I’ve already published a piece demonstrating what the magnitude of grabbing 7-footer James Wiseman could have on the Hornets organization. But soon after that article was published, Wiseman shocked us all by leaving the University of Memphis to train for next year’s draft. Playing in only three college games, there’s significantly less amount of tape for scouts to view his dominant presence on the hardwood than if he were to return from suspension this month.
With the Hornets exceeding winning expectations early, it’s highly likely that they’ll just fall short of the Wiseman sweepstakes.
That being said, there are still quality centers available if the Hornets do decide to go that route. Bismack Biyombo, although playing above-average basketball, is likely to part ways with Charlotte after this year. As for their other big man, Cody Zeller is under contract for one more year after 2020. This casts doubt on the identity at center for the Hornets after 2022.
Two of the most talented frontcourt players in college this year are USC’s Onyeka Okongwu and Duke’s Vernon Carey Jr.
(Note: At The Hive contributor Chase Whitney will provide a closer look at Okongwu in a later piece.)
For now, let’s look at Carey’s game to see if he’s worthy of a Hornets roster spot this summer.
Height: 6 feet 10 inches
Weight: 265 pounds
Wingspan: 7 feet
Carey has an old-school style with a touch of modernization in his game.
The area that should most excite Hornets fans is the dependability that’s cemented upon Carey and his play.
Outside of one off-game against Kansas, where he sunk only three of eight shots from the floor, Carey has been nothing but efficient on the offensive end. Scoring at least 50 percent from the floor in the rest of his regular-season matchups, he’s become arguably the most reliable piece on this year’s Duke team.
Shooting 61 percent from the floor, Carey’s impressive shooting percentage is due to his unique post-game skillset. In today’s NBA, there are very few centers who turn their backs to the basket to take shots. Outside of Nikola Jokic, Andre Drummond, Marc Gasol, and Joel Embiid, this virtually obsolete asset on offense is gradually decreasing as the years go by.
Fortunately, Carey has molded his craft from the low-post area in a way that makes him confident enough to battle against any big man down low. His above average strength makes him a mismatch nightmare on the offensive end. His ability to physically dominate that point of attack gives him plenty of easy opportunities near the rim. This was seen in a game against Cal, where he scored 10 field goals around the paint to cap off a career-high 31-point effort.
We’ve already seen the Hornets sprinkle in some of the old-school styles of scoring this year. PJ Washington and Miles Bridges both come at the receiving end of post-up opportunities when matched up against favorably sized opponents. Add Carey into the mix and the Hornets could have three bullying offensive tools to work around.
When it comes to the modern style of play, Carey is taking baby steps in that category. He’s only attempted seven total threes so far, making 57 percent of them. By being so dominant close to the rim, there hasn’t been any reason for him to suddenly begin stretching his game beyond the three-point line. (If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.) That’s been the mindset of Carey in coach Mike Krzyzewski’s offense.
One of the biggest factors that helped establish Carey’s offensive prowess is his ball-handling ability. You wouldn’t expect a big man to dribble and bring up the ball following a shot at a consistent rate. Just think of the nearly hundreds of times Hornets’ centers mishandled the pass or couldn’t create their shot for themselves.
To give one Hornet credit, Zeller has improved in creating drives for himself with the ball in his hands. Still, Carey’s unique control is one of the biggest reasons why he’s become a great post scorer. He’s confident in bringing the ball through his motions without the fear of being stripped. This bodes well in the transition game as Carey’s demonstrated confidence in starting the fast break after a rebound.
Aside from shooting, Carey makes his presence known as a rebounder. With an average of nine boards per game, he’s not afraid to clash up against some of the best glass cleaners in the nation, which is an area the Hornets need improvement in. Carey has the attributes to become the focal point of a new, more aggressive approach to attacking the boxing out/rebounding.
Carey also establishes good footing on the defensive end of the floor. Although he’s not nearly up to the level as Okongwu in terms of a rim protector, Carey understands his assignments and can help weakside coverage near the baseline. A modest two blocks per game isn’t bad for someone who contributes so much on the offensive end of the floor.
In terms of blemishes, Carey’s weaknesses are his free throw shooting, assists, and his overall physical tone.
From the foul line, Carey is nowhere near a reliable shooter in that area. He’s currently making 62.5 percent from the stripe, a feat that needs to dramatically improve this summer. If he wants to become lethal inside as he currently is in college, he needs to convert opportunities when opponents foul him near the basket.
Being a post presence in college has led to more than a few double teams by opponents. Unfortunately, Carey lacks the awareness of where to dish the ball out to in these situations. He often becomes impatient, leading to lousy turnovers on offense. With a nearly 3-to-1 turnover to assist ratio, he needs to clean up his sometimes ill-advised decisions with the basketball in a double team.
Carey is the son of a former NFL lineman, and his weight, although phenomenal for college, may need to trim a bit more once he reaches the NBA. He simply couldn’t keep up with the fast-paced scale at the next level. Currently listed at 265 pounds, he would be one of the heaviest players in the NBA. I’m sure this is his biggest point of emphasis for his trainers. Hopefully, he’ll start to fully invest in body conditioning once the college season is over.
Oddly enough, what NBA teams will likely get out of Carey is nearly identical to someone from his current collegiate program. Marvin Bagley III, the No. 2 overall pick in the 2018 NBA Draft, has similar characteristics in almost every area to Carey. The two are great interior offensive players, with each slowly expanding their range to the outside. Playing either the four or five is an option for these two, providing a coach with a plethora of offensive lineups to draw up.
The hype surrounding centers in the 2020 draft will almost exclusively surround James Wiseman, and rightfully so.
But, Vernon Carey Jr. is one of the more underrated talents who will likely surprise NBA fans for years to come.
Stay tuned on At The Hive to see how Onyeka Okongwu is scouted.