HAMPTON, Va. - Karl Towns Jr. makes people look in a different direction.
On this cloudy Saturday morning, folks flock to the Boo Williams Sportsplex for a glimpse of Horace Spencer, the 6-foot-8 headliner at the Nike Easter Invitational 14-and-under tournament.
But as the 8 a.m. game begins, fans can't help but notice Spencer's teammate on the South Jersey Gymrats.
Despite standing 6-foot-10 1/2, weighing 225 pounds, and sporting a size 20 shoe, Towns hovers near the three-point line.
Comments like, "He needs to get down low" and "What is he doing?" are heard from the growing crowd. Towns quiets critics by making seven high-arcing three-pointers in the Gymrats' rout. Suddenly, Towns - not Spencer - becomes the tournament's most-talked-about player.
"Hey, that Towns kid can shoot," says Malcolm Hill, a youth basketball fan from nearby Newport News. "And he's big, too. I almost feel sorry for the kids trying to stop him on the perimeter. He's too big."
Perhaps that's why a few parents on opposing teams questioned if Towns was age-appropriate for this middle-school elite tournament.
According to the rules, participants must be in grades eight or lower. They also can't turn 16 years old before Sept. 1.
Towns fits both criteria.
The Piscataway, N.J., native won't turn 16 until Nov. 15. He's a straight A eighth grader at Theodore Schor Middle School. Towns did, however, repeat the seventh grade after transferring from Our Lady of Fatima School two years ago.
Although he doesn't have hard numbers to back up his assertion, Clark Francis, a Hoop Scoop recruiting service analyst who has evaluated players for 31 years, says holding back sixth, seventh, and eighth graders for basketball purposes is a trend.
"It's the nature of the beast," Francis said in the past. "Can reclassification help a player's [national class] ranking? There's no question. It can move a kid back into the top 20."
That's what happened to Towns.
He's the nation's 18th-ranked college prospect in the Class of 2015, according to Hoop Scoop. Unaware that he repeated the seventh grade, the recruiting service had Towns ranked 47th in the Class of 2014 last season.
But Karl Towns Sr., who was a standout player at Monmouth University in the mid-1980s, says basketball is not the reason his son repeated the seventh grade.
"There were courses that his new school requires eight graders to already have that Karl wasn't required to take at his old school," Towns Sr. says. "So instead of being behind, we decided it was best for him to repeat the seventh grade."
A season later, Karl Towns Jr. is the eighth-grade version of his idol, Kevin Durant. Despite being towering figures, they both thrive on the perimeter.
"I try to remodel his style," says Towns, who, according to his father, is on the radar of college coaching staffs at Rutgers, Kentucky, Duke, Michigan State, Baylor, West Virginia, and Richmond.
"But I try to make it my own style," Towns adds. "I take some of the good bits I like about him and put it in my game."
Towns probably needs to improve his low-post presence and footwork if he expects to improve his ranking. But for now, his shooting range and size are getting a lot of attention.
Towns, whose mother, Jackie, is a Dominican American, is a member of the Dominican Republic under-17 team composed of players from the New York area and the Dominican Republic.
"He has a great feel for the game," Oliver Antiqua, the Dominican Republic under-17 coach, says of Towns. "Once his body catches up and fills out, he will be able to do anything. I think the sky is the limit for him."
High school coaches, apparently, feel the same way. Even though, he accepted a scholarship worth $52,000 annually to attend the Pennington School beginning next fall, Towns still is arguably New Jersey's most recruited eighth grader.
Since committing to the New Jersey private boarding school, he has visited Garden State powers St. Anthony, Blair Academy, St. Benedict's, and Pope John Paul XXIII. The family says it has also been contacted by the Academy of the New Church, Oak Hill Academy (Va.), St. Patrick (N.J.), and National Christian (Md.).
"I have no idea," Towns says when asked if he's still committed to Pennington. "I feel like I'm still committed until something happens."
There's a strong chance that he'll still end up at Pennington. The Townses love the school's high academic standard.
"Karl doesn't want to go to a school for basketball only," Karl Towns Sr. says.
Towns will excel no matter where he ends up, many say.
"His size and his ability to shoot the long ball at that size, he's already a prototypical forward," says Mike Melton, a recruiting analyst for Basketball Spotlight.
Watch video of Karl Towns at http://go.philly.com/towns EndText