Wendell Carter Jr. is Duke's forgotten star

Wendell Carter Jr. likes being onstage, in whatever role works best. AP Photo/Gerry Broome

DURHAM, N.C. -- The part didn't have many lines, but Wendell Carter Jr. was onstage for most of the play, and that's what mattered. He'd caught the acting bug a few years into high school, and he was finally a part of a performance, an adaptation of the 1930s hit "You Can't Take It With You." Besides, Carter was 6-10, a superstar on the basketball court and one of the country's top recruits. Of course he'd stand out.

Still, Carter's spotlight came in a supporting role, as a member of an eccentric family whose job was to help the lead actress end up with her rich beau. And it might be stretching the analogy a bit, but it served as something of a precursor to the role he's landed at Duke. Carter is a star, to be sure. He was the No. 5 recruit in the nation, according to ESPN's rankings, a physical presence with a deft shooting touch that made him the jewel of the Blue Devils' already impressive signing class -- right until the moment he was upstaged by an even bigger star.

When Marvin Bagley III reclassified to join the current crop of Duke freshmen on the court for the 2017-18 season, he instantly stole the show. In the months since, he's lived up to the hype, too, averaging 21.5 points and 11.4 rebounds a game. And then there's Carter, a big man who, on any other team, would be surrounded by shooters, as the centerpiece of the action, now working on his Oscar for best supporting actor.

But lest you think Carter's time onstage prepared him for this moment, he's happy to explain it was actually the opposite.

"I thought of it as basketball," he said of his acting experience. "On a big stage, crowd facing you, and you've just got to perform, make sure the crowd likes it."

Carter would love to be chewing up scenery, mugging for the roaring crowd, starring in his own masterpiece. That's just not the role he was cast in this season, so he's finding his niche in an ensemble. His freshman campaign has been a learning experience, a chance to turn his limited dialogue into a star turn of his own. And for the past few weeks, that's exactly what's happened.

A few weeks shy of the ACC tournament, Carter ranks fourth in plus-minus among big men nationally; ranks in the ACC's top 10 in blocks per game, rebounds per game, field goal percentage and win shares; and he's arguably one of the three or four best freshmen in the country. It's just that he happens to be sharing the stage with another of those elite rookies.

"I'm learning to establish my role," he said. "I get isolations in the post and within the offense we run. Me and Marvin are always looking for each other. A lot of teams, they'll double us, so if they double me, I'm looking for him and vice versa. We can play off each other."

CARTER WAS 8 OR 9 when his family visited Universal Studios in Florida, where his nemesis awaited.

Truth be told, Carter was intrigued by the roller coaster, a whirling, towering contraption inspired by the movie "The Mummy." His father, Wendell Sr., urged him to ride, but the boy was small, and it was big, and the whole thing terrified him.

"He stood there and pouted and fussed and cried," Carter's mother, Kylia, said.

Dad insisted. The way Carter Sr. saw it, the ride was safe, and the fear was irrational. These were lessons his boy needed to learn. The instructions were simple. Carter Jr. was going to ride it. His father would ride with him. The argument ended there.

"He rode it, and he loved it," Kylia said. "He rode it three more times."

Carter Jr. still tells the story as a prelude to the lessons his dad taught him on the court.

The first hoop he owned came as a Christmas gift, and Carter Jr. sunk the first basket he tried. Carter Sr. took it as a sign. Big things were in store for his son, and he refused to let fear derail the opportunity. Years later, shooting around in the driveway, Carter Sr. reminded the boy of that roller-coaster ride, of how fear had melted into excitement, and that he should take that same approach to the court.

Again and again, Dad reminded him.

"Never be afraid when you're on the floor," Carter Sr. said. "Never fear anybody."

After a trashing of Notre Dame this week, a reporter asked Wendell Jr. if the message was meant as a reminder to himself or a message to the opposition, but Carter sees it as something bigger than that. It's a mantra -- no stage, no opponent, and certainly not a supporting role on his own team, would shake his determination.

A few weeks ago, Carter Jr. was on coach Mike Krzyzewski's television show and was asked about the tattoos on his arms. Along the inside of his right biceps is the word "Fear." On the left, "None."

"I got that from my dad," he said.

IT'S NOT THAT CARTER SERIOUSLY CONSIDERED ALTERNATIVES to Duke after Bagley reclassified to join this season's recruiting class in September, but it certainly shifted his approach to his new team. Carter had been a monster in high school, the clear star at Pace Academy in Atlanta. Even his turns in AAU ball rarely put him on the court with a player like Bagley, another tall scorer who thrived with his back to the basket. Add in Duke senior Grayson Allen and two more elite freshmen, and Carter risked being lost in the shuffle.

