Is College Basketball's Biggest Sidekick Ready for His NBA Spinoff?
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because this Duke second-fiddle forward hasn’t had his chance to shine yet.
By Matt Foley
When’s the right time to give the sidekick a spinoff?
For Chris O’Donnell’s Robin, probably never. But Wendell Carter Jr. didn’t commit to Duke as anyone’s sidekick. ESPN’s No. 5 recruit in the high school Class of 2017 looked ready to star. Then life happened. Marvin Bagley III graduated high school a year early and enrolled in Durham. Along with three other teammates who expect to be drafted Thursday night, the twin towers led Duke to an Elite Eight finish.
But for most of last season, Carter was an afterthought. Less polished on offense than the consensus All-American Bagley, the 19-year old’s NBA ceiling is questionable. All-Star, reliable role player, backup or bust? Everything’s in play for the Atlanta native. But unlike Bagley — whose game and deficiencies are being picked apart the closer we get to Thursday night — Carter is not overexposed. In a crowded draft class of talented big men, that could make all the difference.
“When I was in college, the freshmen didn’t look like this,” says ESPN analyst Jay Bilas, who helped Duke to the NCAA title game in 1986. “It’s hard to wrap your head around how strong, athletic and skilled they are at such a young age.”
Give me a 7-footer who can post up and defend the lane. He has an advantage every play.
Steve Smith, Turner Sports analyst
At Atlanta’s private Pace Academy in 2017, Carter was a McDonald’s All-American and the Georgia state Player of the Year who also finished high school with a 3.8 GPA. His college decision came down to Duke or Harvard. Academics are important and all, but Duke offered more, shall we say, career training for the soon-to-be professional baller.
As a freshman playing for coach Mike Krzyzewski, Carter did not disappoint. He posted 16 double-doubles, four 20-point games and averaged 13.5 points and 9.1 rebounds per game on the season. Those numbers likely would have been higher on any other team. But Carter was Duke’s frontcourt Robin to Bagley’s effortlessly dominant, 21-point, 11-rebound Batman.
Carter, meanwhile, showed a necessary aptitude for scoring without having plays drawn for him, as he was essentially the fourth option behind Bagley and talented guards Grayson Allen and Gary Trent Jr. When Bagley missed most of February with a knee sprain, Carter’s moment arrived. He anchored the paint for the Blue Devils, typically leaving the floor only for foul trouble. “Marvin deserves all the praise and accolades,” Carter said after defeating Notre Dame in the ACC Tournament in March. Bagley had returned three games prior, but if there was any lingering resentment after once again relinquishing the spotlight, Carter showed none of it. At that moment, he was just a cheerful teenager working toward a common goal with his college buddies. At one point, Carter and Duke freshman guard Alex O’Connell attempted to crack their famous teammate by photo-bombing Bagley as he obliged a hungry media scrum. “We play well together, but him being out was just an opportunity for me to step up even more.… I’ve always been confident in my game,” Carter says.
Confident too in following the rules off the court in the face of scandal. In February, Yahoo Sports reported that Christian Dawkins, a sports agent arrested by the FBI for fraud, had bought Carter’s mother, Kylia Carter, dinner while meeting to discuss her son’s future. Sounds harmless, but it’s “impermissible” by NCAA standards. The Carters deny that Dawkins paid for dinner, and Duke quickly cleared Carter to play, unworried about his eligibility. Carter insists finding himself in the middle of college basketball’s corruption craze didn’t throw him off his game. “There was no distraction because I didn’t do anything,” he says. “And my family didn’t do anything either.”
His mother was a tad more forthcoming with her opinions on the whole matter of a $1.1 billion system built on unsalaried toil. “The only other time when labor does not get paid but yet someone else gets profits and the labor is Black and the profit is white, is in slavery,” she said in a May 7 meeting of the Knight Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics, before comparing the NCAA to the American prison system. “[The NCAA is] not to be trusted because your intentions are clear.”
The comparison is extreme — and likely unhelpful to the cause of fairly compensating athletes for their time on campus — but the one-and-done rule barring players from the NBA until one year after their high school class graduates does seem to have hurt Carter’s earnings potential. Carter made it through last season uninjured and without any glaring setbacks to his NBA draft stock, but would he have been drafted higher coming out of high school, before taking a secondary role at Duke? Probably.
Yet Turner Sports analyst Steve Smith says Carter simply showed how valuable he can be. “He showed that he can fit into different roles,” Smith says. “Give me a 7-footer who can post up and defend the lane. He has an advantage every play.”
At 6 feet 10 inches and 260 pounds with a 7-feet 3-inch wingspan, Carter is a formidable rim defender. What he lacks in lateral foot speed — a potential problem defending the pick-and-roll — he makes up with intelligence and offensive versatility. His best NBA comparison might be Al Horford, whom Atlanta drafted third overall in 2007 and was a critical cog in Boston’s playoff run this year. Like Horford, Carter’s workmanlike approach doesn’t immediately command eyeballs, but his combination of skilled passing, 3-point shooting range and power in the paint is impossible to ignore. A near lock to be picked in the lottery — aka the top 14 picks — Carter’s draft position is otherwise a mystery. Falling past Charlotte at No. 11 would be a panic signal, but it would also provide Carter time to develop on a better club with less pressure, and remain a sidekick for just a bit longer.