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Defensive-minded Jevon Carter could be late pick for Suns in NBA draft

West Virginia's Jevon Carter shoots during practice at the NCAA men's college basketball tournament in Boston, Thursday, March 22, 2018. West Virginia faces Villanova in a regional semifinal on Friday. (AP Photo/Charles Krupa)

PHOENIX – Jevon Carter does not fit the mold of a modern NBA point guard. He looks different. He’s built different. He plays different.

He’s at his best when the ball is in the opponent’s hands.

In an era of free-flowing and high-scoring basketball, Carter plays a throwback brand. He focuses on defense first, guarding on the ball with relentless pressure. Scoring is a secondary concern.

“It’s just the way I was taught the game,” Carter said after working out for the Phoenix Suns recently at Talking Stick Resort Arena. “You learn it first on the defensive end and then you score from there.”

He’s the antithesis of the majority of offensive-minded guards in the league.

“Every night you can bring defense,” Carter said. “There’s going to be nights where you’re off on the offensive end but I feel like you should always bring that effort on the defensive end.”

It would be little surprise if the Suns picked him with one of their four selections in this month’s NBA Draft. He could be an important tool to help them fix some major defensive deficiencies.

This season, Phoenix ranked dead last in the NBA in defensive rating. Their guards were especially poor. Elfrid Payton’s 114.3 defensive rating was the league’s worst among guards that played at least 60 games. Teammate Troy Daniels was just percentage points in front of him. Even leading scorer Devin Booker registered an unimpressive rating of 111.6.

“We could always use more defenders,” assistant general manager Pat Connelly said.

Carter might be the best defensive option — especially at the guard position — in this year’s draft class.

Four years ago, Carter was a lightly recruited high school prospect coming out of the Chicago area. According to 247Sports, his only power conference offer was from West Virginia.

In Morgantown, Carter flourished in coach Bob Huggins’ full-court press defense. Often applying ball pressure for the full 94 feet, he agitated ball-handlers and became a master at forcing turnovers, finishing his career as WVU’s all-time leader in steals (330). Twice he won Big 12 Defensive Player of the Year. This past season he was named the Naismith Defensive Player of the Year as the best defender in the country.

Connelly said he has followed Carter for a while, yet was still blown away by his intensity on Monday. The assistant GM joked that if he did a shooting contest, Carter would probably “try to rip my head off.”

“He never backs down,” Connelly added. “He treated every drill here like it was an NCAA Tournament game.”

Asked to describe his defensive game, Carter said, “Tough. Gritty. Never going to give up on a play. Going to fight. Make everything hard for the offensive player.”

He called the Suns’ pre-draft workout, “Hard. A lot of work. A lot of focus. A lot of skill stuff. Lot of competing.” Then added, “right up my alley.”

On Friday, Huggins told that other NBA Draft prospects have tried to avoid participating in the same pre-draft workouts as Carter (who declined to comment on his college coach’s statements).

“Guys have cancelled because of him,” Huggins claimed. “They’ve had their agents call and cancel when they found out J.C. was going to the workout.”

North Carolina graduate and All-ACC guard Joel Berry II was not one of them. Berry II also worked out for the Suns on the same day and embraced the challenge of going one-on-one with Carter, a matchup he never was able to experience in college.

“You have to work on your game for somebody like that,” Berry II said. “You can’t play around with the ball. It’s great going up against him.”

Carter is no slouch offensively. With a stocky 6-foot-2, 205-pound frame, he isn’t the quickest or most athletic scorer but steadily improved his three-point shooting in college. His assists also shot up in a senior season that saw him average 17.3 PPG, 6.6 APG, 4.6 RPG and shoot over 39 percent from deep.

“Offense is always an improvement,” Carter said. “I feel like you can get better on the offensive end every day. You just got to go in there and put forth the time and just stay consistent.”

But it’s Carter’s elite defense that has made him a projected late first- to second-round pick. The Suns have the No. 16, No. 31 and No. 59 selections in the June 21 draft (as well as, of course, the top overall pick).

If they want him, Carter could be there for the taking.

“If you can defend and hit the open shot and take care of the ball, then you can have a long career in the league,” Connelly said. “It seems like he’s trending the right way.”

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