"Growing up, I never had so much firepower on my team, where everyone can get their own, can score," Carter said. "That's one thing I had to adjust to is learning how to play with other great players."

To be sure, Bagley is great. He's been lauded as a potential No. 1 overall pick in the NBA draft. He's an acrobat on the court, pounding the boards, shooting from outside, scoring with ease. Then there's Carter. He's got the same frame as his teammate -- an inch shorter, a few pounds heavier, hair that looks like the abridged version of Bagley's auspicious locks. He does a lot of the same things as Bagley, too. Carter scores, he rebounds, he works as a physical presence in the paint.

When he's on, Carter is fluid and physical and, at times, dominant. When Bagley is on, he's magic. It's tough to upstage a magic act.

"Marvin is definitely much more athletic than I am," Carter said.

Carter needed time to learn to play facing the basket, a job he rarely filled in high school. He needed to understand how to find the best shot on each possession -- not just for him, but for anyone. At Pace, he'd been the primary scorer and rebounder, and so the other jobs were left for the supporting cast. Now that's exactly the role he's been cast to play.

The funny thing is, Carter wasn't intimidated. He embraced the role.

"I wouldn't say I wasn't the one diving on the floor for balls [in high school], but I wouldn't say it was a big part of my game," Carter said. "But now it's one of the biggest parts -- doing the dirty work."

He's on the floor, diving for loose balls. He's on the boards, averaging nearly 10 rebounds a game. He's third on the team in assists, first in blocks, first in field goal percentage. He leads the Blue Devils in hitting 46 percent from 3.

Since ACC play began, Carter has scored in double figures every game. He's had five double-doubles. He's taken over games at times, putting up nine points and corralling three rebounds in a three-minute stretch against Virginia last week that erased a big Blue Devils deficit and posting a scorching first half against Wake Forest while Bagley suffered through one of the worst stretches of his young career.

Not that Carter is checking the stats after each game. He's never done that. He just wants his place on the stage, and he figures the rest will work itself out.

"We always believed he was the No. 1 player in the country," Kylia said. "We believe he's the No. 1 draft pick. We don't care what everyone else believes. That's just how we move."

CARTER HAS ANOTHER TATTOO ACROSS HIS CHEST, a pair of wings with a cross and the word "Blessed" inscribed in the middle. He'd had the idea for the tattoo rattling around in his head for a while, but it never quite clicked. His parents had a strict rule that he couldn't get any ink until he was 18, so Carter was in no rush. Then, on a trip to New Zealand last year, he found inspiration from a stranger.

"Just some dude in New Zealand," Carter said.

No, seriously. Carter was on a tour of a village in New Zealand, and along the way he bumped into an artist. Just some dude. They started talking. Carter opened up about his life story, told the man about his family and his career and his faith. In New Zealand, Carter said, every facet of a tattoo is supposed to reflect something personal, and the man simply took Carter's story and turned it into art.

When he got home, Carter showed his mom the image on paper. She actually liked it. He turned 18 on a Saturday this past summer. That Sunday, they headed to the tattoo parlor and put ink to skin. The cross represents his faith. The words, his outlook. The small rings that adorn the cross represent family. And the wings that poke out from his jersey serve as a fitting tribute to a career about to take flight.

More than anything, though, the tattoo underscores a reality for Carter that things have a way of working out in time. He had plans, but they needed refinement. Then a stranger in a strange country offered an unexpected answer.

So, too, goes his basketball career. In three months alongside Bagley, Carter has blossomed into a versatile weapon, flexing muscles he'd never been asked to use and showcasing skills that might have gone overlooked elsewhere.

"At the beginning of the year, I wasn't doing as much, scoring as much, getting as many rebounds," Carter said. "Teams are adjusting their game plans. It's just a common-sense thing."

Was this the plan when he signed with Duke, to play a supporting role alongside a major star who consumes so much of the spotlight? The way Carter sees it, that's the wrong question. The point is that there's a stage, and he's in the cast. Now it's his job to wow the audience, even if he doesn't have the best lines.

Carter knows who he is on the court, a monster with a bright future. But he can also slip into a role, play a part. That's what's great about acting, after all.

"It allows you to get outside yourself," he said. "Play a different character. I don't have to be Wendell. I can be someone else."

There's a future where Carter can play a much different role, where he'll be front and center on the stage. At Duke, he's working on something outside himself, and he's finding the fit feels right.

"I've never been one to be big on ego," Carter said. "I just want to win."