Less attitude, more Caracter

Derrick Caracter is used to being the biggest and baddest person in the room for quite some time.

Ever since he was a 6-8 eighth grader, when he was proclaimed a basketball prodigy by The Star-Ledger (Newark, N.J.) -- a regular "Boy Wonder," the headline read -- Caracter approached life like it owed something to him. Like his behemoth size was a guarantee he would achieve even bigger things.

That all changed in the last couple years of his 22-year-old life. His fast track came to a screeching halt at age 19 when, after two tumultuous years at Louisville with Rick Pitino, he left school as an overweight disappointment.

He fled the spotlight in Louisville that the Big East provided for the relative anonymity of Conference USA at the University of Texas El Paso, lucky that any program would take a chance on him after so thoroughly soiling his reputation that came from being ranked the No. 1 prospect in his high school class.

"It was pretty much starting all over from scratch and going out there like I was in seventh grade again," Caracter said at the Lakers practice facility last month, specifically pointing to a time before he was bestowed with the fame that made him a household name in basketball circles for nearly the last half of his life.

His transfer to UTEP came at a time when his first name Derrick was being replaced by "Has No" or "Lacks" by critics, and his last name Caracter was being followed by an additional surname of "Issues."

"I know there was a lot of character issues people were concerned with, as far as off the court, but I'm going to show them that's not a problem," said Caracter, uttering the homonym that's caused him so much grief.

"I wasn't in tune with myself," he continued. "It just was a growing process. It was something where I had to grow up and look myself in the mirror ... I think that was a major change."

The change came slowly but surely. He sat out a year per NCAA rules and then averaged 14.1 points and 8.1 rebounds in his lone season with the Miners, leading them to the NCAA tournament before losing to Butler in the first round.

His head was back into it, but his body still lagged behind. Standing 6-9, Caracter carried more than 300 pounds of weight. In preparation for the NBA draft, he slimmed down. He said he now weighs 277 pounds after tipping the scales at 305 last season, and is hoping to get down to 270 by training camp in late September.

His transformation was tested on June 24, the night of the draft. Caracter waited to see if NBA teams finally considered him a potential pro or had yet to let go of the thought of him as a petulant problem child.

On draft night, holed up on the second floor of an Italian restaurant in New Jersey to watch it with family and friends like he was Tony Soprano throwing a Super Bowl party, he waited and waited and waited to hear his name.

With the No. 58 pick, deputy commissioner Adam Silver finally called it, announcing that the Los Angeles Lakers made Caracter their pick with the third-to-last selection of the night.

"It was a humbling night," Caracter recalled. "I felt that I did a little better in my workouts than where I went. But everything happens for a reason.

"Everybody else screamed and I just kind of sat there and tried to think about what was going on. Then my family had this video from when I was younger to today. It showed all the clips of different stuff from Louisville to UTEP and I shed a few tears during that period, just seeing the journey and seeing when I was younger dribbling a basketball in my yard with one of my dogs. I just cried. I was thankful to finally hear my name called and I'm here now."

Call them cleansing tears.

After starting off his collegiate career so poorly, Caracter came into the Lakers summer league in Las Vegas with laser-like focus. He registered three double-doubles in his first three games and averaged 15.4 points, 8.6 rebounds and 1.4 blocks while outplaying Detroit's No. 7 pick, Greg Monroe, and holding his own against Sacramento's No. 5 pick, DeMarcus Cousins.

"There's a chip on my shoulder when I go up against everybody -- I went 58th," Caracter said about his performances against his lottery pick peers. "Ever since I left Louisville, there was a huge chip on my shoulder of just people who didn't think I would be able to be successful after leaving a program like that. I just keep pushing and I fought through it and I made it this far and I don't intend to stop now."

He played both power forward and center for the team, garnering praise from the Lakers' coaching staff for having a nose for the ball and being able to finish with both hands around the rim. One Western Conference executive said he was a "big fan of his talent" and added, "he could give [L.A.] what Big Baby [Glen Davis] gives Boston."

Just as impressive as his action on the court was his attitude. The only person with a more ever-present smile in Las Vegas last week might have been Wayne Newton.

"I've tried to continue to stay positive and try to keep the energy positive with my teammates on the bench," Caracter said. "I was getting elbows in the throat and elbowed in the head and I'm just trying to not fight, get to the offensive glass [and] attack the glass as hard as I can."

It's important that Caracter can prove he can be all of those things -- a forward, a center, a good teammate -- because he needs to convince the Lakers front office that he will be able to fill the void left by departing backup big men Josh Powell and D.J. Mbenga, who capably wore all those hats.

With the Lakers well into the luxury tax already, it's no secret that the team is very much interested in signing Caracter and No. 43 pick Devin Ebanks to league-minimum $473,604 salaries next season to fill in two of their remaining roster spots.

Caracter said that he thinks he has a "pretty good chance" to make the team but in the meantime, "I'm just soaking everything in as a sponge right now."

Everything but the temptations of Tinsel Town, that is.

"Now you're in L.A., Hollywood, living under a limelight," Caracter said. "With all the things going on, all the little distractions that happen off the court, it isn't even something that I'm interested in anymore."

That's where Caracter is now. A little less big, a little less bad and a lot closer to realizing his NBA dream with the Lakers.

Dave McMenamin covers the Lakers for ESPNLosAngeles.com. Follow him on Twitter. http://twitter.com/mcten.