From potential training camp cut to backup point guard and late-game finisher, Jevon Carter has been an unexpected revelation for the Phoenix Suns.
Four games is a microscopic sample size, and the Phoenix Suns still have a long way to go in proving their promising start is for real. But for Jevon Carter, the team’s new backup point guard, the task of proving he’s for real has been underway since he was the most overlooked piece in this summer’s Josh Jackson trade.
Through the Suns’ first four games, the former West Virginia product has been a pleasant surprise on a .500 team that’s been chock-full of them. While a 2-2 record doesn’t sound like much, it’s miles above where Phoenix was expected to be, given that they’re 19-win season last year and how their opening slate included a 39-win Sacramento Kings team from last season and three Western Conference contenders in the Denver Nuggets, LA Clippers and Utah Jazz.
As the Suns routed Sacramento, hung tough with Denver in a one-point overtime loss, shocked the Clippers the following night and then fell short in another one-point loss to Utah, Devin Booker has been the star of the show. Ricky Rubio has been one of the biggest on-court catalysts, Aron Baynes‘ leadership has been praised and Frank Kaminsky earned acknowledgment as the team’s feel-good breakthrough.
But in his second season, Jevon Carter could be on the verge of his own coming out party as well, and the best part is, he’s doing it on his own terms.
“Jevon just doesn’t listen to me,” head coach Monty Williams joked. “That’s pretty much it. He just goes nuts and hits shots, and defensively, he gets all over people and he has selective hearing. I’m just trying to scream at him to slow down, but he’s a pit bull. That’s what I love about him. He just has a determination about him.”
When rookie Ty Jerome suffered a right ankle sprain in practice before the Suns’ first game, Carter ascended the depth chart in unexpected fashion.
When he was first included in Phoenix’s trade with the Memphis Grizzlies that shipped off Josh Jackson and De’Anthony Melton to clear out cap space for free agency, it was tough to see him surviving through training camp with rookie Ty Jerome and Elie Okobo already on the roster, and it got even more difficult once Rubio signed on.
However, Carter’s gritty defense, confidence and surprising shot-making have given him the nod over Okobo’s sparing minutes. Jerome’s injury opened the door to additional playing time once the regular season began, but Williams made it clear: Even though it looks like his increased minutes are simply by default, Carter has earned this opportunity.
“He’s a guy that gives us a change of pace,” he said. “Not many guys … like, Darrell Armstrong used to get up and guard 94 feet and that’s kind of the way I see Jevon — a combination of Darrell and Patrick Beverley. They just get under your skin.”
Carter’s been a legitimate difference-maker on the defensive end. His 1.3 steals per game may not look like much on paper, but he’s also only playing 23.8 minutes a night. His 10 deflections are the second-most on the team, and as Williams alluded to, he’s hounding opposing point guards for the full length of the court.
Against the Clippers, he forced a travel on Lou Williams in their own backcourt by applying that kind of relentless pressure. He drew an offensive foul on a frustrated Mike Conley by getting in his jersey during the Jazz game, and then drew a hard charge from the seven-footer Rudy Gobert.
“When you have a guy that can pick up full-court, that allows you to increase the pressure,” Williams said. “Sometimes you can pick up steals, sometimes it wears other teams down, and Jevon’s a big part of that.”
So far this season, the Suns have the sixth-best defense in the league, per NBA.com. Their defensive rating with Carter on the court, a stingy 90.8, plummets to 105.0 when he takes a breather. Through the first four games, opponents defended by Carter shot 9-for-34 (26.5 percent).
Carter’s calling card has always been his defense, even dating back to his NCAA days with the Mountaineers. What’s been surprising, though, is the impact he’s had on the offensive end.
Through four games, Carter is averaging 10.0 points, 3.3 assists and 2.5 rebounds a night. Though he’s shot a ho-hum 44.8 percent from the field, he’s been lights out from 3-point range, knocking down 10 of his 20 triples so far this season.
