Vince Carter seemed an unlikely candidate to last in the NBA while approaching 40. Kobe Bryant is retiring after this season and he’s 18 months younger than Carter.
Carter remains relevant, playing quality minutes for the Grizzlies two months after his 39th birthday. One of the more athletic players in league history, he is now getting by on guile, experience, and some game.
The numbers are pedestrian, but Carter leads by experience. He entered the NBA as the Michael Jordan era was closing. He became an All-Star, a prolific scorer and dunker. Then he made the difficult transition of losing his athleticism.
Not many players made that change successfully. Allen Iverson couldn’t. Bryant is a shell of his former self. Shaquille O’Neal retired after his Achilles’ tendon popped. Carter dropped 14 fourth-quarter points in garbage time earlier this month against the Celtics, showing flashes of his former self.
He is at peace with the player he is, and that’s perhaps why he remains in the league.
“It’s just understanding the game and understanding who you are,” Carter said. “Understanding what you can do and what your body allows you to do. I can’t do some of the [off-court] things I would do. I have to get my rest, be smart, put more time in the weight room, just little things, stretch a little more. Things as a young guy that you don’t have to do or need to do, it’s a necessity [for me] now.”
The Grizzlies are Carter’s sixth team, and he fully accepted a reserve role when he arrived from Dallas before last season. In his previous NBA life, Carter jacked up 20 shots per game, flew through the key with grace, dunked on bigger players with ease, and scored piles of points. He has stuck around by becoming a better defender — a must in coach Dave Joerger’s system — and a timely shooter.
Many veteran players say they don’t tire of the games, they tire of the preparation. As Carter’s millennial teammates chow down on chicken fingers before games and perhaps hang out late into the night, they have enough youth and endurance to be game-ready night after night.
Older players have to take better care of their bodies. They have to stretch and spend more time in treatment. That can wear on someone who spent years getting by on athleticism.
“I don’t mind doing it. I make sure I get here early enough to do all the things I need to do,” said Carter, who ranks 24th on the career scoring list (23,842 points in 18 seasons). “It’s a lot more, of course, than when you’re young. It’s easy to stick to my routine because I know if I don’t do it, I’ll be out of a job. I enjoy doing it and putting the work in and setting an example for the young guys.”
Most veterans will tell you the transition from “young dude” to “old head” is speedy. And being an older player brings reminders of mentors from when they were younger. A plethora of vets rolled through Toronto when Carter was still a rising star, players such as Charles Oakley, Kevin Willis, Dee Brown, and Dell Curry.
He listened to those guys preach about body maintenance. Not that he followed suit, but he listened.
“They were right on and it’s something I can share with the young guys here,” Carter said. “But it’s kind of hard to tell a young guy something like that now. Because [they think], ‘I can go out there and do whatever I need to do.’ ”
Another aspect that can push veterans out of the NBA is the culture change. Carter entered the league when players wore suits to games and were immaculately dressed. As the Grizzlies cleared out of the locker room at TD Garden earlier this month, players wore skinny jeans and sweats.
“It’s different, and I’ve just tried to stay in my lane, which is in the middle,” Carter said.
It’s a more casual league now. Carter has had to accept that without much resistance.
“It’s funny because of the fashion change, what is acceptable to wear to games is different,” he said. “Back then, dressing down was some jeans and a button-up [shirt]. It’s like you’re almost a fish out of water now. In the playoffs, I was taught to wear suits. So if I’m a fish out of water that way, I’m OK with that. That is what I was taught, [the playoffs] is when you should be at your best.”
So what happens when the millennials don’t quite understand?
“I more so just try to lead by example,” he said. “And what I will say, that’s the way I was taught. Sometimes you’ve just got to plant the seed and hopefully when they get older, it means something. I feel at this point, the difference is I can still succeed because I can teach and set an example. Plain and simple.”
Denver found a gem in Barton
Will Barton is third among reserves at 14.7 points per game, a bright spot in an otherwise forgettable season for the Nuggets. Barton, a former second-round pick of the Trail Blazers, played sparingly in 2½ seasons with Portland, but he has emerged as a potential cornerstone.
