From a young age, almost every basketball fanatic spends countless hours in the driveway emulating the greats.
The guys we all know on a first-name basis: Kobe. Michael. LeBron. The players known by everybody, even non-basketball fans. The all-time greats. The superstars. These are the heroes, the players every kid wants to become.
Jordan Caroline was different.
Caroline, who just wrapped up an illustrious career at the University of Nevada, grew up with an unusual “big three” of basketball heroes.
Andrei Kirilenko. Josh Howard. Danny Granger. A trio of one-time All-Stars whose impacts on their teams went beyond the accolades or box scores.
The names Kirilenko, Howard and Granger don’t carry the cachet of Jordan, James and Bryant. Non-basketball fans won’t know who they are. Many casual fans probably don’t know all three names.
But they were all phenomenal players vital to their teams. Those were Caroline’s guys, and he learned a great deal from each.
“[Kirilenko] was so good, to me,” Caroline told Def Pen Hoops. “He did so much. I always liked the versatile guys.”
Versatility is the most important trait for a modern NBA player, and Caroline has it in spades. He defends, shoots, drives and rebounds. Listed at 6 feet, 7 inches but closer to 6-foot-6, Caroline started at center his junior season at Nevada, then moved to small forward his senior year. Despite moving down two positions, Caroline averaged a career-high 9.6 rebounds per game as a senior, good for 26th in the nation.
“It’s just easier for me to rebound from the ‘three’ spot because I don’t have to compete with those vertical 7-footers, so it was easier for me to read the ball and just fly in and go get it,” Caroline said.
He wasn’t able to play the “three” on a full-time basis until he was a senior, but it’s the position where he feels most at home.
“I’m able to do multiple things from [the small forward] position,” Caroline said. “But I feel like the way the NBA is now, honestly, you can do that from any position, so I’m just a basketball player; put me anywhere, I’ll be all right.”
Caroline made quite a name for himself at Nevada. Despite playing only three seasons for the school after transferring from Southern Illinois, he ends his career the all-time Mountain West leader in double-doubles, ahead of Kawhi Leonard and Andrew Bogut.
Since at least 2010-11 (the first season sports-reference.com has such data), he is one of only two Division I basketball players to have multiple games with 40-plus points, 10-plus rebounds and five or more 3-pointers. He was a member of the top-25 midseason watchlist for the John R. Wooden Award, given to the nation’s best player. He helped lead his team to the 2018 Sweet 16 during his junior season.
Before he was Mountain West royalty, Caroline was a kid from Champaign, Illinois. He hails from a football family. His father, Simeon Rice, played 12 years in the NFL, and his maternal grandfather, J.C. Caroline, was enshrined in the College Football Hall of Fame. But Caroline never felt an affinity for the sport – despite the football player’s build he clearly inherited.
His two loves were basketball and baseball. As a pitcher, he believes his fastball could reach 90 mph if he rededicated himself to the sport, and he even considered walking onto SIU’s baseball team at one point.
Caroline settled on basketball and spent his junior and senior years of high school at the powerhouse Montverde Academy in Lake County, Florida. There, he played alongside eventual top-two NBA draft picks D’Angelo Russell and Ben Simmons and helped his team to back-to-back national championships.
Serving a background role behind the stars of Montverde, Caroline received very little of the spotlight. But he didn’t mind staying in the shadows, content to quietly work on his craft as he took motivation from the lack of attention.
“Not being looked at at all, it really made me want to work that much harder,” Caroline said.
Despite the high school success (he was quick to note he was the third-leading scorer on that championship team his senior year) Caroline’s college options were slim. Every budding athlete from Champaign dreams of playing for the University of Illinois, but Caroline had a stronger connection to the school than most. His father and grandfather, the latter of whom Caroline called his “superhero” and named his son after, both played football at U of I.
But no offer came. The Illini weren’t interested.
He ended up at SIU but decided to transfer after his freshman year, a year in which Caroline was named to the Missouri Valley Conference All-Freshman team, despite feeling misused in the team’s system. He said he was told he would alternate between being a small forward and a stretch four but then was played exclusively as a back-to-the-basket center. As a transferring player looking for a new home, Caroline once again received no interest from Illinois.
“I’m always getting overlooked, no matter how much I think I’ve improved in anything,” Caroline said. “You gotta just stay level-headed and keep grinding like you’re down still.”
