When you’re watching Chennedy Carter play, it’s tempting to look up. She has, after all, averaged over 20 points a game since her freshman year playing in one of the toughest conferences in the NCAA, with shots from all over the court that tend to scrape the top of your TV.
Regular-season games take on the intensity of tournament matchups thanks to her relentless, risky attacks. NBA threes swish as neatly as mid-range jumpers and under-the-basket buckets. Listed at 5’9, and more like 5’7, she’ll get around anyone, thanks to her superhuman quickness, or just jump over them, temporarily en pointe as she propels herself straight skyward, releasing the ball at the very top of her reach. None of Carter’s decisions make sense until after they happen, at which point you’re left agape.
“Nobody is a better scorer under pressure or when the game is on the line,” says Texas A&M head coach Gary Blair. “That’s her strength: she’s not afraid to miss the last shot. She’s willing to take that last shot, and live with the consequences or the rewards.”
And don’t get her wrong: Carter loves to shoot. Sometimes, when a bucket is just undeniable, she’ll allow herself a little shoulder shimmy to celebrate — like last year in the Sweet 16, when she scored 35 points in a close shootout that wound up going Notre Dame’s way.
The loss still stings, as does the fact the junior was robbed of redemption in this year’s tournament, thanks to the Covid-19 pandemic. But the feeling of scoring those 35 points is evident in Carter’s suddenly rapturous tone.
“That game, the rim just felt so wide open,” she recalls. “I was so focused and locked in. Just hot — I felt it everywhere, so [the shimmy] was a natural thing.”
But as the Texas A&M guard prepares for the WNBA Draft where she’s more than likely to be chosen in the top five, anyone who knows her — including herself — will tell you her game was built from the ground up.
“I think having an incredible handle is essential in the game today,” she says. Hers was cultivated below the hardwood by her father Broderick, who first taught her to dribble with a tennis ball on the grass in their backyard in the Dallas-Fort Worth suburbs. That handle has been the stuff of YouTube mixtapes since she was in high school, her best weapon in carving out space that would be invisible to anyone else. “You have to be able to get by a defender and create your own shot,” she explains patiently. “The ability to do that separates players from each other.”
Allen Iverson, unsurprisingly, was her original inspiration (just check out her shooting sleeve). But with her own particular set of talents, her remarkable athleticism and eye for the game, Carter has a chance to set herself apart from both her heroes and her peers, writing a new basketball legend from inside the W.
“I think Chennedy is often left out of conversations because people don’t know what to make of her,” says ESPN analyst LaChina Robinson. “She has a gift — she’s very different, and very special. A lot of it has to do with her ball control. Overall talent-wise, without considering team needs, she would go no lower than No. 2 in the draft.”
It’s the shooting, and the ball handling, and the tiny details that make both of those things look so smooth. “You’re always having to work with girl and women basketball players to get lower, to swivel the hips and make that turn quicker,” adds Kit Martin, head coach at Carter’s alma mater, Mansfield Timberview High School. “That was never the case with Chennedy. Her shoulders get so low, and she’s so quick that it’s just on a different level.”
There’s also the passing: Carter had a 27 percent assist rate this past season, and her feeds tend to be as fun to watch as her buckets (none other than Atlanta Dream coach Nicki Collen noted in a pre-draft press conference that she thought Carter was an “underrated passer”). “The speed off the bounce into a pass is exceptional,” Martin adds.
She pauses, understanding she sounds a little biased — after all, Carter will be watching Friday’s draft at her house. So she lists some of the players she’s coached and coached against: Lisa Leslie, Tamika Catchings, Alana Beard, Dawn Staley. “Nobody wants to hang their hat yet on Chennedy; everybody wants to wait and see. But I have seen a lot of the best talent close up,” Martin concludes, “and I really believe she’s going to blossom into one of the best players that’s ever played.”
Carter never saw herself doing anything else. “I’ve always wanted to be a professional basketball player,” she says. “I’m really ready to fulfill my dream.” Along with those backyard tennis-ball drills with her dad, she spent her youth playing alongside her three brothers — two older, one younger. “I used to just try to play until I could win, over and over and over again,” Carter recalls. Her older brothers were bigger than her, but it didn’t make a difference — she would triumph eventually. ”They still really think they can beat me,” she adds with a laugh.
It’s those endless hours hooping outside with her siblings, Carter says, that partially account for her approach to the game, which fans might describe as swagger and critics might characterize as a bad attitude, or see as a potential challenge to coach. It’s the kind of fiery, occasionally confrontational demeanor that fans relish in the NBA — and that there tends to be a lower tolerance for in the women’s game.
