Isola: Kentucky's wonder 'Cats could be answer for Knicks

By on March 8, 2015

Karl-Anthony Towns

Karl-Anthony Towns

The scouting report on Kentucky freshman Karl-Anthony Towns reads like this; young, athletic big man with considerable skills and great vision. So how can the possible top overall pick of the 2015 NBA Draft, a player with all that talent and court awareness, not notice Phil Jackson watching his every move at a recent workout in Lexington?

“Honestly, I really wasn’t looking,” Towns told the Daily News. “I was just focused on practice. I didn’t know.”

Those who know Towns say he is very aware that NBA executives are flocking to the University of Kentucky to scout John Calipari’s undefeated team of future lottery picks. And Towns is cognizant that Jackson, the president of the Knicks, traveled to Lexington and that the NBA team that plays 40 miles from his New Jersey home desperately needs a player of his quality.

The Knicks have been very visible in the blue grass state. Perhaps no team watched Kentucky more in person this winter than the Knicks, who will likely select anywhere from one through five in June which would place them in a position to draft either Towns or his athletic 7-foot teammate, center Willie Cauley-Stein.

According to several sources close to the Kentucky program, the Knicks top scout Mark Warkentien has attended nearly a dozen Wildcats practices as the club prepares for the most important decision of the Jackson regime. Jackson visited Lexington last week after attending an Ohio State game to watch point guard D’Angelo Russell.

The worst season in franchise history could result in Jackson choosing between two freshman big men on the night of the draft; Towns and Duke’s Jahlil Okafor. Of the two, Okafor has been the more prolific offensive player. He has already developed a low post and mid-range game. Okafor, however, can be a liability defensively. So much so that Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski has played more zone than ever before to cover for Okafor’s inability to defend pick-and-rolls.

Towns is the more athletic player. He’s a gifted rebounder, who can run the floor and is gaining more confidence in his offensive game. His numbers are somewhat skewed because Kentucky coach John Calipari uses a “platoon system” which is a fancy way of saying he has a deep roster. However, NBA executives all agree that Towns needs to improve his lower body strength because he was easily be rooted out of the post.

“If you are looking for a guy that can help you right away, I think Okafor will have a bigger impact as a rookie,” says one NBA executive whose team is expected to have a top 12 pick. “But if you’re an owner and you’re looking for a guy that can change your franchise over the next three years, I’d say Towns.”

Towns is from central New Jersey and became a prep All-America at St. Joseph’s High School in Metuchen. Ten years ago, the Knicks had the opportunity to draft a center out of St. Joseph’s, who elected to go right from high school to the NBA. Instead, the Knicks picked Channing Frye 8th overall and two picks later Andrew Bynum was drafted to the Lakers.

At the time, Knicks president Isiah Thomas felt more comfortable drafting Frye because Frye had played four years at Arizona. Thomas was also concerned over how well Bynum would handle the pressure of being a teenager playing for the Knicks. After Golden State selected Ike Diogu 9th, Bynum fell into the Lakers’ laps and would go on to help the franchise win two titles.

Jackson’s successful history with Bynum, who isn’t nearly as athletic or as grounded as Towns, could be a factor if Jackson is faced with the opportunity of drafting Towns.

“Karl isn’t a good kid, he’s a great kid,” says Kentucky assistant coach Barry Rohrssen, a New Yorker who is affectionately known as Slice. “He will be successful in anything he does.”

Willie Cauley-SteinStacy Revere/Getty Images

Willie Cauley-Stein

Rohrssen has a long list of text messages he has received from Towns since school began that he was headed for a workout or just finished a workout.

“All hours,” Rohrssen says. “He never stops working. He’s always looking for ways to improve. You couldn’t ask for a better teammate or kid.”

Towns is the most talented player on a Kentucky team that is challenging to become the first Division I men’s basketball program to go undefeated since the 1976 Indiana Hoosiers. The Wildcats were hosting Florida on Saturday in the final home game of the season.

It is also expected to be Towns’ final game in Lexington as well. In fact, his parents, Karl Sr., and Jacqueline, made the drive from New Jersey to be in attendance. Both Kentucky and Duke likely will be No. 1 seeds in the NCAA Tournament and the committee will likely place the powerhouse programs on opposites sides of the bracket to create a potential Good vs. Evil title game.

Of course, Kentucky has been controversy free this season while there are still unanswered questions surrounding Duke’s decision to dismiss junior Rasheed Sulaimon on Jan. 29 for what Krzyzewski called “repeatedly struggled to meet the necessary obligations” to be a part of the program. And while Calipari was criticized for embracing the concept of the “One and Done” player, Duke has had Kyrie Irving, Austin Rivers and Jabari Parker leave for the NBA after their freshman seasons. Okafor is also leaving after one year.

Calipari is just more prolific than the other programs at recruiting top players and turning them into lottery picks. Last month, three of Calipari’s Kentucky one-and-dones played in the NBA All-Star Game: John Wall, DeMarcus Cousins and Anthony Davis. Wake Forest also had three players: Tim Duncan, Chris Paul and Jeff Teague.

The 6-foot-11, 250-pound Towns is projected to be a top three pick while Cauley-Stein, who has drawn favorable comparisons to Joakim Noah, could be taken anywhere from four to seven. In last week’s 72-64 victory over Georgia, Cauley-Stein was held to four points and the Wildcats needed Towns to rescue them in the closing minutes. Towns finished with a game-high 19 points on 8-for-12 shooting including five straight points after teammate Aaron Harrison’s jumper tied it at 62.

“We had to do some stuff to get Karl the ball in the post, and Karl did well,” Calipari said. “I’ve got enough confidence in him to go to him to shoot free throws. That’s how much I think of him. We know he has the courage and has the skill and ability. That’s what we did: We went to him late.”

Calipari will only have Towns for one year at Kentucky but he’s been coaching him since Town made the Dominican national team at 16. His mother is of Dominican descent. Calipari coached the Dominican team and had Towns practicing with the likes of Al Horford and Charlie Villanueva, players he’ll be seeing sooner than later in the NBA.

“I’m not even thinking about that right now,” Towns says politely. “I’m just trying to enjoy this season and I’m trying to get better every day. That’s all I can do.”

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