With just about three minutes to play in Duke’s Jan. 13 matchup with Wake Forest, Wendell Carter Jr. trudged to the Blue Devil bench. Head down, he high-fived his coaches and then teammates before sitting down in his chair and leaning back as the final seconds ticked off in Duke’s 15th victory of the season.
Once again, foul trouble had overshadowed what was otherwise an excellent performance—a 15-point, 11-rebound outing that gave Carter his seventh double-double on the season and only continued to establish the Blue Devil frontcourt as one of the nation’s best.
For the freshman big man, that Saturday afternoon at Cameron Indoor Stadium was a turning point in what has been a rapid defensive evolution.
“Coach came up to me [on the bench that day] and said, ‘We need you in the game,’” Carter told reporters in a mid-February press conference. “He just talked to me about playing vertical. He showed me a lot of tapes of where defenders were going vertical and never got fouls called against them, so I just installed that to my game and now I’m foul-trouble free.”
In the final two games of November’s PK80 Invitational, the Atlanta native picked up four fouls in each contest and played only 21 minutes in the final against Florida. Three days later, Carter racked up 18 points at Indiana, but still struggled to stay on the floor, fouling out in 24 minutes of action.
Between then and Duke’s first matchup with the Demon Deacons, Carter played more than 30 minutes just once. It was clear a change had to be made.
“A lot of times when I fouled out, it was silly fouls like 50, 60 feet away from the basket where if I just got back, I would’ve never had to foul,” Carter said. “Just eliminating those fouls alone, it completely takes the foul trouble out of the game.”
Blue Devil head coach Mike Krzyzewski needed his first-year standout on the floor. So he suggested that Carter go watch film of Boston Celtics guard Marcus Smart.
“I watched Marcus Smart and [Coach K] was saying, ‘If a guard can do it, you can do it too,’” Carter said.
Statistically, it has been a major development for both the 6-foot-10 forward and Duke as a whole. In the Blue Devils’ first 17 games of the season, Carter averaged 24.5 minutes and 13.4 points with 8.8 rebounds, 1.8 assists and 3.0 fouls a game.
Since his adjustments, though, Carter is playing more than six minutes more per contest, and his point, rebound and assist numbers have all increased by at least 10 percent.
And while Marvin Bagley III was sidelined with a right knee sprain, Carter’s role in the paint—both offensively and defensively—only grew. As the Blue Devils continued to develop their 2-3 zone, Carter emerged as a defensive anchor, standing tall in the middle of the floor and swatting away multiple shots in every game Bagley missed.
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The highlight came Feb. 18 at Clemson, when Carter spun for the and-one layup in the final minute that salted away a critical road victory for Duke.
“Wendell really learned a lot today because it was a man’s game inside that first half,” Krzyzewski said after that win. “It was really physical, and as a young player, you get more worn out and you can get knocked back.... I thought he responded.”
With Bagley back in the fold for the Blue Devils, Carter will need to adapt again.
Although he has remained the focal point of the Duke zone, Carter is not one of the team’s primary options on the offensive side of the ball. After a signature outing against Syracuse—which was Bagley’s return to action—when Carter scored 16 points and grabbed 10 boards with four steals and not a single foul, he struggled during the regular season’s final week, notching just 14 points and eight rebounds combined in two games.
With teammates that include an ACC Player of the Year, a former All-American and one of the ACC’s best 3-point shooters, it’s easy to lose sight of Carter, even with his 6-foot-10, 259-pound frame. And with a glut of young bigs in college basketball right now—Bagley, DeAndre Ayton, Mohamed Bamba and Jaren Jackson Jr., to name a few—Carter’s name is a bit further down NBA mock draft boards than it might be in other years.
But it is hard to point to any Blue Devil who has been as steady and as consistent all season long as Carter.
“It’s incredible how much he’s developed. He does so many different things, especially watching on film, he impacts the game in so many ways,” Allen said during a late February media session. “His improvement has been so steady, and he just keeps getting better and better.... He’s protecting our rim and he’s doing an amazing job of helping us when we make [defensive] mistakes.”
Offensively, there’s little question that Duke’s frontcourt is one of the nation’s most potent and dangerous come tournament time, especially with the added depth of sophomore big men Javin DeLaurier and Marques Bolden.
Now that the Blue Devils have developed into a top-10 defense, however, it becomes all the more important for Carter to maintain his defensive presence and continue to lead a unit that could help bring a sixth national title back to Durham.
“I’m just a player who wants to win,” Carter said. “I don’t care if I’m having two points, three points a game. As long as we’re winning, that’s what I care about.”