The NBA is a big stage. It's where you can become a star. But when the show is over and the audience is on its feet in appreciation, everyone in the cast is taking bows. Perhaps that's the foremost strength of Wendell Carter Jr., the Duke center who is projected as a possible Bulls draft selection at No. 7 and is working out for the Bulls Monday.
He understands being a part of the ensemble. That it's the cast to complete the performance.
"I've never been one to be big on ego," Carter Jr. says. "I just want to win."
Which makes for a conundrum with a top draft choice.
It's great to add a player who can put on a show. But it's just as important to add a player who can just simply make the show better.
That's the question around Carter Jr., who was perhaps the third or maybe fourth most known player on the Duke roster. Carter Jr. was to be the star recruit, perhaps the top scholar/athlete nationally when he chose Duke over Harvard to his parents' dismay. Then Marvin Bagley reclassified and immediately became the focus of the offense and a likely top four pick in this month's draft.
Then there was Grayson Allen, the feisty and famous guard and also the son of the former NBAer, Gary Trent Jr. A lot of celebrity at Duke.
"It was at first," Carter Jr. told reporters at the Chicago Draft Combine last month when asked about initially being uncertain about the supporting role. "But I knew what I could do, how I could affect the game without necessarily scoring the ball. So I did those things. I did those things very exceptionally. I found a way to stand out without putting the ball in the basket."
Carter Jr. was fourth on the team in scoring at 13.5 points per game and second in rebounding at 9.1. But indicative of his versatility for the 6-10 center — 6-8 3/4 without shoes with a sizable 7-4 /2 wingspan — was that Carter Jr. was second on the team in three-point shooting, fourth in steals, third in assists and first in blocks as a player who could finish on offense with both hands and was among the nation's leaders in plus/minus.
Fans and media generally prefer jump over the backboard; coaches often opt for fundamentals, intelligence and teamwork. There are many ways to make your teammates better. Sometimes it's by drawing all the defense and scoring so many of the points. But it also can be filling in all the gaps left open by teammates' imperfections.
"I'm a competitor, especially on the defensive end, pick and roll," Carter Jr. says. "Offensive end, I haven't shown much of what I can do, but I feel I'm pretty versatile. I can bring the ball up the court and maybe shoot it from deep, shoot it at all three levels. I do whatever I have to do to win and that's what I did.
"From watching the NBA, there's a lot more space, a lot of pick and rolls, so I'm definitely looking forward to it," Carter Jr. said. "The NBA is more my realm to show what I can do."
Carter Jr. has drawn comparisons to players like Al Horford, drafted No. 3 overall and a five-time All-Star, and other team oriented players, like LaMarcus Aldridge and Draymond Green. Surely, there have been comparisons to undersized big men who aren't great athletes and haven't been NBA All-Stars. That will be the question for a team selecting between Nos. 5 and 10 in the draft, where Carter is expected to be selected.
The top picks are expected to be DeAndre Ayton, Bagley, Luka Doncic and then perhaps Jaren Jackson Jr., Mohamed Bamba and Michael Porter Jr., the latter if his back is healthy. One could drop to the Bulls at No. 7. Then there's also a group that includes the likes of Trae Young, Collin Sexton and Mikal Bridges and Miles Bridges.
In one of those bunches after the top three or four is Carter Jr., not the greatest athlete, but pretty good; not the biggest big man, but big enough. But with maybe as wide a range of skills and knowledge and understanding of the game as anyone in this draft and many others.
"I plan on finishing my degree," Carter was quick to insist despite just one year at Duke. "I am an academic guy."
There's little doubt about that considering not only being the only likely draft lottery player to have had a Harvard visit, but pretty much a straight A high school student from an extraordinarily supportive and committed family background.
Carter's parents were both collegiate scholarship basketball players, his mother Kylia, at the U. of Mississippi and his father, Wendell Sr., at Delta State and professionally in the Dominican Republic. Mom Kylia recently made news with an attack on the NCAA. Carter Jr. deftly handled the questions at the combine like dribbling through a retreating defense.
Though Kylia's comments which likened scholarship players to being in servitude were hardly the emotional reaction of a parent grabbing for a little of the spotlight as well.
Carter Jr.'s parents have been unusually involved and attentive to the point some would suggest smothering affection. But their life lessons about education, helping those less fortunate and an emphasis on community activities has yielded a son as athlete and potential statesman.
"I am a Southern girl from Mississippi and my husband is a black man in America," Kylie told ESPN last year. "We work diligently to make sure he's informed, gets an education, watches documentaries, is aware of what's going on around him and knows that his life is not indicative to the life of most black men.
"One of the things we like to tell parents is we are not the Huxtables or the Jeffersons or anything remotely close," Kylie said in that ESPN story about Wendell Jr. "We are your typical black family with typical black family issues. We would not call ourselves super stable or call ourselves extraordinary. We have had some struggles, some real problems, some in-your-face drama, some separation, all the issues that plague us as black people and black families. We have a taste, if not a double dose, of those issues."
Even in Carter Jr.'s recruiting they objected to how coaches often virtually ignored Wendell Sr., the implied racist suggestion that young black men are from single mother families. The Carters are a team and Kylia and Wendell Sr. not only attended Wendell Jr.'s games, but they basically traveled the world with him, to the USA Basketball tournaments as well as the AAU route. He's embraced the tight family circle and in high school was honored as the national player of the year for community and class activity.
Carter acted at Atlanta's Pace Academy, his high school, in the 1930s play, "You Can't Take it With You." He also was cast in "Thoroughly Modern Millie," but had to bow out for the high school all star games.
As wonderful as all that might be for an NBA team's community relations department, Carter Jr. is being hired to produce and help a basketball team.
In his case, they can be mutually exclusive to an extent.
Carter Jr. was a good scorer in high school, averaging about 21 points for his state title team. Though many of the top draft picks often average 30 to 40 points per game in high school, someone like Trae Young well into the 40s. Carter Jr.'s USA Basketball teams were undefeated, yet he averaged about 10 points and seven rebounds. He averaged about 17 and 10 in AAU with his successful team. Hustle and doing the dirty work are often mentioned about him.
And, yes, winning.
"There are a lot of great players on the (USA) team," Carter Jr. told reporters during his USA experience. "So you have to find that one thing you can do to help the team win."
While Carter Jr. often is likened to star role players like Horford and Draymond Green, he also is not unlike the Bulls Joakim Noah with an eagerness to run the court and beat downcourt the opponent big man while finding teammates running the court. And someone who shoots a lot better.
So in some respects, perhaps Carter Jr. is more prepared for playing in the NBA than many of his draft peers because he adjusted to playing with superior talent to find his place.
"It allowed me to show I am able to play with big players and still maintain my own, become a star in my role, " Carter Jr. said at the Draft Combine.
Says mom: "We always believed he was the No. 1 player in the country. We believe he's the No. 1 draft pick. We don't care what everyone else believes. That's just how we move."