Today’s story on South Carolina freshman forward Michael Carrera focused largely on what makes Carrera such an excellent rebounder. In short, the answers are rather simple – big hands, long arms and a passionate heart.
That’s how a 6-5, 212-player leads the Gamecocks with 7.3 rebounds per game, which ranks seventh in the Southeastern Conference. In rebounds per 40 minutes, Carrera actually leads the conference, with 13.7, as he has played 21.2 minutes per game this season, despite starting 21 of his 26 games.
He rebounded at an incredible rate in USC’s regular season finale loss at Vanderbilt, where he played 22 minutes and grabbed 13 boards.
Carrera’s rebounding efforts this year underscore what first-year coach Frank Martin has said repeatedly about the insignificance of size when it comes to rebounding. Desire, Martin preaches, matters much more. Carrera’s high school coach agrees, and Montrose Christian’s Stu Vetter is one of the most successful prep coaches in the country.
“I’ve had some great players,” Vetter said. “People know about the Kevin Durants and Dennis Scotts. I had George Lynch when he was a young player and he had the same type of rebounding skills that Michael has.”
Lynch went to North Carolina and was No. 12 pick in the 1993 NBA draft. He played 12 seasons in the NBA and grabbed 3,902 rebounds.
“(Carrera) is battling guys that are taller and stronger, but they don’t have his desire and his passion,” Vetter said. “He has that desire. That’s what makes Michael great. He has to learn sometimes to control that passion, but that’s what makes him the player he is, that intensity, that fire, that fight that he has every game.
“I’ve never seen a player rebound the ball the way he does. Once he gets the ball, it’s his. He does get banged up, but the guy he’s playing against, he’s got bruises and scratches, too. He plays three or four inches taller than what he is. Too many players get caught up in height. That’s one of the most overrated things in basketball. There’s very few 6-10 (players) that can rebound with the passion that Michael Carrera can, and those are the elite of the elite (those 6-10 guys).”
But, Vetter said, “I think as the years go by, he’ll probably move a little bit more to the perimeter.”
Carrera played inside at Montrose because he was such a valuable rebounder. That has been his main role this season, even though his 10 points per game rank second on the team to Brenton Williams’ 11.1.
The Gamecocks needed him inside, playing against much bigger players, because the USC big men didn’t offer much this season. Redshirt sophomore Carlton Geathers (6-10, 255 pounds) missed all year with a knee injury. Laimonas Chatkevicius, a 6-11, 255-pound freshman, is a project who averaged 3.1 rebounds while playing 12.7 minutes. Junior RJ Slawson (6-8, 220) averaged 3.4 rebounds and 16 minutes. Mindaugas Kacinas (6-7, 210) is a freshman wing player, just like Carrera, but he was far more inconsistent (3.8 rebounds, 20 minutes).
So the glass-cleaning duties fell almost squarely on Carrera, whose 7.3 rebounds per game were 1.3 more than the next-closest player, Lakeem Jackson. Carrera also averaged 7.3 rebounds in SEC play. The next-closest USC player in that category: Jackson, with 4.8.
Martin is trying to make his roster bigger. He signed, for the Class of 2013, Desmond Ringer (6-9, 260). Martin hopes Geathers will be healthy next season and that Slawson and Chatkevicius can give him more than they did this year.
But Carrera is too good of a rebounder to play exclusively away from the basket.
“It was hard with Michael because he rebounds the ball so well,” said Montrose assistant coach Dan Prete, of how Montrose’s staff utilized Carrera. “Sometimes you don’t want to take him away from the basket because he was so dominant on the offensive and defensive boards. I think at the college level, he’ll eventually drift out to that big three, small four position.”
Carrera could get by with playing primarily inside in high school, but Martin knows that won’t be the case in college over the long haul. This season has been a feeling-out period for Martin with all of his freshman, and especially Carrera, who Martin has relied on so much.
“I never expect anything from freshmen, because they don’t understand,” Martin said. “A lot of the things that they have success with at the high school level, they’re going to try it at the college game, and it’s nowhere near as easy in a game, let alone a practice. I just expect them to be willing to listen, to accept coaching, then go out there and just maximize who they are. If you’re not one of those special five, six guys that come into college basketball as a freshman and play for one year and then they become one of the first top 10 picks in the NBA draft, if you’re not one of those guys as a freshman, there’s a process a process that as a coach, you really have to understand that player better and better.
“As a coach, your job is to put kids in a place where they can find success during the course of a game. To do that, you have to understand their strengths and weaknesses. You have to understand how to manage them as people. You don’t get that opportunity while he’s playing high school basketball. You don’t get that opportunity until you’re actually in it with them. That’s a huge reason why you see such growth between freshmen and sophomores. It’s not just that they improve, but the coaches better understand them as kids.
“Mike, he’s got to get stronger. He’s got to get in better shape so he can withstand the focus and just the physical effort that you have to play with, so he can stay on the court longer periods of time. Then he’s got to evolve as a player, and it’s our job to help him. He was a 6-6 post player in high school. He’s not going to have a lot of success being a post player in college when he’s got to post 6-10 guys on a consistent basis. It’s OK to do it here and there, but not on a consistent basis. He’s got to evolve his game. He’s got the ability to shoot the basketball. He’s got a heart the size of this room. We need to take those two things and build on it, and he’s got to be open-minded to listen and be willing to work to improve in those areas.”
Carrera missed valuable practice time during Christmas break because of a hip injury that still bothers him. He said it will require two months of rest to heal after the season, though he still hopes to play for the Venezuelan national team this summer.
“A lot of (Martin understanding Carrera’s style) was taken away by him not being able to practice early in the year,” Martin said. “You get to know your kids in practice, when you’re interacting with them and there’s not a managing a moment of a game involved. It’s more about the education.”
“He was cheated of getting coached and we were cheated out of coaching him for a huge part of our season, which is that time period where our teams usually get a lot better, which is that Christmas break. You’re not held under that 20-hour (practice time) rule, so you can really get a lot more stuff done and you see kids get a lot better at that time of year. He wasn’t able to be a part of that. It took away from his ability to understand and improve.”
USC’s season could end tonight in the SEC tournament’s first round against Mississippi State. Regardless of how long it continues at the league tournament, Carrera is looking forward to his sophomore season, when his Montrose teammate, point guard Tyrone Johnson, will join USC after the first semester. He transferred midway through this year from Villanova.
“I think I can give more to my coach and to my teammates,” Carrera said. “I can do more. I know I can do that. I don’t want to put this in (as) an excuse, but remember I have an injured hip. When I’m running and doing all that stuff and jumping, it hurts. I think I can do more, and I think next year is going to be a great, great year.”