The highest-rated recruiting class of Chris Holtmann’s coaching career arrived on Ohio State’s campus in June. All four members of the class of 2019 have been on campus for a few weeks, going through summer workouts and conditioning to prepare for their upcoming freshman seasons.
Before DJ Carton, Ibrahima Diallo, Alonzo Gaffney and E.J. Liddell all arrived on campus, The Dispatch caught up with each of them and their coaches for exclusive interviews to review their senior seasons and their hopes to contribute as freshmen. This four-part series will continue through the rest of the week with a new story each day both in print and online at BuckeyeXtra.com. The class is ranked No. 13 nationally and tops in the Big Ten, twice as high as runner-up Michigan State at No. 26.
The series begins today with Carton, the highest-rated member of the class.
247Sports composite rankings: No. 1 in Iowa, No. 4 at his position, No. 33 nationally. Four stars.
As a senior: Averaged 24.4 points, 7.6 rebounds and 6.0 assists. Shot 54.5 percent from the field (206 for 378), 33.3 percent from three (42 for 126) and 70.4 percent (107 for 152) from the free-throw line.
Ohio State jersey number: 3
One summer ago, DJ Carton knew what he was looking for but unsure on how to find it. With a final recruiting list of Michigan, Indiana and Ohio State, he set up official visits for each school.
The Buckeyes got the final visit. It turned out to be the one that mattered.
“I had three great choices,” he said. “I didn’t really have a favorite or anything. Ohio State’s visit was last, and by far that was the best visit I had because the team felt like family to me. That was the only visit I left where I was excited to play with those guys. I wanted to play right then and there and that season with those guys. That was the only feeling.
“My mom told me I’d get that gut feeling and I was just waiting on that gut feeling. It definitely came. That’s why I committed the day after my official visit.”
Carton’s goal all along had been to make his college decision before his senior season so he could focus on the season. Although he averaged 23.6 points, 5.7 rebounds and 3.4 assists as a junior, the Bulldogs went 10-13 and he had to be a more selfish player than he prefers.
The goal as a senior was a championship, and with his college future decided, that became the focus.
“His junior season was hard on him because we didn’t win as much as we normally do,” Bettendorf coach Curtis Clark said. “That’s the No. 1 priority for him. I think ultimately that forced him to play in a way that he doesn’t feel real comfortable playing. He was very dominant with the ball, but we relied on him to score a lot of points. He didn’t have a lot of guys around him capable of scoring. I think that ultimately made him a better player individually, forcing him to be more of a scorer because I think it’s natural for him to pass the ball.”
Clark’s hope was that Carton’s teammates would realize the scoring opportunities that would arise from him being the focal point of opponents and rise to the occasion. That proved to be the case, and his numbers would reflect it: Carton went from averaging 3.4 assists as a junior to 6.0 as a senior while seeing a modest scoring average bump from 23.6 to 24.4 points.
As the season got underway, Clark also had goals for Carton. He challenged his star to be more of an off-the-court leader as well and a more comfortable player off the ball.
“I think my game was much more mature and I think I was more confident,” Carton said of starting the season. “When it gets to your senior year, I think my mentality throughout the season was much different than junior year because I played every game like this was my last time playing. I think I became a better player, but my mentality on the court was so much different from junior year to senior year.”
Of course, with the increased national profile came even more effort from opponents to find ways to force Carton to give up the ball. That meant, for much of the season, facing a barrage of double teams, trapping defenses and increased physical play.
It was expected, but there was a learning curve.
“At the beginning of the year, after a couple of games I sort of struggled with that and honestly I just had to become more patient,” Carton said. “When the double team came, it was forcing me to be too aggressive, so (often) I’d probably have four points at halftime but I’d have 10 assists. My teammates would open things up and they’d have to guard them out and open up gaps for me later on in the game. I started to play better at the end.”
It took some of the joy out of the game for Carton. Although there were times the senior wondered if the team might be better using its next-best five against its opponent with him on the bench, it never reached a point where he asked to come out of a game, Clark said.