He has that same mentality today, as he undergoes NBA workouts. And it is that mentality, that hunger, that drive, which have made him the player he is today.
Caroline signed with agent Mike George of OneLegacy sports. Like George himself, a majority of George’s clients are from Canada. Notable clients include Denver Nuggets guard Jamal Murray, Memphis Grizzlies wing Dillon Brooks, former No. 1 pick Anthony Bennett and Detroit Pistons center Thon Maker. But George saw something special in the American Caroline, whom George predicts will have “a tremendous role” in the NBA.
“Jordan was kind of like that guy that no one really spoke about, but he was the backbone of the [Nevada] team,” George told Def Pen Hoops. “He does all the dirty things. He rebounds the ball, he can score it. So, obviously, just on the court, you saw that alpha-dog personality.”
Eric Musselman, Caroline’s head coach at Nevada who now holds the same position at the University of Arkansas, agreed that Caroline was the engine of the team.
“I don’t think there’s any doubt that was the case,” Musselman told Def Pen Hoops.
Musselman became interested in Caroline after watching film on him once he had announced his intent to transfer.
“[I was intrigued by] his effort,” Musselman said. “I thought he played with a unique amount of effort and a unique amount of toughness. … It’s almost like he runs on a battery, [and] the battery never runs out of juice.”
George and Musselman shared the experience of first growing interested in Caroline because of what he brings on the court but becoming even more impressed after getting to know him off of it.
During his visit to Nevada, Caroline went out to dinner at a barbeque joint in Reno with Musselman and other members of the Nevada staff. Immediately, Musselman was drawn to him.
“He’s just got an infectious personality, where you want to be around him,” Musselman said. “He shines with positive energy. Always upbeat.”
“He’s a tremendous kid,” George said. “And that’s the important thing. It’s a balance: being a super kid off the court but being a dog on the court. Those are the guys I like.”
Now trying to make his way to the NBA, Caroline said he’s just trying to get his foot in the door with a team. But if he had a choice of any team in the league, his first pick would be the Los Angeles Clippers (second would be the Dallas Mavericks, the team he grew up rooting for).
It is a fitting pick for Caroline. The Clippers are full of players with chips on their shoulders like the one Caroline has. The team is made up of guys like Patrick Beverley, Lou Williams and Montrezl Harrell, who always have felt overlooked and counted out but exceed expectations.
That Clippers team enjoyed an unexpected level of success this season, managing 48 wins with no “stars” on the roster and giving the two-time defending NBA champion Golden State Warriors more trouble than they expected in the playoffs, including a historic 31-point comeback in Game 2.
Caroline is no stranger to improbable, bordering on impossible, comebacks.
One of the biggest moments of his collegiate career came in January 2017. Nevada found itself in a seemingly insurmountable hole against New Mexico, and everyone had given up.
Everyone but Caroline.
The Wolf Pack trailed by 25 points with 11 minutes to go.
By 19 with 4:27 to go.
By 15 with 2:32 to go.
“In my head, I was like, ‘I just have to take over. It’s not over yet,’” Caroline said. “Everybody was giving up. I was like, ‘It’s not over yet. We just gotta stick together.’ … I just had a feeling.”
Caroline still recalls how many points he had scored in the second half (32), as the game went to overtime.
“I just kept trying to chip away, chip away,” he said.
He still remembers the play drawn up by coach Eric Musselman, down two points with 8.2 seconds to go in OT.
Caroline, who had scored 42 points to that point, saw that he was meant to be a decoy on the final possession. Musselman told Def Pen Hoops he intended to have Marcus Marshall, who had 26 points and was the team’s best perimeter shooter, take the final shot for the win.
“I saw [the play], and I was like, ‘No, just give me the ball,’” Caroline said.
Musselman obliged, and the rest lives on in history and in “best sports comebacks” compilations on YouTube. He raced down the court with the ball. Pulled up for the game-winning 3. Sprinted toward the hoop as soon as it left his hands, following his shot like it was going to miss. It didn’t.
He finished with 45 points and 13 rebounds and went 5 for 8 from 3-point range.
“It was the single best individual performance, collegiately, that I’ve ever seen live by one player,” Musselman said.
After that junior season, an impressive campaign in which he averaged 17.7 points and 8.6 rebounds per game on 52.1% shooting, Caroline was suddenly a hot commodity. Illinois fans pined for him to transfer, to come home and play for his dream school that had passed on him twice. Illini message boards were flooded with topics about Jordan Caroline.
