By Childs Walker
The Baltimore Sun
6:49 PM EST, December 25, 2013
NEWARK, DEL. —
Aquille Carr's mouth is still moving, even as a yellow-shirted security guard steers him down a hallway leading away from the basketball floor.
On this Thursday night in mid-December, Carr — aka the "Crimestopper," aka the one-time most exciting player in all of high school basketball — has wowed a crowd filled with dozens of friends and family members who made the hourlong drive from Baltimore to watch him play for the Delaware 87ers.
As soon as he came off the bench in his crisp, red, white and blue uniform, the pace of the game quickened. Carr, looking like a middle schooler next to the former college stars who populate the NBA Development League, flashed by any defender who tried to impede him. He hit juggling layups in the lane, drew fouls from befuddled big men, swished 3-pointers off abrupt pull-ups.
For nearly 10 minutes of a professional basketball game, he felt like the whole show — same as it ever was.
And then he got ejected for yapping at the referees.
So, as he disappears down that hallway with his team hopelessly behind to the Idaho Stampede, the same old questions float in the air. Will the former Patterson star's beguiling talent outpace his personal growing pains? Can he be consistent enough, both on and off the court, to persuade an NBA team to look past the 5-foot-6, 148-pound frame that would make him the smallest man in a league of behemoths?
Now that Carr is playing for a paycheck, as he always dreamed, he says he's on the right track to putting such doubts behind him. That's largely true, say the coaches and team executives who brought him to the 87ers. They describe a 20-year-old who's living on his own in Delaware, away from negative influences, who shows up on time and seems receptive to their urgings that he commit to defense and share the ball.
"I keep it simple, elementary," Carr says of his current life. "I don't really go outside that much. I live in the gym, go home, get rest. It's part of growing up."
His mentors say he's learning the lessons most top players receive in college.
"Some of the things we take for granted, he doesn't know that's what's expected," says 87ers coach Rod Baker, who speaks from 35 years of experience in college and the minor leagues. "But you know what? He's better today than he was last week. And he was better last week than he was the week before. Some of it's going to come with time, and some of it's going to come with the demands we put on him. But he hasn't fought anybody about anything."
Carr still has a lot of kid in him. His face remains cherubic, and he mumbles some of his answers during a pregame conversation.
His self-conception seems more practical, however, than when he was the prince of the Baltimore prep scene. He acknowledges that he has much to learn and prove.
"Just walking out on the court and knowing that you're under an NBA team, it's just like what I dreamed about," he says. "I mean, I didn't dream about being in the NBA D-League, but it's close enough. I know it's going to help me get to the NBA. I'm on the right road now."
That's the big question, of course: Will he be a viable NBA prospect when he becomes eligible next year?
He has a shot, says 87ers general manager Brandon Williams, a former NBA player who runs the developmental squad for the parent Philadelphia 76ers.
"Every scout that talks about him, it's impossible to get past his size," Williams says. " But as soon as you have that conversation, they see how quick he is, how well he handles the ball, how hard he is to defend and stay in front of. All of those things start adding up."
After thrilling Baltimore crowds in three years at Patterson and building an international audience for his scintillating YouTube highlights, Carr lived through a rocky final year in high school. He faced criminal charges of assaulting the mother of his daughter, Averi. He flirted with leaving Baltimore for high schools in New Jersey and Florida. His prospect rankings slipped as whispers spread that he lacked maturity and emphasized style over substance as a player.
By the time he landed at Princeton Day Academy in Laurel for his senior season, Carr talked of basketball as a job, one that had left him emotionally weary. But even then, the professional game lay ahead as a beacon.
Carr barely hid plans to skip his college commitment to Seton Hall. He hinted at following the same path as Brandon Jennings, a highly recruited guard who played in Italy for a year out of high school, then came home as an NBA lottery pick. After he scored 52 points in his final game at Princeton Day, Carr made those plans official.
After he earned raves from European fans on a summer tour a few years back, Carr envisioned his professional career beginning overseas, where the most lucrative non-NBA contracts are available. In fact, that's what happened. He spent most of the summer in China, playing for a touring team with past NBA standouts Bonzi Wells, Gary Payton and Tracy McGrady.
Carr grins and gives a half shake of his head as he recalls suiting up with McGrady, one of the most gifted players of the past 20 years. The wizened former All-Star gave him frequent counsel, Carr says, urging him to "just keep working and go in ready to learn from older people who know more than you do."
The kid from East Baltimore also loved the eager greetings he received all over China from fans who had glimpsed his exploits on their computers and cellphones.
On the other hand, he missed his 1-year-old daughter like crazy. And he couldn't get used to Chinese food, so he felt lousy a lot of the time. He never had been away from home for such a stretch, and after five months, he decided the overseas route was no longer for him. The D-League it would be.
A place to grow
It's fair to call the D-League one of the humbler rungs of the professional basketball world. The maximum salary of $24,000 is about 5 percent of the NBA minimum. Teams are based in such distant outposts as Sioux Falls, S.D., and Portland, Maine.
