How life has rapidly changed for Iowa target, Midwest mega-recruit D.J. Carton
BETTENDORF, Ia. — D.J. Carton hears two things during timeouts at Bettendorf home games: his coach drawing up a play and the kids shouting his name from the stands.
If he can, he'll quickly smile and wave — and make those kids' nights — before turning right back to his coach.
That balancing act is a taste of Carton's current life. One year ago, he was a 16-year-old who showed a bit of mid-major promise. Today, he’s a 17-year-old, top-40 mega-recruit with Power Five programs in heavy pursuit — and, of course, a bevy of young fans.
"That’s why I play basketball," Carton told the Register before practice Wednesday. "I love the game, but I want to inspire others because I didn't have all the talent in the world growing up playing basketball. I want to inspire others to keep working hard and, hopefully, they can live out their dream."
Carton is known as a highly athletic, cerebral lefty point guard in the recruiting world — one whose playmaking abilities could make an immediate impact. The 6-foot-2, 180-pounder recently vaulted 83 spots from No. 121 to No. 38 in 247Sports' 2019 rankings, cementing him as a legitimate elite prospect for this class. On the 247Sports Composite scale, he's 0.0074 points from five stars.
With that top-tier recruiting profile comes celebrity treatment — and plenty of responsibility.
At school, Carton knows all eyes are on him, whether that means classmates walking down the halls, teammates relying on him for guidance or teachers telling him how much their sons or daughters admire him. His eyes light up when he remembers his Spanish teacher, Ms. Zimmerman, first telling him that last year.
"You’ve got everyone’s eyes on you, and they’re always watching what you’re doing," Carton said. "You know you’ve got to have that integrity and that respect for everyone. That’s one thing I’ve noticed. You’ve just got to do the right things when no one is watching."
In the recruiting realm, that responsibility translates to maintaining contact with schools from the Big Ten, Big 12, SEC and Big East who have offered him, in addition to other interested schools that include Indiana, Michigan, USC, Purdue, Wake Forest and Virginia.
Carton is Iowa's top 2019 target. Iowa State visited his open gym in the fall and recently watched him play.
He gets three to four texts a day from college coaches and one or two calls a night. He got about seven texts a day and two hours worth of phone calls each night during the summer.
He remembers one September night, in particular, when he had planned to play an NBA 2K17 video game tournament at a friend’s house. Five phone calls from coaches — and three hours later — it was 10 p.m.
"And I’m like, 'Yeah, I’m just gonna chill at home tonight,'" Carton laughed.
If coaches don’t text him, they’ll contact his mom or dad. He's often greeted at home with "You’re missing a call from this coach" or "You need to call these two coaches tonight" from his mom. That just happened Tuesday with Missouri's coaching staff, which was calling to finalize Carton's unofficial visit to Columbia this weekend.
"Sometimes it gets a little hectic," he said. "It's just different."
While he's gotten good at handling it, this attention is still an adjustment for Carton, a quiet, humble kid who doesn't seek the spotlight. Think about it: Just nine months ago, he was an unknown prospect with zero offers and all the time in the world to play 2K with friends.
This whole process has forced him to grow up. Carton’s voice is deeper, more confident and mature since last spring. He stands straighter, holds eye contact longer. His handshake is firm, his laugh deep and warm.
He doesn’t seem 17.
Carton notices the change, too.
"Getting to talk to all these wise coaches teaches me things about becoming an adult and being a young man," he said. "Every time I go on a visit, I learn something new — how to make myself a better man, a better person, or how to lead amongst my teammates. So I feel like this process has really helped me turn into a young man."
Of course, Carton isn’t the only Bettendorf Bulldog whose life has changed these past nine months. Head coach Curtis Clark, whose most recent recruit was Nicholas Baer, receives just as many texts and calls as his star point guard.
He remembers taking a screenshot of recent calls on his phone summer, and every single number belonged to a Division I college coach.
"It wasn’t my wife, it wasn't my assistant coach, it wasn’t my mom or dad," laughed Clark, who said three college coaches had contacted him in the hours before he talked with the Register on Wednesday. "(I've been surprised by) the details that go into making a decision this big, with this many options. I always believe options are good, but I think it can also become overwhelming.
"The simple things of understanding how much movement goes on with college coaches, with all the movements that go on with transfers and recruiting, that he’s got to be really smart. And the timing is going to be important for him to make the correct decision for him."
For now, Carton said he's primarily focused on finishing this season strong. He is averaging 25 points, 6.5 rebounds and 3.1 assists for the 8-8 Bulldogs. They were placed in Class 4A's Substate 3 along with North Scott and Dubuque Senior, who are considered the favorites.
Let's see what the Carton-led Bulldogs can do.
Matthew Bain covers college football and basketball recruiting for the Des Moines Register. He also helps out with Iowa and Iowa State football and basketball coverage for HawkCentral and Cyclone Insider. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @MatthewBain_.