With an impressive bag of tricks and a superb feel for the game, Kentucky freshman Karl Towns Jr. is already mentioned among the top 2015 NBA draft prospects.
Can he separate himself from the rest of the field moving forward?
The 2014 Gatorade National Player of the Year had a brilliant high school career in New Jersey, and he's also held his own against international stars while playing for the Dominican Republic national team. Most recently, he shined during Kentucky's summer exhibitions in the Bahamas. Anybody who's watched him over the past couple of years would agree that he's high-lottery material and should be in the discussion for the No. 1 pick.
As the season unfolds, however, Towns has a chance to do more than just compete for the top spot: He could emerge as the consensus prize of the draft and the favorite to land first overall.
He's that good.
The incoming Wildcat freshman won't be handed the top slot immediately, as there are several gifted prospects in the 2015 class.
For starters, there's Duke's Jahlil Okafor, who's a polished low-post anchor capable of battling with the biggest pro centers. Also roaming the paint is Kansas big man Cliff Alexander, whose power and explosiveness is highly attractive.
On the perimeter, SMU recruit-turned-Chinese League signee Emmanuel Mudiay might have something to say in the top pick discussion. His size, creativity and agility are ideal for today's NBA backcourt.
Towns' other major obstacle is the depth of his own team. B/R NBA Draft Lead Writer Jonathan Wasserman explains the richly talented Kentucky rotation:
Towns will be competing for minutes and touches with junior Willie Cauley-Stein and sophomore Dakari Johnson—two older 7-footers expected to play significant veteran roles. And don't forget that junior Alex Poythress, sophomore Marcus Lee and fellow top-shelf recruit Trey Lyles are all expected to log minutes at the 4.
With that in mind, Towns won't have 35 minutes every night to demonstrate his skill set. And initially, he'll have to overcome behemoths like Okafor and Alexander, along with the speedy Mudiay.
But during his modest time at Lexington, he'll have a chance to prove over the course of the season that he's the premier talent of the 2015 crop.
It's impossible to downplay Towns diverse set of skills. At 7'0" with a 9'5" standing reach, the 18-year-old already has the ability to play inside and out.
In the paint, the youngster can put his back to the basket and powerfully maneuver for baby hooks with either hand. He also executes up-and-under shots, turnaround bankers or drop-step spin moves. Towns displays a deft touch with the ball, as he's able to toss it softly off the backboard or straight into the bucket.
Karl Towns' combination of size, length & skill are impressive. Terrific touch at the rim. Upside is scary.— Evan Daniels (@EvanDaniels) August 19, 2014
He's not always in post-up mode. In fact, the big fella loves to face up and drive past opponents, whether it's from the wing or baseline.
While he's not an explosive athlete, there's a nice bounce in his step. Towns has great ball-handling skills and agility for someone his size. His movements are quicker and more fluid than those of Okafor and Alexander.
Another key skill that distinguishes him from his frontcourt peers is his shooting ability. To call his jumper "promising" is a bit of an understatement; Towns can smoothly drill college three-pointers, and his range will undoubtedly soon extend to the NBA line. It won't be long before he's a legitimate pick-and-pop threat who can also hit long baseline attempts.
He has a keen sense of where his teammates are and how opponents are defending him. Those instincts make him a terrific passer for a big man, whether he's on the run or operating in half-court scenarios. Watch him manipulate the defense for this backdoor dime:
Former Virginia Tech coach Seth Greenberg was thoroughly impressed with Towns' play in the Bahamas, especially his ability to anticipate plays from any spot on the floor:
Karl Towns is a fantastic passer and patient low post scorer . He sees plays develop from the block and the perimeter— Seth Greenberg (@SethOnHoops) August 17, 2014
The 248-pound forward is also a solid rebounder, as he exhibits great body control and hands around the rim. During his recent midsummer stint with the Wildcats, he showed aggressive rebounding ability on both ends of the floor.
Defensively, he's not an elite talent at this stage, as there is plenty of room for improvement when it comes to footwork and positioning. Fortunately, he's got a willingness to protect the rim and ample mobility and length to alter shots and disrupt post entries. Towns won't be an upper-echelon stopper immediately, but Dominican Republic head coach Orlando Antigua knows he'll work hard and take pride in his craft.
"Aside from his God-given talents and abilities, he has an unbelievable will to compete and that’s special,” Antigua told Shlomo Sprung of Sheridan Hoops. “It’s something that ticks inside of him."
How He Fits in Today's NBA
Given his size, skills and ability to cover tons of ground, Towns will be an indispensable asset for his NBA coach.
Not only will he play the 4 or the 5, he'll also be able to operate on the perimeter as a stretch 4 or combo forward. Towns can handle himself as a finesse player or powerful presence.
In today's era of hoops, coaches love players who can fill different roles and serve as an interchangeable weapon in various lineups. In recent years, coaches and front offices have demonstrated their attraction toward "position-less basketball."
Just think about the past couple of NBA champions. The Miami Heat were fueled by LeBron James' do-it-all skill set, and they also feasted off stretch 4 Chris Bosh and combo guard Dwyane Wade. The Spurs flexed versatility too, in the form of Kawhi Leonard's Inspector Gadget role and Boris Diaw's point-forward orchestration.
That's where Towns stands above his fellow 2015 NBA draft prospects, particularly Okafor and Alexander. He's much more versatile, so he'll be constantly functional for his team no matter what position he's playing or what system they're running.
He won't need massive minutes or tons of scoring opportunities every night to demonstrate his NBA value. Throughout the season, it will become clear that he's a multipurpose draft gem.
Not just "a" gem, but "the" gem.
Daniel O'Brien covers the NBA draft for Bleacher Report.