Lakers

Kentucky's Karl-Anthony Towns might be just what the Lakers need

Kentucky freshman might look familiar to Lakers fans

If Lakers followers leave just enough room between squeezed eyelids, Karl-Anthony Towns might look like a familiar player.

Without all the knee problems. And the unpredictable attitude.

Towns is a freshman at Kentucky whose two-way play makes him a more robust Andrew Bynum at the same age. They even went to the same high school — Metuchen (N.J.) St. Joseph, almost a decade apart.

Towns is a main reason for the University of Kentucky's undefeated season so far, his quirky personality matching the Wildcats' 28-0 record and more often than not silencing "Karlito," the imaginary friend who sits on his shoulder.

It's true. Whenever Towns is mad at himself, the freshman turns his chin toward one of his shoulders and appears to have a one-on-none conversation, though it's actually with the oft-critical Karlito, as Towns has started calling him. Towns has even compared him to Li'l Penny, the mildly annoying figure from the old Nike commercials with Penny Hardaway.

Towns, 19, isn't as polished on offense as the presumed top pick in the NBA draft — Duke's Jahlil Okafor — but he could easily be the second pick in June.

To say the Lakers could maybe use a player like Towns is to say they've had a good big man or two in their past.

They currently own the NBA's fourth-worst record and are on pace to keep the top-five protected pick they owe Philadelphia via Phoenix, though nothing is set in stone until the May 19 lottery.

While teammate Willie Cauley-Stein gets all the national highlight attention for his dramatic array of dunks, Towns is more apt to score on an eight-foot hook shot. With either hand. Or a mid-range jumper. Or set up a teammate with a sharp pass from the post.

He doesn't project to make the immediate pro splash of Okafor but he'll eventually make someone happy.

"He's the one to take for three years from now," said an NBA front-office official who requested anonymity.

Kentucky Coach John Calipari would agree. He went to watch Towns in high school and saw a 6-foot-11 kid called for charging three times while being guarded by a 6-foot-3 player. Calipari also noticed Towns' over-reliance on a three-point shot, not to mention a player who jogged, not hustled, up and down the court.

"My friend said, 'Cal, are you sure this kid's good enough?' " Calipari said earlier this week.

Calipari still recruited him.

"He doesn't have the physical maturation yet," Calipari said. "Within two or three years, when he gets that weight in his butt, in his thighs that he's going to have, now it becomes another one of those kids you look at and you say, 'Oh my gosh. I didn't realize he was going to be like this.' "

Bynum dropped to the Lakers at No. 10 in the 2005 draft because he was unpolished and even a little pudgy. He wasn't a sure thing in high school and elicited an infamous quote from his St. Joseph coach in a 2005 article in The Times.

"If he's an NBA player now, how do I lose in the first round?" Mark Taylor said back then, wincing while remembering St. Joseph's surprising playoff loss to a smaller and less skilled team.

Bynum eventually became an All-Star in his seventh NBA season despite immature outbursts along the way — none larger than angrily pulling his jersey over his head after getting kicked out of a 2011 playoff game, the last of Phil Jackson's coaching career — but he washed out quickly because of knee problems, some of which he acknowledged were aggravated by too much bowling.

Towns' high-school team never had the setbacks of Bynum's while winning a state championship last year. Towns was the Gatorade national player of the year after gaudy averages of 20.9 points, 13.4 rebounds and 6.2 blocked shots as a senior.

"Karl is way better than Bynum," said Jerry Smith, in his 11th year as the St. Joseph athletic director. "I don't want to talk negative about [Bynum] but there's no comparison whatsoever. This kid works, this kid is really the total package. He's one in a million. Everything I say to you, you won't believe."

Such as?

A former St. Joseph student was killed in Afghanistan while supporting combat operations during Towns' sophomore season, Smith said. Towns didn't know him but heard the Marine's sister say at a memorial service that he would have been 25 if he was still alive.

In Towns' next game, he scored at will through three quarters against Perth Amboy High.

"And then in the fourth quarter, he had layup chances and he wouldn't shoot the layup. He'd pass it back out," Smith said. "After the game, his mother said, 'What's wrong with my son? How come he's not shooting?' So we went up to Karl and he said, 'I wanted to honor the guy who passed away because he was 25.' So he stopped when he was at 25 [points]."

Smith, a dead ringer for Jack Nicholson, is loaded with stories about Towns, including a quick one showing another side of his personality.

"Whenever we played an away game, everybody took the school bus. We used to leave Karl [afterward] at the opposition's gymnasium," he said.

Come again?

"He would stay so long to sign autographs and take his picture with little kids. We'd say, 'We'll see ya, Karl. See you tomorrow.' "

Somewhere, a publicist just swooned.

Mississippi State fans weren't so enthralled Wednesday after trudging through surprisingly thick snow in Starkville and donning "StarkVegas" neon yellow and black T-shirts in anticipation of an upset over the Wildcats.

Towns had the only double-double of the game (12 points, 10 rebounds), his forceful dunk down the middle of the lane helping push Kentucky away in the second half for a 74-56 victory. Karlito was apparently very excited.

"He told me to jump, so I jumped," Towns said.

Draft-wise, Towns is a better defender than Okafor, whose dominance on offense outweighs his ability at the other end.

Curiously, Towns is seventh in playing time for Kentucky, a comparatively small 20.3 minutes a game, even though his 66 blocked shots are easily tops for the Wildcats.

Part of it is Calipari's hockey-style substitution pattern. The other part is Calipari's quick hook.

"Can I see a little fire out of you?" Calipari yelled to Towns early in the second half against Mississippi State, adding some colorful language. He didn't like Towns failing to get open down low on a possession and removed him for a brief time.

Towns, though, has become more physical since his high-school days and stays closer to the basket. The three-point touch he displayed at St. Joseph — he made 127 his last three years there — is no longer part of his repertoire. He's taken only eight with Kentucky, made two.

He has higher aspirations than an NBA career, Smith said, hoping to open a hospital in the Dominican Republic, where his mother was raised.

Until then, Towns keeps saying all the right things. Karlito would approve.

"The difference between high school and college is…you can take every five plays [in high school] and do something special [once]. Here, I learned how to do something every play, be able to run the court at all times, not jog," he said. "I just want to keep evolving. Mentally, just be stronger also."

mike.bresnahan@latimes.com

Twitter: @Mike_Bresnahan

Lakers and the lottery: This is part of an occasional series about key players likely to be available in the 2015 NBA draft.

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