The ascension began after Barton was traded to Denver in the Arron Afflalo deal midway through last season. The Nuggets, headed for the draft lottery, finally allowed the swingman to play. Under new coach Mike Malone, Barton has continued his offensive development this season, becoming a Vinnie Johnson type off the bench, especially in the final quarter.
Barton left the University of Memphis two years early after being named Conference USA Player of the Year, and was the 40th overall pick in 2012. Second-round picks can turn into gems — such as Golden State’s Draymond Green, taken five picks ahead of Barton — or duds, such as Kris Joseph, whom the Celtics took 11 picks after Barton.
It all depends on luck, opportunity, and work ethic. Barton waited patiently in Portland and has capitalized on the increased minutes in Denver.
“It’s real rewarding because that’s what I put in a lot of work for,” he said. “I put in a lot of work during the offseason to put myself in this position, coming from before this year not really playing that much. Any time you can change your career in that way, it’s a good thing.”
Transforming from a bench guy to a consistent contributor in the NBA is not easy. Teams have become increasingly impatient with draft picks, especially second-rounders. The chance for success can be heavily influenced by how hard the player works.
The Nuggets are in transition, possessing a bunch of solid players but no superstars. The franchise will miss the playoffs for the third consecutive year. So the opportunity was there for Barton to establish a role.
“I was excited as soon as I found out about the trade,” he said. “I just wanted to come in and take full advantage of it, be prepared, be ready and just come in and be a good teammate.”
Barton’s emergence is a story of perseverance. Many draft picks, several of whom believed they would be immediate impact players, are riding benches hoping for meaningful minutes, knowing that their best opportunity to make an impression is likely during practice.
Teams constantly waive players who were a poor fit or lacked work ethic. Barton said it’s difficult rising from an unknown to a standout.
“It’s tough because every day you’re trying to prove your worth, prove that you belong, prove that you could be playing,” he said. “At the same time, I feel like it made me the player I am. That’s why I’m so headstrong because I feel like I can withstand anything. A lot of things really don’t get me down because I’ve seen a lot and those three years on the bench really prepared me for those moments.
“Even when I have bad games or I hear stuff, I never let it get me down because I know where I came from.”
Barton is 12th in the NBA in fourth-quarter scoring at 6 points per game, just behind the Celtics’ Isaiah Thomas. Malone has given Barton the chance to be a down-the-stretch scorer, and it has thrust him into the conversation about Sixth Man of the Year.
“With me, it’s about trying to gain respect, it’s not about awards or anything like that,” he said. “As long as I go on the court, the opposing team knows [playing against] Will Barton, ‘I’m going to be in for a long night. That guy is going to keep playing hard all game.’ So that’s the only thing that matters to me.
“I take pride in being a crunch-time player and a player that is a closer. Fourth quarter, that is when the game matters the most. That’s when it’s man time.”
Cotton’s story a moving picture
Former prep icon Schea Cotton has put his story on film, titled “Manchild,” describing his emergence as one of top high school players in America in the mid-1990s and his rather precipitous fall after NCAA recruiting allegations derailed his career. Considered a can’t-miss prospect, Cotton never played in an NBA game.
He premiered his film in Los Angeles in January and contemporaries such as Paul Pierce, Metta World Peace, Jason Hart, and other area high school standouts made an appearance. Cotton also screened “Manchild” during All-Star Weekend in Toronto.
Cotton, 37, now has his own basketball academy. His story does not involve criminal activity or drug or alcohol addiction, just barriers from the NCAA, injuries, and a jarring incident when he watched a summer league teammate collapse and die during a practice.
Cotton may be one of the more talented and heralded players never to reach the NBA, and he has turned his experiences into a moving story.
“It’s surreal, a lot of stuff built in, it’s kind of hard to put into words,” said Cotton, who is pitching “Manchild” to film festivals. “I’m more excited about touching the youth and getting this thing international. That’s the goal.”