The newly created 87ers play in the home arena of the University of Delaware, and most of the building's 5,000 blue and yellow seats are empty for their games. For entertainment during timeouts, a rotund fan wearing a clown wig, Big Daddy, jiggles his belly at midcourt. Behind one basket, kids tromp around a massive, inflatable castle, oblivious to the nearby action.
The drawing card here is cheap family fun, not the opportunity to see future stars. Yet the D-League is a very real runway to the big show. Nearly a quarter of current NBA players have toiled there at some point.
The 87ers picked Carr in the third round of this year's D-League draft as a sort of intriguing shot in the dark.
"Aquille fits a profile that's really interesting to us," Williams says. "The 76ers are looking to use our development team to find out about high-level, high-potential candidates, and Aquille is just that. … He has exceptional quickness and athleticism, instincts you can't teach. But in order for him to play at the professional level, we need to know: Is he a playmaker? Can he make plays for others? Will his body withstand the kind of pounding he takes from bigger, more physical players?"
There are so many things Carr must learn. Before he came to the 87ers, he never had paid much mind to nutrition or stretching. He rarely had been asked to play a conscientious role in team defenses. He generally had shot when he pleased rather than thinking about the best scoring opportunities for his teammates.
These aren't gaps peculiar to Carr. The same could be said for many prep stars trying to make similar leaps.
But because he's 5-6 and naturally slight, Carr probably will always face more skepticism than other players of similar talent.
Williams and Baker say he badly needs to get stronger. Even in the D-League, his body gets buffeted like a leaf on a windy day when he dribbles too deep into the paint.
The coaches wanted him to study 87ers starting point guard Kendall Marshall, the 13th overall pick in the 2012 NBA draft. Marshall — who was signed off Delaware's roster by the Los Angeles Lakers last week — possesses none of Carr's electrifying quickness, a major reason he had fallen so quickly from the NBA to the D-League. But he plays point guard the way coaches love, with his head up and his eyes always probing for the next possible assist.
It must be strange for Marshall to play the mentor at age 22, but he sidled up to Carr during games and whispered bits of guidance.
"I think he has a lot of natural talent," Marshall says. "He's been able to make the most of his abilities at his size. Playing the point guard position, he's got to get better at that. You've got to be a consistent knockdown shooter, and you've got to take care of the ball. I think if he can do those things, he'll put himself in a good position."
The Thursday night game against Idaho is Carr's eighth in the D-League. He's coming off his best performance, 22 points the night before against this same Stampede team. It's no easy matchup either. Idaho features one of the league's most touted talents in high-scoring guard Pierre Jackson, a 2013 second-round NBA pick.
Carr comes out to shoot about 90 minutes before the game, wearing a black headband with the NBA logo and black pads that cover the length of his squat legs. It's always amazing to watch NBA players warm up, because they never seem to miss when shooting uncovered. But that's not the case for Carr, who clangs shots off the rim as he fires from the corner.
This changes when he enters the actual game with less than four minutes left in the first quarter. The substitution draws the biggest cheer of the night, fueled by Carr's Baltimore contingent. He comes in with the 87ers trailing by double digits and immediately jolts them to life.
The first time he gets the ball in open space, Carr leaves Idaho guard Dee Bost standing stiff with an impossibly quick crossover dribble. He darts into the lane and sinks a floater while taking a hack on the shoulder. He shakes his defender and hits a long 3 with the clock nearing zero.
It's astonishing, given the skepticism some prep talent scouts expressed about Carr's development, how easily he gets by these ex-college stars. In a game with several former NBA picks, he's the most captivating player on the floor.
Sure, he still dominates the ball and thinks shot before pass. But he's a step faster than anyone else.
In less than 15 minutes, Carr scores 22 points, as many as Marshall gets in almost 43 minutes. He does it efficiently, making eight of 13 shots.
But the officiating has been poor from the start, and Carr's attention seems to wander as the bad calls mount in the third quarter. During a timeout, Baker puts his hands on the young guard's shoulders, murmuring calming words in his ear.
Carr can't let it go. He's not shouting or gesturing, but his lips keep moving long past the point when the referees want him to zip it. Finally, with a few seconds left in the quarter, they order Carr to the locker room. His fans hoot at the ejection, telling the officials they'll never make it beyond the D-League.
Carr has not demonstrated the maturity Baker wanted from him, however, and he knows it. The first thing he does postgame is apologize to his coach.
"Tonight, I'm a little disappointed," Baker says. "Because we always talk how it's not about him. It's about us. He's got to realize that."
Carr, wearing a gold chain with his daughter's picture on the end, says he has taken a lesson from the ejection.
"Just don't even say nothing," he says quietly. "If I'm going to talk to the ref, go up to him and call him by name and talk to him."
These are the sorts of hiccups Carr will have to avoid if he's to meet his goal of being drafted by an NBA team next summer. After his scoring binge against Idaho, he'll total just seven points in the 87ers' next two games.
"He is something special," Baker says. "He doesn't have to convince anybody he's something special. … He's got to be able to deal with the grind of this level to then get to dealing with the grind of the next level. That's what time will tell. Can he do that?"
The plain-spoken coach takes a long pause. "I'm not willing to say he can't," he says. "A lot of it's going to come down to him."
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