Curtis Clark admits he wasn’t sure how his point guard, DJ Carton, would handle the opposition’s defensive pressure in one of his first significant varsity challenges as a sophomore two seasons ago.
Clark, the boys basketball coach at Bettendorf (Iowa) High School, had studied the tendencies of rival Davenport Central. What he noticed was a program that trapped and pressured all game at a level that could drain even the most elite high school ball-handlers and decision-makers.
Carton, however, was ready from tip-off. He shredded the Davenport Central press with his quickness and dazzled spectators just before the halftime buzzer. Carton collected an outlet pass, dribbled behind his back to escape a defender near mid-court and buried a floating 3-pointer as time expired.
With Carton consistently breaking free, Bettendorf shot nearly 60 percent from the field and crushed Davenport Central 72-49. Carton scored a then-career-high 18 points and dominated the game.
“I thought that was kind of a wow moment for me,” Clark told Land of 10. “That’s pretty special for a kid as a sophomore to go against that type of competition and be level-headed about it and have a great composure.”
It was the first of many “wow” moments Carton provided during his sophomore season, which helped set the stage for a huge summer on the recruiting trail. Wisconsin’s coaches saw Carton’s skill set first-hand at a team camp last June and promptly offered him a scholarship. At the time, it represented Carton’s first high-major offer.
By the end of July, Carton had added offers from Iowa, Northern Iowa, Marquette, Nebraska, Creighton, Minnesota, Kansas State and Missouri. He has since received offers from Illinois, Ohio State and Iowa State.
Carton now holds 14 scholarship offers in total and has become one of the most coveted players in the 2019 recruiting class. He is a 4-star prospect who ranks as the No. 4 point guard in the country, according to the 247Sports composite.
The attention, while flattering, has come quick for Carton.
“At first, it was kind of overwhelming,” Carton said. “I wasn’t really ready for it. But I just had to stay confident within myself. I knew it was going to happen at some point just because I put in the work into this game. Last year I just kind of started being more aggressive and letting the game come to me. I started to blow up and my teammates trusted me, my coaches gave me that confidence.”
Carton is coming off a junior season in which he earned Class 4A first-team all-state honors in Iowa. He averaged 23.6 points and 5.7 rebounds per game, which included a stellar career-high 36-point effort in a sub-state semifinal loss. With his final AAU season already here, Carton recognizes the next several months will help determine his college fate.
Wisconsin fans certainly hope Carton will give strong consideration to the Badgers, who recognized his talent before most other programs. Carton cited the relationships he has built with Wisconsin coach Greg Gard, as well as assistants Joe Krabbenhoft and Dean Oliver. Oliver, an Iowa graduate, was a left-handed point guard who played high school ball in the Hawkeye State just like Carton.
“I’ve been to Madison maybe three or four times,” Carton said. “I feel like Coach Gard, Coach Krabbenhoft, Coach Oliver, we all get along well. They came to some of my games during the season. I feel like they’re really good supporters.
“I went to the Wisconsin camp last summer, and when I went there, they were teaching me what I can do to work on my game and stuff, kind of helping me become the player I am today, so I have a really strong relationship with them.”
Carton plays his AAU basketball for Quad City Elite, which is the same program for which Badgers forward Ethan Happ played. Quad City Elite participated in an AAU tournament over the weekend in the Milwaukee area, and Carton excelled. The next big tournament takes place this month in Dallas. Quad City Elite coach Logan Wynn expects college coaches from across the country to attend.
DJ Carton highlights
“The nice thing about DJ is he accepts coaching,” said Wynn, who also coached Happ. “A lot of people are like, ‘What makes him special or what makes Ethan Happ special?’ No. 1, they accept coaching and they want to do anything it takes for the team to win.
“We’ve had other guys that have had some talent. They’re ‘me guys,’ and they don’t accept coaching. He’s coachable, he’s all about the team and it’s not about him. That’s the biggest compliment that I can give him.”
Wynn compared Carton to Villanova’s Jalen Brunson because both are left-handed and possess big, powerful bodies as point guards. Brunson won the Oscar Robinson Trophy last week as the United States Basketball Writers Association national player of the year. Wynn said the 180-pound Carton had grown from 6-foot-1 last summer to 6-3.
Wynn noted his favorite Carton moment came last summer when Quad City Elite played against a team out of Detroit that featured Harlond Beverly, the No. 6 point guard in the 2019 class. Wynn said Carton carried the team on his back for the final 5 minutes to win in front of roughly 50 coaches who were watching the game.
“I think that opened a lot of eyes to a lot of these other high-majors as well,” Wynn said.
Clark said playing for a winning program is extremely important to Carton as he makes his college decision. Wisconsin is coming off its first losing season in 20 years but has the pieces in place to return to the NCAA Tournament next season.
Carton’s mother, Jennifer, said she has tried to help DJ understand what is required of a Division I athlete from a leadership standpoint. She played volleyball at the University of Colorado, while Carton’s father was a basketball player at Fairleigh Dickinson in New Jersey and later played professional baseball.
Jennifer has made the trip to Madison with her son on every occasion but one, and came away impressed with what the university and the basketball program has to offer.
“The campus is great,” Jennifer said. “The campus is wonderful. It’s beautiful. Being his mom, it’s close to home. I don’t influence him in any way. But, of course, I would love it if he stayed close to home. But the program speaks for itself.
“It has a huge tradition. I’ve always been a Big Ten follower, so I’ve always known how well they’ve done. They’ve always been a big, competitive team. Always in the NCAA Tournament. I have watched them and know that they have a tradition of winning.”
Carton said he would like to visit Wisconsin again. But his summer will include several other campus visits between his AAU responsibilities. He said he was looking to visit Ohio State, USC, Wake Forest and Virginia. Vanderbilt recently contacted his mom as well.
One important development that could impact Carton’s recruitment at Wisconsin is the commitment last Tuesday of 3-star point guard Tai Strickland (St. Petersburg, Fla.) to join the Badgers’ 2018 recruiting class. Wisconsin initially did not pursue a point guard in the class but discovered it needed a player capable of breaking down opponents off the dribble and creating for others.
Badgers guards D’Mitrik Trice, Trevor Anderson, Kobe King, Brad Davison and Strickland would each have at least two years of eligibility remaining in 2019 when Carton enters college. Carton said he is paying attention to which prospects commit in front of him at various programs as he makes his decision.
“You’ve just got to look into that,” Carton said. “I feel like you have to look at the way the coaches play, whether it’s having two point guards out on the floor or things like that. You’ve got to see the other person’s game and see how well you can fit in with their game. I’m not going to go somewhere where I don’t think I will be able to compete for a starting spot or good minutes. So it’s definitely something you’ve got to look into in the process.”
Carton isn’t ready to name which schools have stood out the most in his recruitment. But he said he hoped to pick a program before his senior season begins.
“It comes down to where I think I’ll fit best and my family fits best and where I feel like I’ll excel with the style of play, the coaches and the teammates around me,” Carton said. “I feel like a lot of schools that have recruited me have those things, which just makes my decision even harder. So it’s going to be a tough one.”