Regardless of how long their season lasts, the Atlanta Hawks have an interesting, maybe even dangerous summer ahead of them. Paul Millsap is set to be a free agent, and given that he's 30, this is likely his last chance at a lucrative, long-term deal that the Hawks may be reluctant to give him. Just as dangerous is the possibility that the Hawks could also lose DeMarre Carroll. If this sounds like a joke—not that the Hawks could lose Carroll, but that it would be a disaster to lose a player with a career 7.6 points-per-game-scoring average who has played for five teams in six seasons—it isn't. Carroll has been if not the Hawks' best player, then certainly their most consistent in the playoffs, averaging 17 points, six rebounds and two assists while shooting almost 45 percent from beyond the arc and providing his regular aggressive defense. The Hawks have been lackluster throughout the playoffs, but Carroll has not.
It's worth taking a moment to consider how implausible it seemed that Carroll would be the best player on a top-seeded team not long ago. When he signed a two-year, $5 million dollar deal with Atlanta, the contract looked to be the last gasp of Carroll's career before he washed out of the league altogether. This is the way it goes for many athletic wing players. Carroll is self-created proof that this is not the only way it can go.
The Memphis Grizzlies picked Carroll 27th in the 2009 NBA draft. He barely made it a year-and-a-half with the team before being traded to Houston along with Hasheem Thabeet for Shane Battier. He was later waived by the Rockets, and then again by the Nuggets the next season after playing just four games with them.
His problem was not an unusual malady. He just couldn't shoot. At the University of Missouri, Carroll mainly played as an undersized four in Mike Anderson's high-octane offense. He launched 96 three-pointers over the course of his entire four-year career (he played his first two years at Vanderbilt) and made just 28 percent of them. This is the player he was when he entered the NBA. In his rookie year, Carroll shot six threes. He made none of them. The next season, he didn't shoot any.
Carroll had the misfortune of coming into a league that was placing a greater premium on space and spreading the floor. While energy and grit are desirable and valuable—and attributes Carroll has in bulk—for a wing in today's NBA, those traits won't ensure a long career unless they're buttressed by the ability to knock down a perimeter jumper. Carroll's NBA destiny seemed plain and bleak: another athletic, hard-nosed defender that couldn't stick around in a league that needed the very thing he couldn't provide. When the Nuggets waived him, it looked like the end.
The NBA is an adapt-or-die league. Deny the importance of the three-pointer in the face of the evidence, and you're Byron Scott. Ignore the significance of rest, and your players will be burned out by the time the playoffs arrive. Get it wrong enough and you could ruin or at the very least greatly shorten a player's prime, as we seem to be seeing now with Joakim Noah and Tom Thibodeau.
Players must adapt, too. LeBron James developed a post game, while countless big men followed in Roy Hibbert's giant footsteps by jumping straight up in the air to leverage the magic of verticality. If Carroll was going to spit in destiny's eye and stick in the league, he'd need to adapt, too. So he learned how to shoot, which is not any easier than it sounds.
We saw the beginnings of what Carroll could be in Utah, when the Jazz played him primarily at small forward and he knocked down 28 percent of his threes. While that's certainly not a great percentage, it was at least a foundation upon which he could build. Carroll has been a 35-plus percent shooter from deep during his time with the Hawks, which certainly doesn't make him a specialist. But his ability to shoot has given him a chance to let his other inherent abilities flourish.
Now, defenders have to respect both Carroll's shot and his ability to move off the ball; he's also become better at handling the ball, to the point where it's not a total disaster if he dribbles for more than a few seconds. Unlike Jimmy Butler, who rose to stardom by becoming the best version of himself, Carroll rebuilt himself from the ground up. He is, in every sense, a self-made player. All that hard work has ensured that, sometime this summer, he will also be a very rich one. Carroll, who seemed bound to be one type of player, is a different and much better one. It's something much more like a star than anyone—or anyone besides DeMarre Carroll—ever thought possible.