USA TODAY High School Sports is featuring each of the 12 finalists for the Gatorade Athlete of the Year award during a two-week series leading into the July 15 announcement in Los Angeles. The award is given to the top male and female among the 12 finalists, who won their respective sport’s national player of the year award earlier in the 2013-14 school year. USA TODAY High School Sports administrates the nationwide selection process in collaboration with Gatorade.
At this point, Karl Towns Jr. is fully aware that it’s become somewhat cliché for elite players to rave about the occasional time they devout to studying past greats.
Blame the throwback jersey fashion fad of the early 2000s or the ever-increasing desire for elite players to set themselves apart.
For that reason, Towns, who’s now settling in to his first freshman summer session at Kentucky, makes sure he’s not studying NBA legends just occasionally.
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“I do it every day,” Towns said matter-of-factly. “I definitely try and pick up their habits and pick up pointers from watching old videos and things like that. I learn a lot from watching them. They all have a lot in common. They’re all just crazy competitors; that’s not something I had to learn though; I was born wanting to be the best at everything.”
Still, if the study of past greats was a cliché proclamation for an elite young player then professing to be a natural born competitor has to trump even that, right?
It’s a lot more believable when Towns raves about the fact that he’s got the biggest foot (size 20) in Kentucky hoops history, and when he excitedly begins to reel off the list of things he competes to be the best at on a daily basis.
MORE: Q&A with Karl Towns, Jr.
“Sleeping, using the bathroom, eating, breathing,” Towns said. “I’m even like this; I want you to say my name first if I’m with someone. If you said the person’s name that I was with first I’d do everything in my power to change that the next time.”
Seems spot on for a player who led his high school team, St. Joseph (Metuchen, N.J.) to three state titles while averaging 20.9 points, 13.4 rebounds and 6.2 blocks per game this past season.
His competitive drive is rooted in an all too typical scenario; little boy goes to the local park every day and either doesn’t get picked or is the last one picked on the blacktop which creates a massive chip that rests smack-dab on his shoulder. The atypical part of the story is that even as accomplished as Towns is – Gatorade Player of the Year, All-USA, McDonald’s All American, Jordan Brand All American, etc. – he still competes like the pissed-off kid at Day Park in Piscataway, N.J., eager to prove that he belongs.
“I carry that with me every day,” Towns said. “It drives me.”
And fair warning for his Towns’ Wildcat teammates this coming season.
“He only knows how to go one way,” Karl Towns Sr. said. “There’s no such thing as fun on the court with him. He’s coming; that’s it! He wants to leave whatever workout or practice feeling like he got better so he puts in the work to achieve that.”
Karl Sr. said that Towns’ relentless nature grew as a result of being knocked and criticized for years for not suiting up for the AAU season; instead opting for individual workouts which focused on specific parts of his game.
WATCH: Towns visits special fans
“He had the mentality like ‘You guys may not see me every day on the AAU circuit, but when you do you’ll know that I was working harder than anyone else,” Karl Sr. said. “That’s one thing I love about my son; he takes nothing for granted. He’s not in to trying to be ‘the one,’ he just wants to be better than he was the day before.”
And he expects the same from his teammates; a lesson one of the St. Joseph’s players had to learn the hard way this past season.
When Towns’ teammate’s erratic shot selection and failed dunk attempts cost his team a practice scrimmage game, Towns addressed the issue sternly.
“I told him to stop and I told him why,” Towns said. “I was gonna leave it at that.”
Then when his teammate kept up with more of the same in the next scrimmage, Towns stopped play altogether.
“I said, ‘Everybody get on the line right now!” Towns said. “I made my team run four suicides because I wanted him to see what he did wrong. I don’t just want to compete; I want to win. Sometimes I have to be the bad guy; and that’s fine as long as it’s getting everyone better.”
Still, don’t confuse his straightforwardness, Towns doesn’t like for his “bad cop” rope to spill over into the locker room after the final horn sounds or practice is done. One of the key things he picked up in his study of past greats is that most of the super-competitors didn’t have very many friends off the court.
“That’s not me,” Towns said. “I’m outgoing and I love to just have fun and talk to people. I pride myself in being really approachable and getting along with people. I’m goofy! I’m just a people person.”
And, yes, the teammate he berated would agree.
“I ended up taking him out to the Cheesecake Factory!” Towns said. “He played great in the next game, and, more than anything, I was happy for him. That’s what I want to bring to Kentucky. We’ll obviously be really talented, but last year it took the whole regular season for the team to gel together. I want to do that from the first game. I know I’m coming in with a roster full of super-competitive players so, as much pressure as we’ll have, I’m excited! The only thing I want is No. 9 (national championship). That’s it.”
Follow Jason Jordan on Twitter: @JayJayUSATODAY