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Wendell Carter Jr. is the rare 5-star basketball recruit pitting Duke against Harvard

Could one of the best recruits in the country actually pick Harvard over Duke?

COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. — There’s a diverse group of high schoolers that make up the 54 players invited to USA Basketball’s annual junior minicamp. The camp is led by 15 seniors who have won a combined 12 gold medals with the program, players either already committed to play big-time college basketball or currently choosing between offers. The rest are freshmen or sophomores coming to the U.S. Olympic Training Center for the first time.

Wendell Carter Jr. is the only one here beaming about math class. In between trying to lead Atlanta’s Pace Academy to back-to-back state titles and finally making his college decision, Carter is also spending his senior year taking honors calculus.

“It’s tough, but it’s pretty manageable,” Carter says. “I don’t mind dedicating a few hours at night to it.”

Carter sounds apologetic when he says his GPA is “only” 3.6 right now, and he pledges it will be better at the end of the semester. That’s not his only senior year goal. He also wants to act in his second school play after appearing as a handyman in an adaptation of You Can’t Take it With You in the spring. To preform in the show, Carter had to miss the first weekend of grassroots ball on Nike’s EYBL circuit in Brooklyn.

He was able to take that weekend off because he knows his place in the class of 2017 is secure. The 6’10, 263-pound big man has a combination of skill, strength, and polish rarely found in 17-year-olds. It’s why he’s the third-rated player in the country by ESPN. Just about everything else with Carter is unconventional, including his college choice.

He’s down to four schools, but those following the recruitment believe his decision is really down to two. In one corner is Duke, the five-time national champion under Mike Krzyzewski with a newfound reputation for developing one-and-done NBA talent. That’s a lineage Carter would like to fit into. In the other corner is Harvard. Yes, Harvard.

“For a lot of great basketball players, it’s either Duke, Kentucky or Arizona,” Carter told SB Nation. “I’m thinking about doing something different.”

As Carter crashes the glass and finishes through contact during the second day of camp, his parents Wendell and Kylia Carter are in the crowd wearing Harvard jackets. They travel with him everywhere. This summer the Carters have been to Indianapolis, Las Vegas, Los Angeles, and Long Beach to watch their son play, and that’s just domestically. They also traveled to Spain this summer to watch Wendell win gold with USA Basketball’s U17 team, and went down to the Bahamas when he was picked for the EYBL Select Team game.

Carter has one thing going for him that almost none of his peers can say: Both of his parents played college basketball. His dad played at Delta State before playing professionally internationally, while his mom played at Ole Miss. Wendell has been surrounded by the game since he was born.

“We were basketball heads before we had Wendell,” Kylia Carter told me. “Basketball is what we did. To watch the game develop in your child, it feels like we’re living a fantasy sometimes.”

via Kylia Carter

It’s impossible to miss the Carters in the gym. At an EYBL stop in Indianapolis this spring, his extended family was there for each of his games. Grandma came prepared with chants every time he scored, while mom and dad motioned him to calm down when the refs didn’t call a foul he thought he deserved. Other players in the gym swung by to say hello to the Carters, like five-star shooting guard Gary Trent Jr., the son of the former NBA player who is also considering Duke.

“It’s fun for us,” Kylia Carter said. “Especially when you’re basketball junkies like we are.”

Carter played this season for Team CP3, a grassroots team sponsored by Clippers star Chris Paul. He and Paul kept a correspondence, while his parents became close with Paul’s parents. For the Carters, there’s no better guide through the accelerated path from high school to college to the NBA than parents who have went through the same journey.

“They are like our coaches,” Kylia Carter said. “We can talk about stuff because as someone told us one time, this is rare air that we breathe. There are not a lot of people you can talk to about the experiences Wendell will have. A parent that has a child that has done what Wendell is doing, it gives us a more open dialogue.”

With Carter’s grassroots career now over, it’s time to get serious about picking a school. As DeAndre Ayton selected Arizona and Michael Porter Jr. picked Washington, Carter finds himself as the top uncommitted prospect in the country. He will visit Georgia, Georgia Tech, and Duke over the next three weekends, and hopes to make a decision before the end of the year.

Carter’s parents will be by his side, and they already have a favorite. The Carters visited Harvard last month and mom and dad were blown away by what they saw.

“That’s our choice for Wendell,” Kylia Carter said. “We hope he chooses Harvard. It just smelt academic. It felt it, it smelt it, it looked it, it was really a great experience. I don’t see how anyone would not want to pursue that academically. It’s just awesome.”

Wendell Carter
Jon Lopez - Nike

Life already feels like it’s moving at hyper speed for the Carters, and they know it won’t slow down anytime soon. One weekend they’re cooking chicken and pasta for Coach K at their home in Atlanta, the next they’re traveling with their son to another all-star camp. For now, the parents say they’re staying in the moment and not trying to get caught up in the attention that comes with recruiting and grassroots stardom.

At a certain point, it is impossible to deny Wendell Carter’s talent. He’s a powerful finisher around the rim off two feet, can hit hook shots with either hand and has a face-up game that is coming along nicely. His 7’5 wingspan will quickly endear him to pro scouts, too. He drew more rave reviews this weekend for his performance in Colorado Springs.

Basketball had already given the Carters so much before it ever looked like their son could be a lottery ticket. As they ready for the media blitz that will come with his college announcement, they’re trying to keep everything in perspective. For his part, Wendell seems to be taking it all in stride. Whether he picks Duke or Harvard, it won’t change the reflective personality he’s developed.

“I just like to try new things,” Carter said. “If I like ’em, I like ’em. If I don’t, I don’t.”