anthony Towns trades in smile for scowl

Kentucky Wildcats forward Karl-Anthony Towns (12) pulled down one of his 11 rebounds as Kentucky defeated Texas-Arlington 92-44 on Tuesday November 25, 2014 in Lexington, Ky.
Kentucky Wildcats forward Karl-Anthony Towns (12) pulled down one of his 11 rebounds as Kentucky defeated Texas-Arlington 92-44 on Tuesday November 25, 2014 in Lexington, Ky. Herald-Leader

Kentucky freshman Karl-Anthony Towns' favorite player is Len Bias, the former Maryland All-American. He has a Bias jersey in his room in the Wildcat Coal Lodge.

When asked what made Bias his favorite player, Towns said, "His versatility. The way he played. He played with ferocity. ... He was tall, just like me. But he was able to do a lot of things I just want to do in my game."

Towns also considers Bias as a valuable example of what not to do. Bias died of a cocaine overdose two days after being the second overall pick of the 1986 NBA Draft.

"He was also a great lesson," Towns said. "Stay focused on the path. Don't ever detour from it."

As part of staying on the path toward ever-greater improvement (and, perhaps, become more ferocious), Towns has changed his on-court persona. Gone, or at least toned down, is the inviting smile. In its place a hardened look of determination.

"My father liked it," Towns said of the change, which he tried against Eastern Kentucky on Sunday. "He said it's a different person than he's ever seen. I like it, too. I thought it kept me a little more focused on the game. So I like it. I'll keep experimenting."

The smile returned when a reporter asked Towns if he wanted to develop an intimidating stare-down look.

"If my 7-foot, 250-pound body can't (intimidate), I guess that's a way I can," he said lightheartedly. "Hopefully, (opponents) realize all the work I put in the practice gym, and that should intimidate them from the get(-go)."

Towns, who described himself as happy-go-lucky, has been effective and productive with a smile on his face. He leads UK in blocks (25) and rebounds (7.1 per game) while averaging 9.4 points. He's made 56.1 percent of his shots.

Yet, Towns noted how he woke up one morning and after brushing his teeth — "You know, good hygiene, that's the biggest thing" — he did some soul searching.

"I looked in the mirror," he said. "I wanted to be better. I wanted to do something a little different than what I'm used to. I like to put myself out of my 'comfortability' zone."

Towns said he wanted to bring a different "mentality" to the games.

"I felt I was playing too much as a freshman," he said. "I want to act like I'm an experienced player. Use all the experience I have. The biggest thing is just don't be timid."

Towns, who has experience playing for the Dominican Republic National Team, put his smile-to-bile quest in the context of the ever-evolving nature of playing for Kentucky. Good isn't good enough, as former UK Coach Tubby Smith liked to say.

"Being at Kentucky, it's a process," Towns said. "I have to go step by step. I learn a little bit more about myself day by day."

As a McDonald's All-American from Piscataway, N.J., Towns had a sense for the unblinking scrutiny and high-level expectations that come with playing for Kentucky.

"I was ready ... ," he said before adding a moment later, "I didn't realize how much was always going to be on our shoulders. At the time, in high school, I'm going, I know how it'll feel.

"No. You don't actually know till you're here."

As for turning down the wattage on his smile, Towns said he watched how great players had an edge on the court. He cited such players as Kobe Bryant, Michael Jordan, Karl Malone.

"I'm a student of the game," he said. "I'm no expert yet. I'll never be an expert. I'll always be a student. I'm looking for different ways to educate and be more knowledgeable about the game and my own craft."

To describe his desire to improve, Towns found inspiration in a magazine story about Malone.

"When I saw that, I thought a little bit about what he did when he was playing the game. It just made me think a little bit."

The unsmiling Towns seems to want to make opponents think a little bit.

"The more mad I get, the better I seem to play," he said. "So I think if I can go with the mentality that I'm already mad, I can definitely do more better things."

Related stories from Lexington Herald Leader