It was the perfect way to kick off the spring and summer AAU season. Nearly three-quarters of the top 100 high school seniors in the country descended on New York City for the first Nike EYBL session of the year.
Except for one notable absence: Wendell Carter, the No. 2-ranked player in the 2017 class.
Carter wasn’t injured, nor was he at another basketball event: He was home in Georgia, acting in a school play.
“It was ‘You Can’t Take It With You,’” Carter said recently at the USA Basketball U17 workouts. “I played a handyman for a weird family. It was all pretty funny."
“I think it was a good idea,” Pace Academy (Georgia) coach Demetrius Smith said. “These kids in this day and age, they play basketball 12 months a year. They’re well-rounded, but they don’t tap into their other potential, other talents. For him to say no to the EYBL session, it speaks volumes to who he is as a person, as a student, as an athlete.”
It’s not every day you see an elite high school athlete choose to participate in an after-school activity instead of playing in front of dozens of college coaches, but Carter isn’t a run-of-the-mill basketball player.
Carter is a high-level student who consistently earns A’s, and in his free time, he likes to build things (he said a bird feeder might be next on his list).
“I just try to look for things to separate me from everybody else, either on the court or off the court,” Carter said. “Like after practices, I go pick up [others' trash]. Something like that, some of the small things.”
Missing that first weekend didn’t hinder Carter at all this spring, as he closed the gap between himself and No. 1 prospect DeAndre Ayton while also helping lead Team CP3 to a 14-2 record. Carter averaged 16.8 points, 10.2 rebounds and 2.5 blocks per game on the EYBL circuit, while shooting an insane 70.9 percent from the field. He also put up 30 points and 16 rebounds in a head-to-head matchup against Ayton in May.
And then in June, Carter made the USA Basketball Men’s U17 World Championship team, which will compete in Spain this month. It will be Carter’s second event with USA Basketball, as he averaged 13.6 points and 8.8 rebounds in leading the USA to a gold medal at last summer’s FIBA Americas U16 Championship.
“Whatever the talent level, he’ll rise to that talent,” Smith said. “He’ll dominate lesser talent, but he always rises to the occasion. If he was in the NBA right now, I think he would rise to that talent level, just because. He’s skilled, he’s big enough at 6-foot-9, 6-foot-10, his wingspan is 7-foot-4. The speed of the game, he’ll adapt to anything. He’s got a long career ahead of him.”
Carter is one of the most sought-after prospects in the country, with his choice of colleges. Three schools have been in pursuit most heavily over the past several months: Duke, Kentucky and ... Harvard.
The Crimson have been recruiting at a different level under Tommy Amaker. Their top-10 2016 class included four ESPN 100 prospects. But someone like Carter is in another stratosphere. Do Amaker and Harvard really have a shot?
“My first official [visit] is going to be to Harvard this fall,” Carter said. “I got a great relationship with the coach. He promised me a lot of things, about not being one of the best athletic schools, but will make adjustments if I do come, to make sure I’m great athletically. And of course, going to Harvard, I’m gonna be fine academically.”
Given Carter’s focus on academics, Duke is also in a good position. Mike Krzyzewski and his staff have made Carter a priority, and he took a trip to Durham last fall.
“I like to relate Duke to Harvard,” he said. “Of course, they’re a great academic school, but they’re a little bit better athletically. That’s their pitch to me.”
Kentucky isn’t the same academically as Harvard and Duke, but John Calipari has made Carter a focus of his 2017 plans, and the Wildcats aren’t just going to wave the white flag to Harvard and/or Duke.
“[They] get you to the league,” Carter said. “Get you for the nine months or six months or however long you’re there, get you ready for the next level.”
California, Georgia, Georgia Tech and North Carolina are among the other schools involved for Carter.
Don’t think for a second that Carter isn’t focused on basketball or doesn’t love the game; he has continued to progress and refine his game over the past couple of years. He was dominant in Colorado Springs at the USA U17 training camp and showed he still had a point to prove.
“Just because I’m maybe ranked high on such-and-such site, I still gotta come out here and play and earn my spot,” Carter said. “I go until my tank is on E. I just keep going, keep going.”
Smith said Carter is the same way off the court. He carries himself like a regular student, doesn’t think he’s above everyone else, hits the weight room three or four times a week -- and still manages to maintain an A average while taking honors classes.
Carter doesn't seem to have picked up too much of an ego amid all the accolades.
“He understands you haven’t made it until you’re an NBA All-Star, and even then, not until you have a chance to step onto that stage as a group of Hall of Famers,” Smith said. “It’s his work ethic. You can only go up."
And if basketball doesn’t work out -- and it seems to be going just fine -- there’s always his new fallback option: acting.