by Ryan Jones / portraits Tom Medvedich

Even by the standards of 7-foot-tall high school kids, Karl Towns stands out. There’s the Caribbean lineage that allowed the New Jersey kid to suit up for the Dominican Republican national team last summer—when he was just 16. There’s the extensive experience he got playing for his future college coach halfway through his high school career. There’s the fact that his self-professed favorite player died before Towns was even born.

And then there’s his perspective, a rare-for-his-age take on the world that mirrors his (almost) literal bird’s eye view. Ask him which aspects of his game he’s focused on improving, and he answers with a quick laugh, “What ain’t I trying to improve?” But then, dead serious, he tells you what he’s best at: “I think my biggest strength is my leadership.”

If so, Towns must be quite a leader. The 7-foot, 250-pounder from Metuchen (NJ) St. Joseph High is an inside-out threat who is making a case as the best center in the 2014 class. Scouts rave about his skill set, especially his soft hands and legit three-point range. Along with fellow recruit Trey Lyles of Indianapolis, arguably the top PF prospect in the class, he gives Kentucky what already looks like the nation’s best college frontcourt for ’14-15.

Towns was one of the most coveted recruits even before he proved himself internationally. His mom’s Dominican roots meant he had the chance to suit up for the DR squad in the summer of ’12, where he played alongside Al Horford and against the likes of Luis Scola during the Olympic qualifying campaign—not to mention against Team USA in an exhibition clash. The Dominicans fell short of a trip to London, but Towns held his own playing against grown men.

“I was able to understand the level of basketball I could play at,” he says of his international run. “Playing against Team USA last year really raised my confidence. If I was able, at age 16, to step on the court with some of the greatest athletes in the world, some of the greatest of all time, then I can do anything I really want. That’s the mentality I have.”

It probably didn’t hurt his confidence that Towns was taking orders last summer from John Calipari, who was coaching the Dominicans as a side gig and who (of course) recruited Towns to Kentucky. “That helped me understand Cal, what he likes, what he needs from me,” he says. “Now I know what I need to work on so I don’t make Cal mad.”

That doesn’t figure to happen often. By all accounts, Towns boasts a work ethic that matches his skill set, and his personable vibe and baby-faced smile figure to make him a tough guy to get mad at. He’s also got great taste in role models. “I wanted to pass like Magic, I wanted to be like Durant with the smooth stroke, a beast like Olajuwon,” he says. And that’s not even mentioning his favorite player, Len Bias, whom he’s studied on YouTube. “He just looks like someone who can do everything on the court.”

Not for the first time, Towns has set a high bar for himself. And why not? He’s done it—and cleared it—before.

“My freshman year, our AD told me that it’s hard for a freshman to lead seniors, so he told me to lead by example: Be first in sprints, work hard every day I come into the gym,” says Towns, who as a ninth grader led St. Joe all the way to the state title. “At the next level, I expect to do the same thing.”