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Know The Prospect: Vernon Carey Jr.

Admit it: you didn’t know he was Freshman of the Year.

NCAA Basketball: N.C. State at Duke Rob Kinnan-USA TODAY Sports

A year and a half after inking Clint Capela to a 5-year, $90M deal, the Houston Rockets traded him to Atlanta, having decided no center was better than him. A few years prior, Roy Hibbert, then 27 and in the middle of a 4-year, $58M contract, was selected to the All-Star team and Second Team All-Defense. By 30 he’d been traded three times for a grand total of two 2nd-round picks and a Plumlee, then was out of the NBA for good.

All of which is to say sometimes the distance between the present and the future is farther than you think. Sometimes it’s impassable. A 7’0”, skinny, athletic shadow hangs over any speculation linking the Knicks with any big men these days. Mitchell Robinson is the team’s most exciting player since Kristaps Porziņģis. Mitch = the future. Hibbert and Capela were, too, till they weren’t. So maybe the Knicks should consider a big man, especially with picks 27 and 38. One worth considering: Vernon Carey Jr.

If the name sounds familiar, you may be thinking of Vernon Carey Sr., an offensive lineman for the Miami Dolphins from 2004-2011. Junior’s been climbing the charts since high school, where as a junior he helped carry his team to the finals of the High School National Tournament, only to fall to a team led by future Knick RJ Barrett. Carey blossomed in his lone year at Duke, earning National Freshman of the Year and First-Team ACC honors.

Most of his game was back-to-the-basket, but that’s because it’s what Mike Krzyzewksi wanted, not because Carey can’t do more. Which isn’t to say Carey down low isn’t a good thing. Standing 6’10” with NFL-genes girth is a fine foundation.

But if mass were all that mattered, Gheorghe Mureșan would be a god. Skills? I got skillz for ya: Carey took more shots at the rim than any of the draft’s top-rated big men and made 65% of them.

At just 19, Carey already has old-man strength. Sometimes two defenders aren’t enough to keep the lefty from bossing the paint.

He’s big and strong, but also pretty nimble afoot. Dude’s less of a bull in a china shop than a jaguar bouncing around a supermarket. He’s a fast learner, too: despite his size, Carey didn’t play in the post in high school; that developed during his time in Durham. He’s already an adept screen-slipper. Somewhere, Enes Kanter sheds a tear of camaraderie.

Not everyone as big as Carey has the body control he does.

Can he face up? Was Westphalian sovereignty first codified in 1648? You know it!

One of Carey’s more impressive skills is his adeptness using his bulk to shield his defender and get off a pretty effective pseudo-hook. I always worry my KTPs have too much video, so I only included this one example below, but there were countless clips of Carey making moves like this. Some scouts voice concern about Carey’s left-hand dominance. Some people think cucumbers taste better pickled. I see a dude with some kinesthetic prodigy in him.

This next clip isn’t all that revelatory. I just like that the announcer says “Patrick Ewing” right at the start.

“I like Carey, and I think people undervalue him,” an NBA scout recently told Marc Berman. There’s loads to like, though less than there used to be: listed at 270 pounds when he arrived at Duke, Carey’s now down to 237, according to Krzyzewski. Clips from workout videos show more touch from outside. Last season he was middle of the pack in accuracy compared to other bigs projected to be drafted, so any growth bodes well for him and whoever drafts him.

There’s a soft touch there, even when he literally hits traffic on the way to the rim.

Even on the offensive glass, thar be touch.

As far as the three-ball, remember: Krzyzewski didn’t ask that of Carey, who tied for eighth on the team in attempts from deep. The good news is that here, too, among his peers, VCJ is doing okay.

Just the threat of the longball opens up Carey’s off-the-dribble game, of which there’s plenty. He’s not there to dance. Just to do what’s necessary for buckets.

Nine games into the season, Carey was a sub-60% free throw shooter. The rest of the way he made 71% of his foul shots. Good thing, too, ‘cuz he gets to the line a LOT, i.e. over 11 times per 40 minutes. This could be one of his more translatable skills in the pros: typically seeing a college big bullying smaller dudes, you think “That’s not what he’ll face in the NBA.” And he won’t, of course; both team and individual defense will amp up many levels from what even a highly-touted Duke prospect sees. But with more and more teams playing smaller and smaller, it’s easy to envision Carey feasting on 4s and some 5s.

Carey is far from a point center — he had more than twice as many turnovers as assists — but there’s enough size and skill even at this raw stage that whether attacking a 4-on-3 or sitting in the middle of a zone, he can make a defense pay.

One perceived weakness in Carey’s game is his lack of length; he’s five inches taller than Frank Ntilikina but has the same 7’0” wingspan. No one would confuse Carey’s defensive I.Q. with that of Devin Vassell or Isaac Okoro, but the big man’s block percentage of 5.8% was more than double every Knick besides you-know-who.

Earlier I referenced Kanter. While Carey can be exploited guarding the pick-and-roll, he’s not nearly the helpless fool defending in space that Turkish Delight was. Carey can hold his own. Some of the time.

So where does Carey fit in the NBA in 2020? Is he Zach Randolph? Jahlil Okafor? Somewhere in-between? Big men who can put the ball in the basket still have value in the eyes of NBA beholders. Deandre Ayton and Marvin Bagley went 1-2 in the 2018 draft, and Wiseman and Toppin are likely top-5 picks this year. No doubt Carey brings a combination of size and intent defenses will have to account for.

Aye, but there’s the rub. “Accounting for” VCJ ideally means your opponents toss less-talented giants to match-up with him. But it could also mean attacking him relentlessly in pick-and-rolls, either slicing him up off the bounce or drilling pull-up 3s while he drops back and prays for mercy.

Would Carey fit on the Knicks? In the present, sure. New York’s latest m.o. involves stockpiling talent across the board, either to build a youthful foundation or to acquire enough assets to trade for more immediate help. Carey has already had success on the big stage: perhaps his finest performance last year came against California at Madison Square Garden, when he put up 31, 12 and 4 blocks. In 20 minutes.

What about the future? This brings us back to Mitchell Robinson. Does a team with so many needs and with one of its only seeming sure things playing center have any business using a late first-round pick on another center? Can New York justify chasing riches at any one position when there is such poverty across them all?

Maybe! For the next few years, Carey might find a home decimating other bench bigs. If Robinson evolves into the deity we all pray he will, who’s to say Carey can’t work as a counter? Some of you are old enough to remember when the Giants’ backfield featured Tiki Barber and Ron Dayne. “Thunder and Lightning,” they were called. Carey seems like he could complement Robinson in a similar fashion: the former as meat tenderizer, the latter as the cutting edge.

Or maybe Mitch never learns how to stay out of foul trouble. Or maybe a player with five different agents in less than two years who left the collegiate team he’d committed to two weeks after arriving at campus isn’t the surest bet a franchise can make, especially a franchise with no other bigs on the books next summer.

No one can predict the Knicks’ future — not Leon Rose, not Tom Thibodeau, not you or me or Bobby McGee. The best any team can do is collect talent who look likely to mature and fit in with as many other talents as possible. Vernon Carey Jr. can score in multiple ways from multiple levels. He has size, footwork and athletic pedigree. He won’t be a lottery pick. Neither were Capela or Hibbert. But if he impacts the game like either of those bigs, he’ll be a great draft choice and a big part of the future. Until they trade him.