As is the case with all of these numbers, it’s a small sample size, but Williams has seen this growth in Carter’s game all summer.
“He shoots the ball better than I thought,” Williams admitted. “This summer when we were working out in Vegas, I was surprised — because I hadn’t watched him since West Virginia — how well he shot the ball.”
Dating back to last season, Jevon Carter has now logged eight straight games where he’s made at least two 3-pointers, shooting 26-for-45 (57.8 percent) over that stretch. It’s an unexpected twist for a guy who shot 33.3 percent from deep as a rookie, and such a high percentage is obviously unsustainable for the long-term, but he’s put in the time to refine that area of his game.
“Just hard work,” Carter said. “Getting in the gym this offseason, putting up a lot of shots, and I’ve gotta give a lot of credit to coach. He let me go out there and be confident, and he let me play through my mistakes so I don’t have to think a lot. I shoot the ball when I’m open.”
Over the summer, Carter said he was shooting anywhere from 500 shots on low-volume days to 1,000 or even 1,500 shots on high-volume days. He rarely took breaks during these shooting marathons, opting to take shots while tired so he’d be more comfortable hitting them when he’s fresh. He knew the game is all about 3-pointers and layups now, and adjusted his summer workout regimen accordingly.
That preparation has paid off a few times for the Suns already. He’s drilled the kind of open looks defenses usually afford second-year players without a reputation of being knockdown shooters, but he’s also confidently stepped into pull-up 3s and even nailed a few eye-opening step-backs.
Against the Jazz Monday night, Carter caught a pass late in the shot clock, pump-faked as Bojan Bogdanovic went flying by, took a dribble left and coolly sunk a step-back 3 to tie the game at 95 with 47.1 seconds left:
While Phoenix would go on to lose the game in a controversial finish, Carter’s production — 15 points, four rebounds, three assists and two steals on 3-of-7 shooting from distance — was not overlooked, especially for a team still missing the recently suspended Deandre Ayton.
“He’s a gamer, he makes big shots,” Williams said. “Without D.A. and some of the lineups we had out there, it’s hard to call plays. He is playing off the ball, which he doesn’t do sometimes, or a lot. So for him to come off and take the shots, for me, that’s a biggie, but he makes them and he’s not afraid of them. For me, he’s a guy that I can rely on in those moments.”
The Jazz game wasn’t the only instance of this, however. In Phoenix’s statement win over the Clippers, the Suns trailed 70-69 at the 5:24 mark in the third quarter. Carter, who was making his fourth ever NBA start in the place of an injured Rubio, sparked a 15-5 run over the next two minutes, pumping in eight points of his own during that stretch. He finished the night with only those eight points, but that run changed the game, and he also wound up tying his career highs in assists (six) and steals (three).
Relying on the team’s backup point guard to drill big-time shots probably isn’t a recipe for success, and it’s not where the Suns would prefer to be right now, but Carter has admirably answered the bell thus far. Talking Stick Resort Arena is taking notice, and it’s no coincidence he’s been the one pumping up the home crowd the last two games.
“That’s just me bringing energy,” Carter said. “That’s just what I do, that’s my role on this team: Come off the bench, make a spark, try to pick up the guys, try to get us going.”
Carter’s plus/minus of +5.8 ranks third on the Suns, behind only Ayton (+25.0, thanks to his one game played being that Kings rout) and Mikal Bridges (+7.8). He’s gotten the crowd amped up in ways no one but the Suns Gorilla does, has turned shifty steals into unexpected buckets and doesn’t seem to show signs of slowing down.
Carter’s 3-point percentage will eventually return to earth, but with Jerome in a walking boot, his trademark confidence on both ends isn’t going anywhere anytime soon. Considering he was viewed as the fourth point guard and odd man out heading into training camp, Jevon Carter’s rise to a prominent role on a surprisingly competitive team is nothing short of remarkable.