Karl Towns, N.J.'s most celebrated hoops star, eyes TOC crown as NJSIAA Tournament begins

Karl Towns, N.J.'s most celebrated hoops star, eyes TOC crown as NJSIAA Tournament begins

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Karl Towns, N.J.'s most celebrated hoops star, eyes TOC crown as NJSIAA Tournament begins

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Karl Towns is the most celebrated high school basketball player in New Jersey, and he’s right up there nationally, but for three years people have been getting his name wrong.

It’s actually Karl-Anthony Towns. Anthony is not his middle name; it’s part of his first name.

“It’s a combination of names from the family,” said his dad, Karl Towns, the former Monmouth University star. “They announced it right during the (Greater Middlesex Conference) tournament. Last year everyone said Karl Towns Jr.”

The hyphen is there in his Wikipedia entry. Yes, the younger Towns has a Wikipedia page. Since he was in eighth grade, when word first started getting around about this budding 7-footer from Piscataway who shoot threes and throws playmaker-quality passes, Karl-Anthony has lived under a microscope in a way that few people can fathom.

That includes his NBA-bound predecessors at St. Joseph High School, Jay Williams and Andrew Bynum, who came of age before social media and before recruiting analysis became a full-blown industry.

“I think I’ve done pretty good job of handling the pressure,” Karl-Anthony said. “With McDonald’s (All-America status) and going to Kentucky, the spotlight’s always been there. St. Joe’s has done a great job of handling everything, and my family has too.”

He added, “Of course it’s been a little hard. I don’t get a chance to do some things that regular teenagers do. It’s the price of working hard and being successful. It comes with the territory.”

Towns has met the towering expectations, helping St. Joseph win three GMC tournaments and two Non-Public A crowns, but there is one elusive capstone on his radar. The NJSIAA Tournament begins this week, and the Falcons are among a handful of contenders for the Tournament of Champions title.

Like the clarification of his first name, Karl-Anthony is crossing all the I’s and dotting the T’s before he heads to Kentucky. This is the last one.

“This is the biggest three weeks of Karl’s career,” his dad said. “There’s only one thing left, and we all know what that is.”

‘Great player and great dude’

Towns is averaging 21.2 points, 13.9 rebounds, 6.3 blocks, 4.7 assists and 2.0 steals per game this season. Those numbers look gaudy, but Towns doesn’t go out of his way to ring them up. If defenses throw everything at him, he’s happy to set the table for the other talented guys in St. Joseph’s lineup.

“No one has a teammate like Karl,” St. Joseph senior guard Marques Townes said. “Just having Karl on the floor makes everything easier for us. He’s a pleasure to have on the team.”

In Thursday’s GMC Tournament final, Towns finished with 13 points due to foul trouble and East Brunswick’s stout defense. Townes scored 22 and the Falcons won by 14.

“As a basketball player you want to play him, you want to beat him, you want to say you played Karl Towns,” East Brunswick senior guard Amir Bell said. “It’s a special opportunity walking onto the floor and playing against him. I loved it. Great player and great dude.”

Perhaps the most amazing stat about Towns’ career is this: Amid today’s transfer epidemic, he only attended one high school.

“I never wanted to be one of those people who transfer to three or four high schools,” he said. “Once I picked St. Joe’s, I was staying at St. Joe’s. I always thought it was so funny when people said I was going to transfer.”

He stayed, and he improved each season.

“A lot of people (only) see him play games and they don’t understand all that goes into it,” Falcons coach Dave Turco said. “Three days a week he’s going to a personal trainer to lift weights, get bigger and stronger. People look at him and think he’s seven feet, that’s why he’s so good. Yes his skills are unbelievable for a kid that size, but there is also a lot of work that goes into it.”

Then there is the mental game. Towns won’t shy away from protesting foul calls or lack thereof, but he always is gracious to his opponents afterward, win or lose. That’s harder than it sounds when you’ve been roughed up for 90 minutes.

“It’s so hard with big kids, playing against smaller kids,” said Jay Gomes, publisher of N.J. Hoops and the Garden State’s leading talent evaluator. “Every coach has a muscle kid guarding him and they have no chance to guard him without fouling him, so they resort to pushing and shoving the whole time. But he’s more than happy to just do his work down low and do whatever his team needs him to do.”

As a result St. Joseph is 24-2, with both losses to out-of-state powers.

Last hurrah

This will be the most interesting NJSIAA Tournament in a long time because there are five or six teams that could win the title. Most people consider Patrick School and St. Joseph to be co-favorites, but not by much.

Two years ago, the Falcons lost to Plainfield in the TOC semifinals. Last year they made the final before falling to Roselle Catholic. Towns said he feels a bit like LeBron James, pre-Miami Heat, desperate to fill the lone hole in his resume.

“Those (prior TOC) losses show we have to be humble and not think we’re big dogs going in,” he said. “You never know what the basketball gods are going to hand down to you.”

If Towns wanted to forget about those losses, his dad won’t let him. A longtime coach who is stepping down after nearly two decades at Piscataway Tech, the elder Karl knows what buttons to push. He was once a big-time player at Monmouth, although his son’s been dunking on him since eighth grade.

“My dad’s been my rock,” Karl-Anthony said. “He’s been able to help me step by step. I’m glad I have him to keep me grounded.”

Not that any extra motivation is needed. Towns and his teammates, including Division I-bound guards Wade Baldwin (Vanderbilt) and Raven Owen (Canisius), know what’s at stake now.

“These guys’ legacy is going to be, were they able to win the Tournament of Champions?” Turco said. “That’s the bar that’s been set for them. As seniors now, I think they understand the finality of it.”

Not that Towns needs any further validation, but as his dad said, there’s still one topping missing from the cake.

“He’s kind of rare in that he had the hype his whole career and he really lived up to it,” Gomes said. “A lot depends on how far St. Joe’s goes in the state tournament, but I think he could be the best big man ever to come out of this state. I don’t think that’s going out on a limb.”

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