It’s been quite a few weeks and it’s only going to get better for Atlanta Hawks small forward DeMarre Carroll.
These NBA playoffs have given us everything from buzzer-beating game winners (LeBron James, Derrick Rose, Chris Paul and Paul Pierce) to the possible end of an era (Spurs) to the emergence of once-underrated now-properly rated stars (Tristan Thompson).
And then there’s Carroll.
The Atlanta Hawks went into Game 6 of the Eastern Conference semifinals at the Verizon Center on Friday night and beat the Washington Wizards 94-91 on the Wizards’ home court. Four of the last five Hawks points were scored by a one-time reserve forward and D-League player.
DeMarre Carroll has been coming up big for the Hawks all season, but his play during this post-season in particular has catapulted the soon-to-be unrestricted free agent to the top of most NBA general manager’s wish list. An unselfish player that doesn’t need any plays called for him in order for him to score 17 points per game, yet loves to play defense on some of the league’s best players? Yes, yes and yes, please.
Last night Carroll scored a game-high 25 points on an array of shots: drives to the hoop, cutting towards the basket for layups (both of his baskets at the end of Game 6 were from cuts away from the ball to make himself visible to Hawks guards for scores underneath the basket) and from behind the arch. Carroll was 3-5 from three and is shooting 43.5 percent during the 12 playoff games. His playoff averages of 17.1 points (up from his regular season average of 12.6), 6.8 rebounds (up from 5.3) and 52.4 field goal percentage (up from 48.7) are all above his regular season averages and are all career highs.
Carroll’s path to the NBA is a story of perseverance and belief in his ability to play the game at its highest level.
A Birmingham, Alabama native, Carroll signed with Vanderbilt coming out of John Carroll High School after being named MVP of the Alabama Class 6A State tournament. Carroll played two years in the SEC before deciding to transfer to Missouri to play for his uncle Mike Anderson who was coaching in Columbia. There, the 6-8 forward increased his numbers, and after two seasons–one of which ended in the Elite 8 of the NCAA tournament as a senior–Carroll was looking more and more like an NBA first round draft pick. The first-team All-Big 12 selection was on his way.
Carroll was drafted by the Memphis Grizzlies, the 27th overall pick of the 2009 draft. Nicknamed the “Junkyard Dog” while at Mizzou for his dogged defensive intensity, Carroll had to make his name as a rookie on defense. After playing in 71 games for Memphis during his rookie year, Carroll was traded to Houston during his second season and that’s when the Junkyard Dog’s determination had to take over the normally soft-spoken forward’s basketball career.
The Rockets sent Carroll down to the D-League, where during his six-game tour he averaged over 18 points and six rebounds per game. That performance was good enough to get him back to league but not in Houston.
Carroll moved on to Denver for a cup of coffee then on to Utah for what would be two successful seasons, the last of which in 2012-13 was good enough to attract the Hawks and their new coach, Mike Budenholzer, to sign Carroll to a two-year free agent contract. The Junkyard Dog, the Vandy transfer, the former D-Leaguer was going to get his shot to make an impact back in the South.
This would be the best decision of his career for both he and the transitioning Hawks.
Carroll started 12 games for the Jazz during his last season in Salt Lake City. He has started all but one of his 143 as a Hawk. Budenholzer and his coaching staff have stressed ball movement and the benefit of the three-point shot, but most importantly, they’ve stressed defense.
At small forward Carroll is assigned to defend the opponent’s top offensive threat, in most cases that may be some of the league’s best: LeBron James, James Harden, Klay Thompson to name a few. Carroll has guarded them all and if the Hawks 62-20 regular season record this season is any proof, he’s been quite successful. His three-point shooting and scoring touch has caught up with his defensive ability this season, creating a player that most teams covet.
The biggest advantage Carroll and his agents will have during this summer’s negotiations is the 45 percent three point percentage Carroll is currently carrying during the playoffs while being one of the league’s best on-ball defenders. Carroll has quietly become one of the NBA’s best kept secrets.
The Hawks next opponent will be the Cleveland Cavaliers whom they went 3-1 against this season. Granted two of those wins came before the Cavs’ mid-season acquisitions of J.R. Smith and former Georgia Tech Yellow Jacket Iman Shumpert. The third Hawks victory came without LeBron James out of the lineup with a sore left knee. Basically, the regular season tells no tale about the upcoming series.
Following Friday night’s victory ESPN sideline reporter Chris Broussard asked Carroll his upcoming defensive assignment against the undisputed “Best Player in the World” James. As always, Carroll’s statements were short, sweet and to the point, “LeBron is the best player in the world, but it’s a challenge I’m willing to take. I’ll see him at Phillips Arena.”
The Junkyard Dog has spoken, and if the rest of the league has been paying attention to him and his team, they’re listening.
Games 1 and 2 in downtown Atlanta will be on Wednesday and Friday, May 20 and 22. The Cavaliers will make their Eastern Conference Final home debut on Sunday, May 24.