“It’s more of a chip on my shoulder,” Carter says. “It goes back to where I grew up, and how hard it was for me and my three brothers. I was also the only girl, and I kind of had to fend for myself and really build toughness.”
She was a standout early — Blair says he remembers watching her play with top local EYBL program DFW Elite — but that chip, that feeling of being overlooked and underrated, of having to fight twice as hard for every W, persists. I ask her when she first knew she was good, given that she’s been so good for so long.
“I don’t think I was the top tier,” she says, correcting me. “I didn’t see it in middle school — of course I won a middle school championship, and in that game I scored 46 points. In fact, I was actually kind of underrated coming out of high school: I was ranked No. 2 at point guard and No. 6 overall.” (UConn’s Megan Walker, who also declared early for this year’s WNBA Draft, was ranked No. 1 overall.)
Scoring 46 points in a middle school game and being ranked No. 6 in the country (the highest-ranking player ever to sign with Texas A&M) is unimpressive, you see, when you know you can be better. Never mind that she’d also already won a gold medal with the Team USA U18 team, and led her high school team throughout her years there to a combined 70-4 record.
“It only actually hit me once I played my first game in college,” she insists. “That’s when I kind of realized I had a little potential and talent.”
Carter’s decision to stay in College Station, which is relatively close to home, came in large part because of her trust in Blair not to make her, with her swagger and her shooters-shoot confidence, into something she wasn’t. She’d also loved watching the 2011 title-winning A&M team led by Sydney Colson, another star guard who currently plays for the Chicago Sky. “It was going to take a coach and teammates who were going to allow somebody to be that dominant with the ball as a freshman,” Blair says now.
As it turned out, allowing Carter to be dominant as a freshman paid off: Not only did she average almost 23 points a game and become the unanimous National Freshman of the Year, she won in spectacular fashion, forcing the spotlight her way. Like with her 46-point performance in an Aggie victory over USC in which she also sank the game-winning shot. Or the 37-point game she had vs. DePaul in the second round of the NCAA tournament, willing her team back from a 17-point deficit to win. When the bright lights came on, there was no question which player you wanted to be watching — or which player you wanted on your team.
“You want to talk about somebody who had swag, I can go back to swag at its best,” Blair quips, mentioning his time coaching Kim Mulkey and against Cheryl Miller. “The game of women’s basketball needs players like that to push the needle, and I think that’s what Chennedy does.
“Yes, the women’s game needs [presumed No. 1 pick Sabrina] Ionescu, but it also needs that exciting talent that a Chennedy Carter can bring.”
But Carter has so much more to offer, somehow, than the swagger and the preposterously confident shots and the juke-them-out-of-their-shoes handles. She’s happiest talking about the game, whether it’s how she regularly rewatches the Game 7 of the 2016 NBA Finals — sometimes all the way through, sometimes just the shots LeBron James or Kyrie Irving took — or her favorite victory while at A&M. “I don’t know, because a lot of our games were really, really lit,” she says, landing on an upset of Oregon State during her sophomore year. “I saw my team hit on all cylinders. Everybody was just ridiculously hot that game, and we pulled a big upset. And we were in Hawaii so it was pretty fun. I got to walk the beach after and just live it up.” The attitude that helps her put on such a great show dissipates, and what’s left is a woman who loves basketball so much she’s spending quarantine dribbling around her house.
Even her Twitter display name — Hollywood — isn’t exactly the Big Baller Brand-style flex it might seem at first glance. (“She’s gone 3-0 against USC … maybe that’s where she gets her handle,” Blair had joked.)
“In high school, I was social — but when it was time to go out, to the football games on Friday nights or to parties, I was like ‘Nah,’” Carter says. “I couldn’t. I always wanted to work out, because I wanted to be successful. I had to keep myself locked in. So because I was staying focused, my friends called me Hollywood and it kind of stuck with me.
“Plus I graduated and went to A&M, and left all my friends. Sort of doing big things. I just had a dream and a goal, and wanted to get to it.”
Carter knows that as much attention as she’s gotten, as much fun as the flash is, there are still plenty of people who don’t see that side of her yet. The serious side, the side that spent hours dribbling in the dirt because that’s how badly she wanted to be great.
“There are some doubters, some detractors,” Martin says. “Now it’s up to her to answer all of them. It’s the case, to me, of whether you want to be the underdog or the front runner. Heck, everybody likes to be the underdog because then you’re fighting for something!”
In other words, bet against Carter and watch what happens next.