COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. — Five-star point guard DJ Carton remembers the moment he realized he wasn’t just good at basketball – he was good.
Until eighth grade, the Bettendorf (Iowa) High School senior was a two-sport athlete, and basketball wasn’t the first.
“Growing up, I always loved basketball but I was really good at baseball,” Carton said. “That was probably my best sport.”
But the pace of the game bothered Carton, whose speed, movement and playmaking ability is a take on his favorite NBA player, John Wall.
“I like the fast pace of basketball, I thought baseball was a little too slow for me,” he said.
The decision also came down to finances.
“My mom, she paid a lot, put a lot into my sports and stuff like that, and I thought to focus on one sport and hopefully get my college paid for … and hopefully help support the family in the future,” he said.
Carton can check the box for getting college paid for – he committed to Ohio State in July – but he didn’t always have the confidence that he was among the best.
But then he faced the Bradley Beal Elite team in his sophomore year. Carton recalls scoring 32 points before halftime.
“I felt like, it wasn’t easy, but I felt like I was in control of that game,” he said. “From there I kind of caught on a rhythm and stuff and played well that whole AAU season.”
Two years after giving up a sport he believed he was better at, Carton was on his way to becoming one of the top high school guards in the nation.
At USA Basketball Men’s Junior National Team Minicamp last weekend, he tried to prove it to the community.
He also, incredibly, still needs to prove it to himself.
One thing this camp has taught him: He needs to be even more confident.
“With my school team, playing with those guys, I’m confident, but being with all these guys, I feel like I need to be more aggressive scoring-wise,” Carton said.
An aggressive scoring approach is almost counter-intuitive to the way he manages the floor. Carton describes himself as a pass-first guard.
“I like setting my teammates up to score,” he said. “I can score there, but that’s just the way I grew up.”
But learning to be aggressive at camp will help him back home. In Bettendorf, a small city just east of the Mississippi River that denotes the border to Illinois, Carton said he’s going to be the recipient of double teams and the focus on box-and-one defenses. Minicamp can help him learn aggression as he deals with on-ball pressure while he opens up teammates for good looks.
He displayed his passing ability and athleticism at the camp, not only showing off his own skills but also trying to get teammates involved during scrimmages.
It’s somewhat paradoxical: Sometimes, to prove how good you are, you need to help others do the same.
But Carton isn’t too nice on the court. He said he’s not afraid to play tough defense.
“If you want to be the best, you have to have that dog mentality,” he said. “The best guards in the country play both ways, two-way guards, and I’m willing to do that. I feel like just coming up here playing against this good competition, you have the chance to do that and prove that.”