DJ Carton's Rise Coming With Poise and Efficiency, Just When Ohio State Needs Those Attributes

By Colin Hass-Hill on December 21, 2019 at 11:14 pm
Chris Holtmann and DJ Carton
Joe Maiorana-USA TODAY Sports

LAS VEGAS – DJ Carton’s elbows stuck out to the side as he postured like a bodybuilder, flexing his arms while walking back to Ohio State’s bench. Scrunching his eyebrows together with intensity, he unleashed a primal scream, yelling “Let’s go,” while stretching out the last syllable as long as possible.

Then another. “Let’s gooo.”

Freshmen are expected to have those moments of emotion, especially late in the second half of No. 5 Ohio State’s 71-65 win against No. 6 Kentucky on Saturday. Some people like to tell others to act like they’ve been there before, but Carton hasn’t. Not at this level. He’s a first-year player from Bettendorf, Iowa, in the midst of the second month of what looks to be a fruitful collegiate career. 

Most freshmen, though, don’t have the poise that Carton exhibited in the Buckeyes’ six-point victory. As the game progressed, Ohio State needed everything it could get out of him to hold off the Wildcats. And while allowing his emotions to show, he played under complete control, never trying to do too much or single-handedly win the game. 

“We know what kind of player DJ is. We know what he can bring to us. He was able to stay poised tonight, make some big plays for us down the stretch and we're just happy to have him out there.”– Kyle Young on DJ Carton

After a first half that included nine turnovers from Ohio State, including one from Carton, the freshman helped get the game under control. He played 16 second-half minutes and didn’t commit a single turnover. He made all three shots from the field, went 4-for-4 from the free-throw line, blocked three shots, grabbed two rebounds and had a steal. 

And that all came against the sixth-ranked team in the country with a backcourt featuring Ashton Hagans, the reigning SEC co-defensive player of the year and the Wildcats’ leading scorer, and Tyrese Maxey, a possible top-10 pick in the 2020 NBA draft.

“I think (Carton) did a good job with it, he did a good job with the emotion of the game,” Chris Holtmann said after the victory. “It helps, as I've said, to have some older guys with him because, as he should, he listens to Kaleb (Wesson) and CJ (Walker) and Kyle (Young) and Andre (Wesson). I think that's important when you have a freshman point guard out there that he can take a lead from some of those guys. They level him out at times, but give him credit, a lot of credit, he made obviously a lot of plays.”

Those plays from Carton came from a variety of spots on the floor, aiding Ohio State’s ability to lead the entirety of the second half while never having an advantage of greater than eight points.

He impacted the game on both ends of the court, with three blocks and a steal in the second half, and scored over Nate Sestina in the paint to extend the Buckeyes’ lead to seven with 1:17 remaining, which seemingly took all hope of a Kentucky comeback from the blue-and-white-clad fans in T-Mobile Arena.

In totality, Carton scored a team-high 15 points while hitting 5-of-6 shots, including 1-of-2 from beyond the 3-point arc and all four of his attempted free throws. He had two assists and one turnover in 28 minutes.

“For him to be able to, at a young age, to be able to control his emotions during big games like this – you're playing a blue-blood team, you know you're going to have a lot of hype to yourself,” Kaleb Wesson said. “So him coming out being a young guy, showing that poise, being able to make plays, and then when he gets emotional being able to calm down and still get on to the next play, it's big.”

Wesson and Kyle Young pointed to Ohio State’s poise as a reason for the victory. Holtmann referenced the team’s fearlessness as a constant in all three top-10 wins this season.

Carton had both on Saturday.

Notably, the bloom of Carton into an impact player has been different from that of D’Angelo Russell, the last highly touted left-handed point guard recruit to come through Ohio State’s program. He’s not leading the team in scoring every game. Only once in the first 13 games has the former top-35 overall recruit put up more than 15 points. Rather than try to overwhelm opponents by himself, he has figured out how to pick his spots and play with control sooner than most would in his situation. 

The moments that make crowds stand and simultaneously exclaim “Whoa” are there, too.

In the first half of Saturday's game, Carton had a stretch that included a step-back 3-pointer, a one-handed dish to Young in transition and a fast-break layup while altering his body in mid-air. In past games, he’s shown a flair for the dramatic dunk.

“We know what kind of player DJ is,” Kyle Young said. “We know what he can bring to us. He was able to stay poised tonight, make some big plays for us down the stretch and we're just happy to have him out there.”

With just 13 games of experience at Ohio State and bountiful athleticism, the ceiling for Carton remains remarkably high. He knows that, and so does Holtmann. 

Yet neither the player nor coach have tried to speed up Carton’s development, allowing him to play with the composure that he demonstrated against a top-10 opponent on Saturday.

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