Wendell Carter Jr. sat stoically at the dais Monday, being introduced with Chandler Hutchison as Chicago Bulls first-round picks at the Advocate Center, adding more talent to a growing trough of youth in a rebuild many hope will take a sizeable step this fall.
His cool demeanor shouldn’t be interpreted as an affront, Carter Jr. seemingly keeps a calm face in new situations in the wake of new challenges.
It was likely the same controlled expression he displayed a year ago when like many, he watched future teammate Marvin Bagley III reclassify to become college eligible for the next season and selected Duke as his pit stop before hitting the NBA.
“Humanly, you didn't want it to happen,” Carter Jr. said some time after going through the battery of media interviews following his introduction.
In a moment’s time, Carter Jr. went from incoming focal point for Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski to afterthought, from future shoo-in as a top pick to the risk of being lost in the shadow of a more heralded teammate.
Carter Jr. stayed quiet, true to his roots despite being a “spoiled” only child, by his admission. His mother Kylia, a former college basketball player who along with his father Wendell Sr. guided the steps of her child, didn’t know if it was a roadblock or blessing in disguise.
“My initial reaction, I was pissed. And it wasn't pissed because Marvin was coming. To be honest, I felt like that was information that was kept from us,” Kylia Carter said. “It felt (shady), it felt like my baby was gonna get kicked to the curb. I felt like all of that.”
While it took Kylia some time to get over it, Wendell Sr. was more pragmatic. It’s there where the balance of the Carter family is on display.
“I tell people. People make promises they can't keep. It didn't bother me,” Wendell Sr. said. “I was concerned because I felt like we were lied to. ‘Oh, Wendell's gonna be the man’ and then the rug was pulled from under us.”
The father had a simple solution for his son: “Just go play ball.”
Wendell Jr’s path was carefully cultivated and nurtured by his parents, who’ll move from Atlanta to Chicago to help with his transition to NBA life. His adjustment to the unforeseen circumstances at Duke wasn’t unlike his adjustment to high school, where he was enrolled in Pace Academy in Buckhead, northeast Atlanta.
Pace Academy has been recognized as one of the top private schools in the country, and the Carters selected it because of its challenging curriculum, amongst other reasons.
Carter Sr. said he didn’t even know who the basketball coach was, and Carter Jr. was already nationally ranked, making it an unorthodox move on its face.
“That made a huge difference,” Carter Sr. said. “He was around people, those people were wealthy. Not rich but wealthy.”
Making Wendell Jr. develop comfort while being uncomfortable was a lesson he learned early and he excelled academically and athletically, weighing a scholarship offer from Harvard before deciding on Duke.
“We would drop him off at school, (other) cars pulling up would be Ferrari’s,” Carter Sr. said. “These folks got money. Long money. When they saw him, they treated him like he wasn't nothing special. That environment helped him a whole lot.”
“He was another student. He felt he was able to grow, nobody tugging at him.”
At Pace, he found out he could easily stand out as well as he could blend into a diverse environment.
At Duke, he was ready to blossom on his own so admittedly, it wasn’t the easiest adjustment although it was embedded in his behavioral DNA. The practices where Bagley and Carter Jr were matched up against each other was likely tougher than the early games.
“We were definitely going at each other,” Carter Jr. said. “Hard. Very hard. But only to make each other better. It wasn't 'I don't like you, I hate that you're here so I'm going at your neck.' We both wanted to get better.”
On the floor, though, he wasn’t performing like a future lottery pick. Wendell Jr. attributed it to the “freshman 15” pounds he added before getting in better shape.
“At the beginning when you watch Wendell's games, he was engaged but we could tell something wasn't all good,” Kylia Carter said. “(He) didn't look all in, you didn't look like you were giving your all. You were there, but you weren't really there.”
A trip back to Atlanta for a visit a few games into the season got him back on track, embracing the minutia and intangibles that helped Duke become a favorite headed into March Madness.
“He told us it bothered him at first. But he said I gotta make it work,” Kylia Carter said. “You're gonna do all the stuff you already know how to do. And you're gonna do it at an extreme level. Everything but score. Do everything else to aid.”
“Everybody knows you can score. So let Marvin have all the damn points. They're throwing him the ball, the offense is geared around him. Why are you beating your head against the wall.”
She pauses to choose her words carefully, paraphrasing her advice to her son.
“Defense is not the strong suit of this team. Fill that void.”
The early start never dropped Carter Jr. from draft boards, firmly planted in the top 10 all season as a steady complement to Bagley—an aspect that appeared to be the greatest compliment to his maturing game.
The blessing suddenly was undisguised, with Kylia facetiously saying “thanks, Coach K.”
“As the games got tougher, his game got better,” she said. “Because those things they needed in those tough things were things he was so comfortable doing. They needed rebounds, rim protection. They needed ball screens.”
Many times over the last few days, John Paxson, Gar Forman and head coach Fred Hoiberg mentioned Carter Jr.’s character off the floor and on it, made note of the verticality he’s used to block several shots last season.
Unknowingly, they were praising mom’s teachings, honed from her playing days.
“It's still basketball. Still X's and O's. Same rules, it's just the players are different,” Kylia said. “We know all the X's and O's. That's what we women know.”
As for the blocked shots, that came from Kylia’s athletic gifts as a volleyball player.
“We played volleyball. That's the way we learned verticality is volleyball,” she said, before demonstrating. “You go straight up. Two hands, straight up. If you go straight up you won't get called for a foul. He would lean, be tempted. All of that is temptation, and anticipation.”
The temptation to command more of Duke’s offense when it had so many first-round draft picks settled down as the anticipation of getting to the NBA grew closer and closer.
“People think I took a backseat to Marvin. I don't think that's the right terminology. It's just that I sacrificed,” Wendell Jr. said. “People think I bowed down to him or allowed him to take the leadership role. But in my opinion I did what I had to in order to win.”
The incoming rookie said there wasn’t much he learned about himself in the process, and his per-game averages of 13.5 points, 9.1 rebounds and 2.1 blocks showed he didn’t have much back-down in his game for anybody, let alone a teammate.
The intangibles have long been noted as a reason many believe he can be a nice frontcourt sidekick to Lauri Markkanen, the Bulls’ burgeoning second-year forward.
“I think it was a positive,” Carter Jr. said. “I'm coming into a situation where I'm gonna be playing with other great players again.”
As for the blessing in disguise, Kylia Carter has yet to give Krzyzewski her true feelings from promises that weren’t kept. But it’s coming.
“We have not had our conversation but we will. We almost went there with him when we did our exit interview,” she said. “But he'll come around to a Bulls game and I'll get the chance.”
Like the Bulls, mom is letting it build.