COLLEGE PARK — Robert Carter Jr. is used to being off the radar.
Growing up in tiny Thomasville, Ga., Carter didn't get much early attention outside the area because there weren't any travel basketball teams for his age group. Only when Carter finally got a chance to play on an under-17 team — as a 12-year-old — did word get out.
Carter established himself as one of the best young big men in the Atlantic Coast Conference during his two seasons at Georgia Tech, averaging close to 11 points and more than seven rebounds a game. Yet he played in the shadows because the Yellow Jackets were a .500 team.
Even as Maryland gets all kinds of hype for a potential No. 1 preseason ranking with the emergence of star point guard Melo Trimble, the signing of five-star prospect Diamond Stone and the addition of fellow transfer Rasheed Sulaimon from Duke, Carter is rarely mentioned.
The 6-foot-8, 238-pound junior forward doesn't seem to mind.
"All the guys you named are amazing, they're really good, so anytime they talk about our team, I'm happy," Carter said. "I don't use it as motivation. I've been gone for a whole year, so people tend to forget. Once I start playing, they'll be able to see all the hard work I've put in and my game will speak for itself."
Since transferring to Maryland last summer, Carter has watched his body shrink and his game grow.
Under the guidance of Kyle Tarp, the team's director of basketball performance, Carter has lost nearly 20 pounds and his body fat has dropped to about 12 percent from 18 percent. He has gone from being reasonably strong to "the strongest guy on the team, it's not even close," according to Tarp.
Carter's "numbers are staggering from a strength standpoint, especially for someone with a 7-3 wingspan," Tarp said. Even more impressive "is his energy and the leadership he brings. ... Bringing that level into the weight room and pushing the guys, that's the biggest thing."
Said Carter: "I always feel like I'm a leader on any team I'm on because I work extremely hard. I learned a lot from Dez [Wells] last year. In order for our team to be great we need great leadership, and I feel like I can provide that along with Jake [Layman] and also Melo because he has established himself."
Carter credits Tarp with his improvement on and off the court.
"Kyle has been amazing," Carter said. "Before I got here I lifted weights, but I wouldn't say I loved the weight room. Kyle got me focused. I know I needed to change my body and get in better shape. He challenged me every day."
Their five-times-a-week sessions last season — three of them 90 minutes to two hours a day, with 30- to 45-minute mini-workouts on the days in between — were Carter's substitute for games.
"That kind of helped fill that competitiveness," he said. "When the team was getting ready to play their game, I already had my game before. Me and him went at it hard. I feel that my game is so much better because of what me and Kyle have done."
Said Tarp: "It's not an accident. He's with me more consistently than I've had anyone. When day by day you methodically improve and get better, that takes care of itself. He's been a blast to work with."
The foundation for Carter's work ethic goes back to his father, Robert Carter Sr., who played junior college basketball in Florida before returning to Thomasville to become a plumber and raise a family that included three daughters from his first marriage and eventually grew to seven children after he remarried.
"He always told me that nobody is going to give you anything, you have to work for everything. That's probably the biggest thing," Carter said. "I'm thankful for every day here at Maryland. I'm from Thomasville, where a lot of people don't make it to college."
One of the reasons Carter initially picked Georgia Tech was that his mother, Linda, had undergone open-heart surgery toward the end of his senior year in high school. When he told his parents of his decision to transfer, both were a bit surprised.
Robert Sr., whose college career was cut short by knee injuries, said he was "mad at first, but he sat me down and we talked about it and I understood where he was coming from."
When Carter returned home this spring for his grandmother's funeral, he and his father went to the high school gym to shoot around.
"What I saw, he's so much better than he was," Robert Sr. said.
Tarp and others around the Maryland program also speak of Carter's humility and the respect he shows others. Not only did his parents teach him, he said, but so did others in Thomasville, a town of 18,000 about 30 minutes from Tallahassee, Fla.
"That's one of the big things where I'm from, they teach us to carry ourselves a certain way, saying, 'Yes sir, no sir, yes m'am, no m'am,'" Carter said. "Try to be clean-cut and respectful, just an old country boy."