Tabbed as the No. 1 freshman in the country while at Santa Ana (Calif.) Mater Dei, Cotton tore through his first two high schools seasons until a shoulder injury limited him over his final two years. A disputed test score kept him from attending UCLA and later North Carolina State. After two years of junior college, Cotton spent one year at Alabama, a teammate of former Celtic Gerald Wallace.
After being promised a backcourt role for the Crimson Tide, the 6-foot-5-inch Cotton played power forward, and by the time he declared for the NBA Draft in 2000, his stock had fallen dramatically. He was considered an undersized power forward who lacked guard skills, and he went undrafted.
During a summer league practice with the Magic in Long Beach, Calif., Cotton was running sprints next to ex-Syracuse standout Conrad McRae, who collapsed and died. The Magic cancelled their summer league entry.
Cotton spent 10 years playing overseas, and as he watched prep opponents he once dominated — such as Pierce, Kevin Garnett, and even Kobe Bryant — succeed in the NBA, he struggled to accept his fate. Eventually Cotton formed a basketball academy in Long Beach and began working on the story of his journey.
Garnett sent Cotton a video message congratulating him on his film success. In one AAU summer meeting more than 20 years ago, Cotton reportedly overwhelmed the 6-10 Garnett.
“I have a lot of respect for him and in my heart I knew he would do that,” Cotton said. “He told me just to keep moving with it. He was glad I got the project done.”
Ultimately, Cotton said he wants to teach kids about the perils and pressures of high school stardom. He said his message is that success may arrive later and perhaps in a different package than expected.
“I spent time with them, we talk about life,” he said. “I build them up in life to be successful on and off the floor. It’s not just about the game of basketball. Basketball teaches you a lot about life, sacrificing, work ethic, and consistency in your work. You can do that in anything in life.
“I tell my kids all the time, you have less than a 1 percent chance to make the NBA. You have a better chance to pull a lottery ticket and win. You have to understand you have to be very lucky, you have to be very skilled. It has to be in the cards for you. As good as I was, I didn’t get the breaks the other guys did. But I had a great ride. When I was on top, there was nobody better. I hold that dear.”
The Knicks finally signed swingman Tony Wroten after a few months of flirtation, but they don’t plan to play him this season. Wroten never fully recovered from surgery to repair a partially torn right anterior cruciate ligament, and the 76ers waived him in December . . . It’s been a season of adjustment for Brandon Jennings. He returned from a torn left Achilles’ in December but found his job as the Pistons’ starting point guard belonged to Reggie Jackson, who was acquired after Jennings got hurt and signed a multiyear extension last summer. Jennings was shipped to the Magic and is serving as a backup to second-year standout Elfrid Payton. Jennings is only 26 and in the last year of his contract. He is shooting just 36.8 percent from the field and averaging 7.4 points in nearly 18 minutes per game as he hopes to be viewed as one of the more marketable point guards in free agency . . . Mario Chalmers was the second opposing player to have his season end on the TD Garden floor. He tore his right Achillies’ playing for the Grizzlies on March 9, just feet from where the Nets’ Jarrett Jack tore his right anterior cruciate ligament in January. Chalmers was getting major minutes because of the foot injury to Mike Conley and will be a free agent this summer. Because the Grizzlies were so ravaged by injuries, they waived Chalmers and signed former Kings and Spurs guard Ray McCallum. As for Conley, he is expected back by the end of the regular season. Memphis has lost Conley, Chalmers, and Marc Gasol for extended stretches, and 26 players have logged minutes for Memphis this season. The absences of Conley and Chalmers have allowed Lance Stephenson to play point guard. And when he is in control, he’s effective at the position . . . There is intrigue at the bottom of the standings, especially with the Lakers, who lose their first-round pick to the Suns if it is outside the top three. The Lakers have the second-worst record in the league and are four games behind the next-closest team, Phoenix. The team with the second-worst record has a 54.8 percent chance of landing one of the top three picks. The team with the third-worst record has a 46.9 percent chance.
Importance of youth
Bucks standout Giannis Antetokounmpo has caught fire of late, recording four triple-doubles in a span of 11 games. The forward joins LeBron James as the only players since 1983-84 to have at least four triple-doubles in a season in which they were 22 or younger. The performances: