Mohamed Bamba and Wendell Carter's Eyes on Academics Aren't for Show

Two of this fall's top freshman centers were raised in academically demanding environments, which helped Texas and Duke close the deal.
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The one-and-done path to the NBA continues to grow in popularity. In 2008 just five of ESPN’s top ten recruits from the ’07 high school class entered the NBA draft; this spring, all but one of ESPN’s top 10 recruits from the ’16 class left their names in, with Michigan State’s Miles Bridges the lone exception.

This makes college basketball’s incoming freshman class all the more interesting. Two of ESPN’s top five recruits, Texas center Mohamed Bamba (No. 3 in 247’s composite rankings) and Duke power forward Wendell Carter (No. 7), have stressed their investment in academic and personal interests outside of basketball, and while Carter will attend Duke and Bamba seriously considered Kentucky before committing to the Longhorns, both have emphasized that basketball wasn’t the only factor in their decision-making processes.

Both players became top prospects in academically demanding environments. Carter, an Atlanta-area native, was raised in a family where grades came before basketball, and he wasn’t allowed on the court until he received A’s across the board.

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“I didn’t like [academics] in elementary school, but once my parents started pushing me and poor grades started affecting my basketball playing, I started to work harder,” Carter says. “Around middle school, I started to feel motivated internally, and I’ve been driven ever since.”

Carter attended Pace Academy, one of the top private high schools in the state of Georgia, and earned a 3.8 GPA while frequently traveling across the country and globe to participate in tournaments and showcase events.

“There were plenty of late nights and early mornings of studying for quizzes and writing papers, but I balanced everything pretty well,” he says. “Not procrastinating is really the key. I learned that at a pretty early age, and it’s going to be an important skill for me going forward in life.”

Much of the qualities that have come to distinguish Carter also apply to Bamba, who grew up in Harlem primed for success. His older siblings were excellent students, which motivated him to pursue academic achievements of his own; this spring he graduated from the elite Westtown School in southeast Pennsylvania.

Like Carter, Bamba is very down-to-earth and self-aware for somebody in his position, but he has dealt with grown-up choices for a while now, so that may be a product of experience.

“It’s pretty easy to stay grounded and keep your priorities straight [during the recruitment process],” he says. “It just comes down to how badly you want to focus on them.”

Carter (left) and Bamba (right) are both consensus top-10 prospects in this year's incoming class.

Carter (left) and Bamba (right) are both consensus top-10 prospects in this year's incoming class.

Bamba drew significant attention on the recruiting circuit for his interests outside of basketball. He has twice attended the renowned Sloan Sports Analytics Conference at MIT, where he was not just a face in the crowd but an active participant, unfolding his near seven-foot frame to stand up and ask thoughtful and complex questions during sessions. He calls it the most eye-opening event he’s ever been to.

“When people first encouraged me to go to the conference, it seemed like a joke,” Bamba says. “[Sloan] seemed super nerdy, and people like me don’t really go to it, but at this point, I’ve accepted that many people my age aren’t really like me. I talked to my coach, and he said, ‘What do you have to lose? It appeals to your interests, and could be fun,’ so I went up to Boston in early March for it.”

Even though Bamba has publicly stated that he would like 2017-18 to be his only season at Texas, he won’t be shying away from controversial issues that have dominated college basketball’s landscape for years. He’s spoken out on the topic of paying players, expressing well-reasoned reservations on its logistics.

“After a while, it becomes like the NBA,” he says. “Do you pay the bigger names more, what happens there? It’s a slippery slope, and no pay at least keeps some purity in the game.”

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Though they are only teenagers, Carter and Bamba are already preparing for life after basketball. This was a key factor in Carter’s decision to attend Duke, one of the few schools whose ranking in the preseason polls might resemble its U.S. News & World Report ranking. Despite wanting to leave for the NBA after the 2017-18 season, he is clearly still concerned about academics and is set on getting his degree. Whether Carter works toward that during the NBA offseason or after his career is over, having academic eligibility at a school like Duke positions him well to accomplish that goal. Carter is unsure of what he’d like to major in at Duke, but he has displayed a love for acting and enjoys movies.

Bamba is also uncertain about the direction he’ll take after basketball ends, but he has a wide variety of hobbies to choose from—he developed interests in the arts, chess and pottery at Westtown. Unlike Carter, Bamba is not necessarily interested in returning to Austin for educational purposes once he starts his pro career, but that doesn’t mean his lone college season will be laser-focused on the hardwood. As detailed in the Player’s Tribune piece announcing his college decision, Bamba was smitten with UT’s McCombs School of Business and wants to take full advantage of all the opportunities that it provides. He is also impressed with the university’s large alumni network and has already reached out to some of the most famous NBA Longhorns—Spurs forward LaMarcus Aldridge, Warriors forward and reigning Finals MVP Kevin Durant and Pacers big man Myles Turner—for advice. “They’ve been so open and welcoming to me, and I can’t wait to keep building relationships with them,” Bamba says.

Throughout all this, however, Bamba’s ultimate goal is to be like Shaquille O’Neal, and not just how you’d expect. “Shaq is my career role model. I want to be dominant on the court and endorse everything off of it. People will be tired of me by the time I’m done.”

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For those tuning in to Carter and Bamba’s games to scout for their favorite NBA team, talent will not be a question. Carter is a polished interior scorer with versatile potential on defense, while Bamba is one of the most jaw-dropping physical specimens in the country, standing at 6' 11" with a 7' 9" wingspan. For pure college basketball fans that enjoy smart players who play the game the right way, both have been lauded for their feel for the game.

Of course, these two cases won’t significantly affect the overarching trend: Barring a rule change, the one-and-done concept will continue to alter college basketball. Bamba and Carter are just intriguing, impressive outliers whose supreme dedication to life beyond the orange sphere may serve as a model for future top prospects.

“Every guy is different,” Bamba says. “Academics won’t be important to everyone if they just want to use college as just prep for the league, but it would be cool to see guys own their decisions more, not let coaches and other people with agendas influence them so much.”