When Duke basketball commit R.J. Barrett decided to reclassify from the class of 2019 to the class of 2018, that left a void at the No. 1 recruiting spot.
Barrett held down that position as the top prep basketball player in the country for 2019, but his move meant the top spot was there for the taking. After a successful summer circuit with USA basketball, University School forward Vernon Carey Jr. made the leap. Carey has been locked in at the top spot since September.
Last week, Carey led the Sharks of Fort Lauderdale, Fla., to the T.J. Warren Bracket Championship in the John Wall Holiday Invitational. Carey was named the Most Valuable Player after the Sharks defeated Hillcrest (Ariz.) Prep, 71-66, in the title game. Carey averaged a double-double during the three-day event, finishing with 31 points and 11 rebounds in the championship game.
Carey played the first game of the tournament – an 80-53 win over Panther Creek, a game in which he scored 26 points – in front of the entire Duke coaching staff. The Blue Devils are at the top of Carey’s list of top five schools, which include Florida, Kansas, Kentucky and Miami. North Carolina, UCLA and Michigan State round out his top eight. Tar Heels coach Roy Williams sat courtside and watched Carey’s MVP performance in the title game Saturday night at Broughton High School.
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That’s the kind of attention you gain, not only for being 6-9 and 250 pounds, but with the No. 1 tag attached to your name but since being named the top player in his class, Carey’s high school coach has not seen a change in his star player.
He knows that the No. 1 spot is a target; everyone is coming for him every single game. It doesn’t matter if we play an undefeated team or a winless team, they are coming for him, the spotlight is on him.
University head coach Adrian Sosa
“I think he’s handled it very well. His parents are alongside the entire process,” University head coach Adrian Sosa said. “He has good support from his teammates, coaching staff, school and the community. Most importantly he’s a good kid. He’s respectful, he listens to everybody, he talks it over with his parents. At the same time he’s using it as motivation to keep working. He knows that the No. 1 spot is a target; everyone is coming for him every single game. It doesn’t matter if we play an undefeated team or a winless team, they are coming for him, the spotlight is on him.”
During the opening game of the John Wall Invitational, for example, Carey was matched up against Panther Creek junior Justin McKoy. McKoy, a 6-7 forward who is averaging 23 points per game, said he was looking forward to the opportunity of playing against the top player in the nation and responded with 28 points and eight rebounds.
In the spotlight at 14
Carey and the University High Sharks drew a crowd, which included ACC coaches, whenever they played.
“We are playing in some of the best tournaments, playing in the best circuit against the best players, in the best atmospheres,” Sosa said. “And he’s a big reason why.”
People forget, Sosa said, that Carey is only 16, even though he’s already built like an NBA power forward. Carey, who will turn 17 next month, is very soft spoken. A lot of his answers were short and to the point as he towered over a scrum of reporters after the opening game of the John Wall Invitational. Asked if he enjoyed the process of being courted by the top programs in the country, Carey acknowledged that he does, though the No. 1 ranking is something he said he doesn’t give a lot of thought to.
“I mean, it’s cool and everything,” Carey said. “But I just go out and play hard.”
Sosa said Carey was thrown into the spotlight at 14 and has “handled it with class.” Though he is still maturing on and off the court, Sosa said Carey rarely shows frustration when teams try to foul him or do anything on the court “looking to make a name for themselves.”
“More than anything on the offensive end when they are double-teaming him, teams are fouling him, wrapping him up before he can get a shot off,” Sosa said.
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Carey doesn’t force the issue. During the John Wall Invitational he deferred to his teammates.
A simple formula
Most of the times when University plays, there aren’t a lot of 6-9 players on the other team for Carey to guard, so he spends a lot of the game chasing around players who are 6-4 or 6-5. The Sharks like to play a man-to-man defense, which meant at times Carey was defending smaller forwards on the wing at the John Wall Invitational. Carey credits much of his development to participating in USA Basketball this summer.
“It changed my work ethic,” Carey said.
Coaching the top player in the nation, Sosa said, is a simple formula.
“We just try to coach him as hard as we can,” Sosa said. “We just hold him accountable, get him ready for the next level.”
Carey said none of the schools in his top eight have gone into much detail on how they plan to use him. Duke is making the hardest push, Carey said. While in the Triangle for a few days Carey and his University High teammates went to Duke’s campus to practice before the John Wall Invitational started.
Social media pitches
Carey, not just being recruited by schools, is also a target of other players from the class of 2019, who want Carey to join them wherever they sign. Who’s his biggest recruiter? Class of 2019 Trinity Christian forward, and Duke commit, Joey Baker, who also played in the John Wall Invitational this week.
“I saw Joey after his game, and he was telling me how he wants me to come to Duke with him,” Carey said.
Carey took a social media break the week of the City of Palms Classic in December, but has recently fired his Twitter back up.
“Now I’m back on, but not a lot,” Carey said.
When you’re the No. 1 recruit in the nation, fans from every school go on social media to make the sales pitches for their schools.
“It’s good and bad,” Carey said about the attention on social media. “Some people just tell me to be humble, other people tell me to go to that school, go to this school.”