When Wendell Carter Jr., the No. 2 high school basketball recruit in the country, tweeted out the list of the eight colleges he was considering Monday, all the basketball brand names were there.
He had the perennials: Duke, Kentucky, North Carolina. There were Pac-12 powerhouses Arizona and California. There were the hometown favorites, Georgia Tech and Georgia.
Then there was Harvard.
Harvard isn’t the home of one-and-dones. It’s the home of former presidents. It’s perhaps more known for two of its dropouts — Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg — than one of its graduates — Jeremy Lin. The most famous Harvard alum in the NBA may be Los Angeles Clippers owner Steve Ballmer.
But the fact that Carter, a 6-foot-9-inch center with the college basketball world at his feet and who’s already popping up in NBA mock drafts for 2018, is considering the Crimson wasn’t at all surprising to Demetrius Smith, who is Carter’s coach at Pace Academy in Atlanta.
Smith had been weighing the Harvard option with Carter for a long time.
The first time Smith and Carter sat down to talk about Carter’s basketball future, Smith told him to make two lists. He told Carter to pick five schools based strictly on basketball, then pick five where he could play ball but also get the best education.
“If you’ve got one or two in there that are both, then that’s kind of who you are,” Smith said.
When Carter threw out Harvard as a possibility, Smith immediately hopped on the phone.
“I just called Tommy [Amaker], called his staff, and said, ‘Hey man, we’ve got a guy down here that’s arguably the No. 1 to 2 player in the country and he mentioned your name — and it’s not a joke,” Smith said.
Once he learned Harvard was on Carter’s radar, Amaker was just as serious.
In nine years with the Crimson, Amaker has made it his mission to turn Harvard into a basketball brand. In 2012, he took the Crimson to their first NCAA Tournament in 66 years. That same year, the program landed its first Top 100 recruit, Zena Edosomwan.
Last winter, Amaker pulled together the country’s No. 12 recruiting class, according to ESPN, with four of the seven players ranked in the Top 100. This year, Amaker has his eyes set on the top of the recruiting list, with the No. 5 player, Mohamed Bamba, in his sights, plus Carter.
Amaker made two trips to Atlanta to meet with Carter, even if the idea of Harvard beating college basketball powerhouses for a top recruit seemed farfetched.
“I give him credit, he hasn’t bought into the fact that Wendell’s going to Duke,” Smith said of Amaker. “That’s what everybody’s been saying. People would call and say, ‘Hey, do we have a shot?’ I mean, he got on his plane, he came down here twice, and he talked to the family both times. He’s doing his homework, he’s not being lazy as a coach, he’s coming to get it done.”
The Crimson have remained in the thick of the recruiting race for the 254-pound center. Carter told ESPN this month that his first official visit this fall will be to Harvard.
“I’ve got a great relationship with the coach,” he said. “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 going to be fine academically.”
Up for a challenge
The top of the recruiting rankings is rarified air. It’s reserved for one-and-done players who know the NBA’s waiting on them and whichever college they choose is just a steppingstone. But for Norman Parker, Carter’s AAU coach, Carter isn’t the normal top-five recruit.
“He’s a very intelligent young man that thinks things out,” Parker said. “He’s a thinker. You can tell that when you’re talking to him about plays in basketball or about life in general — do’s and don’t’s — you can see his mind working. He likes to be challenged. He likes to be challenged in the classroom as well as on the court and that’s very rare in these young men.
“Plus, he’ll get everything he needs in basketball. If he chooses Harvard, that won’t hurt him at all with his goals and the achievements he wants from an academic side. That’s how simple it is. A lot of people may not understand it, but regardless if he goes to Harvard, [or if] he goes to UConn or Kansas or North Carolina, it doesn’t matter. His path is straight to the NBA after a couple years. But if he can get a degree from Harvard, that’d be awesome, wouldn’t it?”
Smith knew Carter’s interest in Harvard was serious because Carter was at Pace Academy for the same reasons. Carter arrived at Pace after spending his freshman year at Fulton Leadership Academy in East Point, Ga.
“His family was looking for a private school to go to so he can kind of challenge himself in the classroom,” Smith said. “Before he came to Pace, he was at a school where he was top five in his class. So coming to Pace, he knew he would be challenged in the classroom, he knew he would be amongst the other kids who would be Ivy League kids or people who would go into that type of school.”
Carter entered his sophomore season at Pace as the 10th-ranked player in the country. By the end of the season, he was one of the top two in the nation.
“In a year he just took off,” Smith said.
Now, Carter’s in a position to make a similar decision as when he chose Pace, only for higher stakes. Carter’s future in the NBA is almost certain, but Smith wanted to make sure he saw the bigger picture.
“My platform being at Pace is find kids in the inner city that are really smart, but at the same time they want to play basketball, and just help them understand that the opportunity they can have at Pace is bigger than basketball, which is the same thing when you go to a school like Harvard or schools like that — Stanford, Duke, all of the big-time basketball Ivy League schools.”
There’s a case to be made, Smith said, for the way a coach such as Kentucky’s John Calipari hoards the top recruits in the country each year and makes sure they’re NBA-ready, even if they stay in school for only a year.
“You’ve got to give Calipari credit,” Smith said. “I mean, his guys, they come out and they’re ready to play. They do well in the NBA straight off the bat. Rarely do you find one of those kids that’s a bust, so to say. So you can’t hate on him for doing what he does. He makes sure they’re ready when they get there. So I like that side of it because you know you’re going to be one of the guys when you step into the NBA.”
There’s also a case to be made for the prestige and the track record of a program such as Duke, where coach Mike Krzyzewski has built his legacy.
“You play for Coach K, I mean, he’s one of the best CEOs in the game,” Smith said.
But there’s also something to be said for the value of an education — especially a Harvard education — to supplement a future in basketball. That’s a part of the job that Smith takes seriously. He played college ball at Alabama and was more than familiar with graduating, asking what’s next, and not necessarily having an answer. He considers it part of his job to make sure his players have the answer.
“This day and age, I think it’s probably the most attractive job to have because I think a lot of parents are looking for that education piece,” he said. “They understand that whole process. Yeah, you’re going to play basketball, you’re going to go to college, you’re going to graduate. Now after you graduate, what you got? You’re going to Harvard or Duke, you’ve got jobs lined up from pretty much wherever you want to go. I mean, you’re going to have a job if you decide to hang up the shoes.
“Basketball’s going to take care of itself. This is an opportunity for you to tap into that other side of the education world and see where it takes you. You know coming through those schools that you’re going to be amongst the doctors and lawyers and all these people who are going to own things, and why wouldn’t you want a child from the inner city to tap into that?”
In the next year, Carter will have to weigh all his options and manage a spotlight that will no doubt only get brighter.
“The spotlight has been on him,” Smith said. “He’s a humble kid. He doesn’t care about the rankings and all that. We talk all the time, ‘You’ve still got to get better.’ If you look at high school and you look at college, that’s not the ultimate goal. The ultimate goal is to be an NBA All-Star and have a long career and maybe be a Hall of Famer. So with that said, you know there’s a lot of work to do. So he understands all that. He enjoys the moment right now, but he knows there’s work to do.”
Eventually, Carter will have to make his decision.
“At first I was just enjoying the whole process,” he wrote on his blog with USA Today. “But lately I’ve definitely been thinking about what it will be like to only be able to tell one of these coaches, ‘Yes.’ That’s just crazy to think about it and it’s a lot of pressure.”
One good thing, Smith said, is “he can’t make a bad decision.”Julian Benbow can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.