Karl Towns Jr., 16, improved significantly playing for the Dominican Republic
For the past two months, Karl Towns Jr. was known as Young Buck -- an affectionate reminder from his teammates on the Dominican Republic national team that, despite standing taller than all but one of them, the 6-foot-11 Towns is still just 16 years old.
Taking that ribbing from his older teammates was a small price to pay considering how much he learned from them on the court. And even though the Dominican Republic failed to qualify for this summer's Olympics after finishing fourth at the FIBA World Olympic Qualifying Tournament, the St. Joseph (Metuchen, N.J.) rising sophomore will return to school in the fall with talent well beyond his years.
"We're all young, but he's really, really young," teammate and NBA All-Star Al Horford told reporters after one D.R. practice. "He's really impressed me. I didn't think he could play the way that he's playing. He has to learn that the international game is different; it's more physical. But I was encouraged to see that's he confident."
Horford and D.R. coach John Calipari took it upon themselves to educate Towns on the physicality of the professional ranks, sending the sweet-shooting big man to bang in the post during daily practices. No mercy was shown once Towns entered the paint, granting the No. 1 player in the ESPN 25 a dose of painful wisdom that few high school players receive.
"I found out it's extremely hard to do what Kobe and the pros do every day," said Towns, who was eligible for the team because his mother hails from the Dominican Republic. "You've got to go hard in practice every day, and sometimes it's hard because your body starts wearing down from all of the wear and tear. Now I know the feeling of being a pure professional and what it takes."
From the soreness to the celebrity, Towns experienced it all. During the Centrobasket Tournament in Puerto Rico and the FIBA Qualifying Tournament in Venezuela, security was needed for Towns and his teammates as they walked among screaming fans. Once they reached the safe confines of the gym, Towns was under the daily tutelage of Del Harris, a coaching legend who has trained the likes of Shaquille O'Neal, Moses Malone and Yao Ming.
"Before this experience, I was more of a player on the wing who could shoot the 3, but this experience took me to a different level where I want to post up and overpower people," Towns said. "I'll still shoot the 3 if I have it, but I want to play inside more and be an inside-outside threat now that I've added skills to my repertoire."
Towns didn't see much action during games, appearing in five contests during the D.R.'s 12-game run. But when he did enter the fray, Towns made the most of his time. Against Costa Rica in the third game of the Centrobasket Tournament, in which the Dominican Republic won gold in a 12-team field of Central American squads, Towns tallied two points, three rebounds and three blocks. Then, in the final game of the squad's international tour against Team USA, the 16-year-old drained a 3, recorded a no-look assist and snatched two rebounds.
If the contest against Team USA had happened earlier this year, Towns' heart probably would have been racing as he stepped on the floor with guys like Kobe Bryant, LeBron James and Kevin Durant. But when Towns got ready to check in during the fourth quarter of the July exhibition, he couldn't have been more focused.
"I did this for two months, so it was just another day of playing," Towns recalled. "Instead of playing with pressure, I had fun with it. I missed a couple shots that I should have hit, and I had one blunder when I let Anthony [Davis] shoot the 3 and I fouled him, but that's all a part of basketball. There are so many things to learn, and I was so happy to be out there and get that experience."
"It was so surreal that me and my wife were almost in tears in the stands," said Towns' dad, Karl Sr. "He showed everybody that he wasn't scared, and that was big because I think some people thought he'd be intimidated. But he played with confidence and his game has improved 100 percent."
Granted, Towns' game-time poise wore off a bit after the final buzzer. The teenager snapped several photos with LeBron and Carmelo Anthony before soaking up wisdom from a guy who knows something about making the jump from high school to the pros.
"Kobe told me afterward while we were talking that you never play to be good; you always play to be great," Towns said. "That's one of the biggest things I took away and will always remember, just always working to be great."
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