|KARL TOWNS, JR: Class of 2015|
Written by: Jerry Carino
PISCATAWAY — The first shot comes from the left corner, and the net does not move. Swish. The second shot comes from the left wing, two steps behind the 3-point arc. Swish.
Then another. And another. And another.
The flurry is over. Karl Anthony Towns has made 10 straight 3-pointers, catching the ball and spotting up in one fluid motion. His form is textbook. The passes he lunges to corral are not, probably by design.
“Go to half-court,” says Karl’s dad, who is throwing the passes. Karl Towns Sr. was a standout forward at Piscataway High School and then Monmouth University in the 1980s. For the past 13 years, he’s been the head coach at Piscataway Vo-Tech. He’s never had a player like this. Neither, quite possibly, has anyone else in Central Jersey.
Karl Anthony — “Little Karl,” as his mother Jacqueline calls him — positions himself about 28 feet from the basket and drains three consecutive catch-and-shoot bombs. The nylon hardly notices.
“That cat,” says Karl the Dad, “is open as soon as he crosses half-court.”
On its face, this was a stunning display of marksmanship. But there are two more things you need to know about Karl Anthony Towns.
He stands 6-foot-10, and he just finished up eighth grade at Piscataway’s Theodore Schor Middle School.
In other words, this is what a phenom looks like.
“For his age and his size, his skill level is tremendous,” said Jay Gomes, published of N.J. Hoops newsletter and the Garden State’s premier talent evaluator. “It’s very rare to see a big kid shoot the ball like that.”
Out of the shadows
The Towns name is familiar in Piscataway. The elder Karl was a 6-foot-5 wrecking ball for the Chiefs who went on to set records for blocked shots and rebounds at Monmouth. His tenure on the sidelines at Piscataway Tech has featured a Central Group I title and several Greater Middlesex Conference Gold Division crowns. He’s also coached extensively on the AAU circuit.
“Little” Karl, who weighed 10 pounds, 7 ounces at birth, has been with him every step of the way. That meant always competing against older kids. Even now he plays on an Under-17 AAU squad.
“He never played down, so nobody knew who he was,” Karl Sr. said. “Then he went down to Virginia for a Nike (14-and-under) showcase in May and when he left there everybody was like, ‘Whoa.’ ”
Young Karl dominated a game against a much better-known prodigy, 6-foot-8 Horace Spencer of Philadelphia, draining seven 3-pointers to lead his team to a runaway victory. Now, says Karl Sr., we have “a table full of letters.”
Those letters are coming from colleges. But the question of the moment is where Karl will attend high school. He originally leaned toward Pennington but that’s changed. Father and son say Immaculata, St. Joseph-Metuchen, and St. Benedict’s are the candidates, with a decision coming any day now.
Incredible as it may seem in this day and age, basketball alone is not driving the decision. Both parents harp on academics — Karl’s 3.9 grade point average in middle school is testimony that it’s not just talk — and want their son to pursue his love for baseball as well. You see, Karl is a right-handed pitcher who throws 80 miles per hour.
“Imagine 6-10 on the mound,” Karl Sr. said.
The more publicity Karl has gotten, the more his parents feel it’s best for him to stay in the area.
“Because everything is so crazy we want him to be close to us,” said Jacqueline Cruz-Towns, a nurse who stands 5-10. “I don’t want him to go away and get a big head. I don’t want these basketball factories. Oak Hill is constantly calling us.”
Karl’s whirlwind emergence has caught everyone a little off balance, but his dad had at least an inkling that something special was on his hands. A few ago his son started to beat him in one-on-one.
“He’s been beating me since he was nine,” Karl Sr. said.
“Forever,” Karl Anthony said, sporting a wide smile. “I even dunked on you in practice.”
“Relaaaaax,” was dad’s reply.
Floodgates are open
We’ve been down this road before, and the ending isn’t always happy. The last New Jersey eighth-grader to generate national hype was Scotch Plains’ Derrick Caracter. He made it to the NBA but is mostly known as a cautionary tale. The 6-foot-9 forward changed high schools three times, then got kicked out of Louisville’s program and, in April, was charged with battery as a Los Angeles Lakers reserve.
Life as “the next big thing” can be burdensome, between the avalanche of scrutiny to the endless stream of shady characters who try to climb aboard the gravy train.
“It’s been life-changing and it’s been an eye-opener,” said Karl Anthony, who wears size 20 shoes. “I have never had this many eyes on me before. I like being under the radar and just playing the game.”
Those days are over. During games he wears pads “from top to bottom” because of the extra elbows and knees that come his way. Off the court dad discourages Twitter and allows Facebook only so Karl can communicate with older sister Lachelle Almonte, a former Piscataway High girls hoops starter who lives in the Dominican Republic.
“Anything he says can be misconstrued,” Karl Sr. said.
Such is life under the hardwood microscope. But it seems like Karl has the right support system.
“We keep him grounded because if he gets bad grades he’s going nowhere,” Karl Sr. said.
“For me, the biggest thing is for him to become a good, caring person,” Jacqueline Towns said. “He’s a good kid, but I do wish he would do more housework.”
Karl Anthony, for his part, possesses a maturity beyond his 15 years. Being a coach’s son will do that for you.
“It’s great to have a dad who’s a coach,” he said. “He knows exactly what to do in every situation. But the biggest advantage is I have a gym to practice in, and not many kids can say that. Just to come here and work out, it’s a big advantage.”
Sky's the limit
Father and son are in the gym five days a week and they don’t leave until Karl makes 500 jumpers. If he goes cold, dad calls for a one-minute “plank” — an abdominal exercise which is kind of like a frozen push-up, but on your elbows and toes.
Karl endures just one cold spell. He does the plank and then works on ball-handling. Fluent with his left and right hands, Karl appears to be a guard in a big man’s body. That will change, of course. Karl Sr. understands that his son must play in the paint at least some of the time for his high school team to win games. He knows the young man’s defense must improve; right now he commits too many fouls
Ultimately, Karl Anthony hopes to model his game as a cross between Kevin Durant and Len Bias. Durant “is so silky-smooth in everything he does,” he explains. Bias died before he was born, but the highlights are alive and well on YouTube. “He did everything that a big man should do and he made it look cool.”
Dunking is cool, and Towns does it effortlessly, his feet barely leaving the court. Dad is impressed but cautious.
“Showtime is by yourself,” he warns. “You want to dunk on people, it’s a risk. It’s hard to shoot your shot with an injured wrist.”
Towns has plenty of shots ahead of him over the next six weeks. His AAU outfit, Team NJ-ABC, is slated four tournaments in Arkansas, South Carolina and West Virginia. Then he will join the Dominican Republic’s U-17 national team (Jacqueline is Dominican-born) for an international tour.
On this day, the workout ends with Little Karl catching passes on the run and making 9 of 10 3-pointers. His agility is impressive. At 210 pounds, Karl is lean but far from frail. College is a long way off, but the recruiting battle for this kid is going to be epic.
“Karl wants to stay home and help the local colleges,” Karl Sr. said. “He likes Rutgers a lot. He likes Seton Hall. He likes St. John’s, Villanova.”
“A lot of kids want to go away. He wants to be the guy who stays and builds something at home.”
The foundation is already in place.