One-and-done is right move for Duke’s Wendell Carter Jr.
His mom says, ‘If you look at the pros and the cons, college basketball is a big con’
Wendell Carter Jr.’s brief college career ended Sunday night.
Carter, one of Duke’s star freshmen and a certain NBA lottery pick, watched as his Blue Devils lost 85-81 to Kansas in overtime.
Kansas will advance to next week’s Final Four, while Carter and his family prepare for the next phase of his journey: the NBA draft in June. Carter and his teammate Marvin Bagley III are expected to be lottery selections. Carter’s mother, Kylia, took Sunday’s loss especially hard.
She had become a visible presence during Duke’s tournament run, seen mingling with fans, friends and foes alike.
Now it was over. There were no ifs, ands or buts that this would be Wendell’s first and only season at Duke.
Kylia Carter and her husband made clear from the beginning of their son’s recruitment that he was a one-and-done freshman. Sunday’s loss marked the end of a college ride she had come to enjoy.
“It feels like I’m losing more than a game,” she said tearfully.
During her son’s freshman year, Carter became a careful observer of the big-time basketball universe in which he operated. College basketball was alternately dizzying and eye-opening for Carter, a former college player at the University of Mississippi.
She became a pragmatist, a realist and a critic.
We met last year at a diversity and inclusion panel. Wendell had just announced that he had chosen to attend Duke over Harvard. During the panel discussion, someone pointed out what a game-changer it would have been had one of the top high school players in the country chosen to attend Harvard over Duke, a prestigious institution but also a big-time basketball factory.
Afterward, Carter introduced herself and said that she and her husband rather desperately had wanted — had pushed — Wendell to attend Harvard. They believed it was best for his long-term future. The reality is that, wherever Wendell went, he was not in it for the long term.
Indeed, when we spoke here in Omaha, Nebraska, on March 24, Carter said she had changed her mind. Duke was a great landing spot for her son. She preferred Harvard, “but I’m glad he chose Duke,” she said.
Wendell had wanted to attend Duke since the third grade, and he also wanted to win a national championship.
Had he chosen Harvard, Wendell likely would have been home with thousands of other college players watching the tournament. Carter would not have been having the time of her life — even the tearful ending on Sunday.
“It’s almost like a dream,” she told me before Sunday’s game. From the time she began playing organized basketball, filling out the tournament bracket and watching March Madness had become a ritual.
“It’s part of you, not expecting that 20 years later your son is going to be part of it.”
Yet, Carter said that if she had her way, Wendell would never have been at Duke, or at any college, to begin with. He would already have been in the NBA.
“If he could have been a one-and-done this year, he wouldn’t have gone to college,” she said.
Having seen how big-time basketball works, Carter said that more than ever she favors allowing one-and-done-type players to go directly to the NBA from high school.
Yes, March Madness has been exciting, and she enjoyed being in the limelight. But had it been possible for Wendell to go from high school to the pros, she would have advised him to do it.
The injury factor is a certainty. Then there is the wear and tear on the body and allowing potential teams to pick your game apart.
“If you look at the pros and the cons, college basketball is a big con,” she said.
“From a business perspective, college is 100 percent risk and it’s 100 percent negative to your business objective. It’s not putting you in any better position for achieving your business objective, which is reaching the NBA.”
This runs counter to the party line that coaches and college officials recite, saying that being under the guidance of great coaches can only enhance a player’s status.
“It could make you better at the risk exposing you,” Carter said. “Think about it from a business perspective: If you are in high school, projected to go 1 to 14 in the lottery, why risk that positioning by going to college and getting exposed, even if there is an opportunity that you can possibly get better? Why?
“It’s a big con,” she repeated. “Let the NCAA deal with those second-tier players and build their empire off them; let the one-and-dones go and build their empires with their skill set.”
She added: “If I have the option of going straight to the pros and missing college, I go straight to the pros.”
Beginning with Wendell’s senior year in high school, Carter and her husband tried to hammer home to their son the importance of not getting caught in the hype, of looking at himself the way college coaches and now NBA teams look at him: as a commodity who can potentially enrich their enterprise.
When Wendell chose Duke over Harvard, they told him that he was effectively putting basketball first, college second. That was fine, but he had to filter his view of basketball through a different prism. “When he made that decision, it was about the business of basketball,” Carter said. She told him: “We’re going to let you do this tomfoolery, but you’re going to do it with the mindset that this is business.”
The “tomfoolery” she was referring to wasn’t attending Duke but rather wading into the universe of for-profit college basketball, where mostly black players play revenue-producing sports and mostly white men profit.
“When you take away all the glitz, the glamour, the lights, the media — take all that away and you look at this one level at a time — how can you not see it for what it is?”
On balance, she said, Duke has been a wonderful experience — even if just for a year.
“I think it’s pretty cool for a kid, especially a black kid, to feel that important, that special, because our black boys don’t get that,” she said.
“Yes, it’s all because they play basketball and Coach K [Mike Krzyzewski] felt you should be here. But now that you’re here, you have to embrace it.”
As she made her way up the stairs and out of the arena Sunday, Carter shed tears as she hugged fellow Duke parents and fans. This was more than the end of a season, the end of a tournament. This was the end of a chapter.
“It hurts, it hurts, because I really like Duke,” she said. “It’s a wonderful place, my son loves it and now it’s over.
“This is it.”