LEXINGTON, Ky. — Karl-Anthony is not the most important part of Karl-Anthony Towns.
That distinction goes to Karlito.
Karlito is Towns' imaginary friend, perched, invisibly, on his shoulder. His most important job? Handling all sorts of criticism. He doles it out — if Towns misses one free throw and posts an otherwise impressive stat line, that missed freebie is what Karlito will dwell on — and he also helps Towns endure any verbal assaults from Kentucky coach John Calipari — of which there are plenty.
"He's such a great kid, he doesn't want to talk back to you, so he turns his head to the side and talks to that little man on his shoulder," Calipari said. "And after he started doing it, I said, 'Who are you talking to?' And I can't remember which of the coaches gave it the nickname: 'He's talking to Karlito.' "
You might happen to catch Towns turning to Karlito during a game or after a moment spent being chewed out by Calipari.
NCAA TOURNAMENT: Bracket Hub
"Just some moments? It's a lot," Towns said, laughing. "He's just trying to help me. I know he loves me. He just wants the best for me. He's looking for a lot out of me. That's all it is. It's not about being mean or anything. It's about knowing he loves me so much he wants to make sure I'm doing the best I can possibly do on the court."
Towns has a knack for responding well to that sort of criticism and motivation, too. He's played some of his best basketball in games down the stretch after a particularly expressive conversation with Calipari. Exhibit A: Towns, after getting an earful from Calipari following his fourth foul at Georgia earlier this month, went on a personal 5-0 run to give the Wildcats an insurmountable lead with 2:07 left. Towns made two free throws with 33.4 seconds left and finished the game — Kentucky's biggest threat to derail its perfect season to date — with 19 points on 8-for-12 shooting with seven rebounds.
"I think the biggest thing is, I've always grown up on the phrase 'If the coach is chewing you out the most, that means he has a lot of respect for you and he sees a lot in you,' " Towns said. "You should be worried when he's not yelling at you. I've always taken it as he's seeing something in me that maybe I don't see. Maybe he sees a lot in me."
Karlito has become a bit of a celebrity in Lexington — despite his imaginary status. After the Wildcats beat Florida to complete their 31-0 regular season, Towns was asked what size celebratory T-shirt Karlito would wear. "Baby small," Towns said. There's even a @LittleKarlito Twitter account, featuring photoshopped images, with more than 3,000 followers.
Towns' high school coach, David Turco, finds great amusement in Karlito — and said that the mannerisms that led to Karlito have been part of Towns for years, ever since he's known him.
"It is true, because he's such a great kid," said Turco, the head coach at St. Joseph's in Metuchen, N.J. "He'd never in a million years talk back to you, but he would turn and he would mumble to himself. I guess that's sort of where Karlito came from, someone sitting on his shoulder."
But the idea of Karlito is more important than its meme potential. Karlito is the mechanism Towns uses to critique his own game. He'll beat himself up over one missed free throw, or even a 4-for-10 shooting night in the midst of a defensive masterpiece ("I can't even get to 50%," he said afterward). Karlito helps keep Towns from getting too high on himself — easier said than done when you're expected to be a top-five pick in June's NBA draft — and also allows him to figure out which areas of his game he can improve. Some nights, it's free throws. Other nights, it's field-goal percentage.
Immediately after Kentucky beat Cincinnati to advance to the Sweet 16, Towns was asked if Karlito had much to pick apart: Towns' stat line included eight points, seven rebounds and three blocks.
"Yeah, there's a lot to nitpick today," Towns said. "We're going to have a long bus ride back."
It's that kind of self-critique (well, Karlito critique) that helps keep Towns evolving into a better player. The 6-11 forward has enormous upside — and NBA scouts salivating.
To keep growing, the key for Towns is twofold: Keep embracing Calipari's ultimately constructive criticism, and keep constructively criticizing himself.
"He does harp on that one mistake that he did make," Turco said. "He's striving for perfection night in and night out. ... Even in summer workouts, he'd be one of those guys who's got to make 100 jump shots in a row. He'd get up to 90, 95, miss and start over. Not a lot of kids have that same drive. He sets a goal, and he's not willing to come up short.
"He's probably the hardest critic — himself."