Said his mother: "The way you see him now is the way he's always been. Very humble, he's just an all-around good kid."
Sitting out last season in accordance with NCAA rules, Carter might have been the best scout team player in the country. Former Terp Jon Graham said Carter's presence at practice helped Maryland reach the NCAA tournament for the first time in five years and set a school record for regular-season wins.
"He had an unbelievably great redshirt year, changed his body, became a little bit more explosive, a little bit faster," Maryland coach Mark Turgeon said. "I think our system fits him well and he's very coachable. I think he has a chance to be a very good player for us."
Carter said the success the 28-7 Terps had in their first season in the Big Ten Conference made sitting out easier.
"I knew coming in that I was going to have to embrace sitting out and working behind the scenes," he said. "Being able to help those guys every day in practice and watch them go out and perform, I felt it was easier than them struggling and me sitting back and not being able to do anything."
There were times when Carter wished he could have been playing, never more than the night the Terps saw their season end with a 69-59 loss to West Virginia in their second NCAA tournament game at Nationwide Arena in Columbus, Ohio.
Carter, who wasn't allowed to travel with the team and had paid his own to way to Chicago for the Big Ten tournament, watched the game with injured freshman Ivan Bender and a team graduate assistant in their Xfinity Center locker room.
"Even though we played hard, anytime you lose you feel like you could have done something to help the team," Carter said. "All our losses, I feel I could have helped. All the other games, I thought they played amazing. It was a fun season for me even without me playing."
Interestingly, it was another game Carter watched from the sideline that ultimately led to his resuming his career at Maryland. It came shortly after Carter tore the meniscus in his left knee midway through his sophomore year at Georgia Tech.
"Maryland was my first game [of 10 he missed] that I didn't play and we came on the road here and from that point on, I loved Maryland. From the fans and everything that was going on, it was an amazing atmosphere," Carter recalled with a smile.
It was a game Carter played for the Yellow Jackets as a freshman that piqued the interest of Turgeon, who along with assistant Bino Ranson had recruited Carter when he was in high school. Carter put up 19 points and pulled down 10 rebounds in a win over the Terps in Atlanta.
It was one of 10 double doubles Carter amassed for the Yellow Jackets. While Carter was a productive player at Georgia Tech, he was admittedly a bit undisciplined. His overall shooting percentage of about 45percent was brought down by a less-than-stellar 27 percent on 3-pointers.
"I don't think I was a bad 3-point shooter at Georgia Tech, but I feel my knowledge of the game, taking better shots and knowing when to get my shots now will help my 3-point shot percentage go up," said Carter, whose decision to transfer came in part because Yellow Jackets coach Brian Gregory insisted his big man stay close to the basket.
"I never classified myself by a position. When I grew up, I always played everything. I've always been a skilled guy — 3, 4, 5. Coming here, I trust in Coach Turgeon. He says he's going to allow me to be me. That's when I'm at my best and that's what I'm going to be in the future, so why limit myself now?"
Former college coach turned ESPN analyst Seth Greenberg said of Carter: "He's a gifted offensive player, great hands, terrific footwork. He's got to get in great shape, but he has the potential to be a really terrific offensive player."
A frontcourt boost
Carter is expected to start at power forward or center for the Terps along with the 6-10, 250-pound Stone, who is projected by some as an NBA lottery pick if he decides to come out after his freshman year. Both figure to turn one of Maryland's weak points last season into a strength.
"It gives us a consistent scorer in the post, for sure," said junior Damonte Dodd, who after starting at center in a majority of the games last season will likely be used mostly for defense off the bench. "Being able to guard someone who can score like 95percent of the time helps me and [Michal Cekovsky] out."
As a result of the work he's put in, Carter thinks he'll be a more consistent and potentially dominant player.
"I feel I've always been good, but I had some issues in my weight and my conditioning," he said. "I've gotten more explosive, more agile. ... I attack basketball the same way. I want to be the best, and every time I step on the court I want to help my team win."