“It is hard, and it’s frustrating because he’s getting fouled a lot,” Clark said. “He’s so explosive that some of those touch fouls don’t bother him so much and officials know it. I think that was frustrating for him, but it’s just one of those things with maturing as a player of focusing on the things you can control.”
Off the court, Clark said he spent significant time exploring ways to expand Carton’s presence by moving him off the ball to help him catch it in places where he could be effective. Ultimately, the coach said, he was overthinking the situation. Plus, Carton was able to beat many traps and double teams by himself.
It led to what Clark said was the most efficient offensive season he’s had by a team at Bettendorf. It also all paved the way for the most memorable game to Carton, and it came late in the season in a 43-41 win against top-ranked Eldridge North Scott.
“We were the No. 2 team and they were the No. 1 team, and they had beat us before in overtime,” Carton said. “The game got canceled twice because of weather so it was anticipated and everybody had to wait. The environment was crazy, and it was a really good game. A lot of exciting plays, and then I came down and it was a play for me to score. I came off the screen and they double-teamed me so I dished it to my best friend growing up (Trevor Feller). He hit the three for the game-winner.
“That’s just a moment that you dream of as a kid and it actually happened. That was probably the craziest moment of my career.”
The season ended in the second round of the state playoffs, but Clark pointed to Carton’s first-round performance as a highlight. Bettendorf was the top-ranked team in the state facing a .500 foe that full-court pressured all game long, and at the half the Bulldogs held a slim lead before Carton went off.
I think he had three straight steals to dunks and all of a sudden that four-point lead turns into 10 and it’s a completely different ballgame,” Clark said. “To me, that was memorable because it was doing something that DJ isn’t necessarily dominant at, which is on the defensive side. He found a different way to dominate the game.”
Clark has no doubts about where Carton fits best at the collegiate level. It’s also where Carton feels most comfortable.
“He’s a (point guard),” the coach said. “That’s easy for me. He can get into the paint; he’s got great vision. I think he’s definitely that. His vision is outstanding. He’s so athletic. He’s become such a strong player from his sophomore year to where he is now that he can go through double teams. We just saw time and time again, him beat double teams on his own and all of a sudden you’ve got DJ Carton going downhill on his own going five-on-three and that’s game over.”
Once his season ended, Carton said he spent time working out with a few local standouts: Ethan Happ (Wisconsin), Isaiah Roby (Nebraska) and Tyler Hall (Montana State). While on his own, Carton said he put up 700 shots a day while also spending time in the weight room.
A primary area of focus: his mid-range game. While at Bettendorf, Clark said, Carton didn’t have much need for a mid-range jumper because he would either get an open three-pointer or he would blow past his defender to finish at the rim.
Clark started to emphasize it as Carton developed, but it proved unnecessary because he had grown his game so much overall. That will be different in the Big Ten.
“I know I’m not going to be able to finish and get to the rim as easily as I did in high school so I have to get that mid-range game in,” Carton said. “I’m a pretty good shooter from mid-range, percentage-wise. I just don’t shoot very many attempts. I’m just not really confident with that game, but I shoot it pretty well.”
It led to Carton being named Mr. Basketball in Iowa, but it’s not what Clark said he will most remember about his time coaching the future Buckeye.
“I think when you look back on it, with a kid that’s got as much attention as he has, just his ability to after games go out of his way to make sure that he sees kids on the sidelines to say hello to them, sign an autograph, whatever the case may be,” the coach said. “That was real important to him. He likes to go out of his way to see those kids after games.”Join the conversation at Facebook.com/BuckeyeXtra and connect with us on Twitter @BuckeyeXtra
Said Carton: “Our team was good and there was a lot of hype and expectations. It was a really fun season. I had a great time. We just brought an atmosphere to this city that not a lot of people have had. I think our games were exciting to watch and we brought an energy to this community not a lot of people get to see.”
And as for his hopes as a freshman at Ohio State, Carton said he wants to push his teammates.
“I know that our team is so competitive, especially at the guard spots, so practices are going to be dogfights and people are going to be earning their minutes,” he said. “I’m just going to play my game and hopefully bring a lot to the team to help them win and have a successful freshman season.”