“It felt good,” Caroline said. “But when I saw it, I was like, ‘Yeah, I’m definitely not going anywhere.’ … It was good to see that they wanted me back, but it was like, if it was four years earlier we might be talking, but…” The sentence trailed off as Caroline laughed. He has no regrets.
After his junior year, Caroline decided to test the NBA draft waters. He worked out for the Los Angeles Lakers, Oklahoma City Thunder, Brooklyn Nets and Cleveland Cavaliers.
“It was a great experience,” Caroline said. “I played pretty well in all of them, so it was a really big confidence boost.”
— Nevada Basketball (@NevadaHoops) May 21, 2018
The excitement of Nevada fans was palpable when Caroline announced he would be returning for his senior year, and the support he felt from the community in Reno was important.
— Nevada Wolf Pack (@NevadaWolfPack) May 26, 2018
“It meant everything,” Caroline said. “I love [the community]. I loved my school years here. I truly am gonna really miss it. And it’s just great to know you have that support behind you.”
Caroline came away from the NBA workouts with a message. The teams told him he needed to improve two things: his outside shooting and his defense. For a player striving to be a versatile wing in the modern NBA, shooting and defense are more important than anything else.
For all the things he excelled at as a junior, his 32.4% 3-point mark was not one of them. He upped that number to 36.8% in his senior season, on a career-high 3.8 attempts per game. And that percentage was over 40% for much of the year before he ended the season on a 1-for-15 cold streak.
“It was all reps,” Caroline said. “I would go in and would try to get about 500 makes a day. … I didn’t tweak anything with my shot, I just tried to get as many reps as I could.”
He’s spent his summer in Arizona working out with George and some of George’s other clients.
“[Caroline is] a really, really good shooter,” George said. “He’s really shooting extremely well.”
George has no doubt Caroline’s shot will translate to the extended 3-point arc of the NBA.
“I’m seeing him now, and he’s strong, and he’s hitting them right now,” he said. “I think he’s a very good shooter.”
Caroline said he made 43 of 50 NBA 3-pointers in a workout with OneLegacy.
As a freshman at SIU, Caroline attempted only three 3-pointers, and even though he made two of them, it was clear he had a long way to go. When he joined Nevada, Musselman laid out goals for him, trying to help him progressively improve as a shooter and ball-handler.
“He actually not only hit all those goals, but superseded them,” Musselman said.
Musselman called Caroline “one of the most improved 3-point shooters [he has] ever been around.”
“He just keeps getting better and better and better from 3-point land,” Musselman said.
The other thing NBA teams told Caroline to work on was his defense. Defense is probably the trickiest basketball skill to measure from a statistical standpoint. Despite his low steals and blocks numbers in college (0.8 and 0.3 per game), Caroline is a strong defender, and his underwhelming averages are by design. With his 6-foot-9 wingspan and 40.5 max vertical leap (35.5 standing), there is no doubt he could boost his steals and blocks averages if he thought that would help his team.
He called himself a “make a guy miss” defender, instead of one whose focus is to “get a steal or block.”
Caroline doesn’t mind the low counting numbers because he understands those stats are often empty. If a player chases steals, they’ll get caught reaching and be out of position, easy prey for an adroit offensive player. If a player chases blocks, they’ll often greedily bite on pump fakes and end up committing unnecessary shooting fouls or conceding easy buckets. Caroline’s version of good defense is staying in front of a defender and making shots difficult. Caroline rarely gave up open looks and averaged only 2.2 fouls per game in college, despite frequently guarding much taller players in the post.
“In my eyes, he’s always been a good defender,” Musselman said. “He’s good laterally, he’s got great strength.”
Caroline boasts the rare advantage of having played under a coach who knows the NBA game; Musselman spent eight years as a head or assistant coach in the NBA.
“He’s an NBA coach, so it really prepares you for the next level,” Caroline said. “We used NBA terminology and stuff, and it’s also the picking of the brain, ‘cause he’s such a good Xs and Os guy.”
With the help of Musselman’s tutelage, Caroline feels ready for the NBA.
“I feel it will be easier to play in a more open court, moreso than college,” Caroline said. “I feel like it would be easier in transition and [for] my style of play.”
Since he was a kid watching Kirilenko, Howard and Granger, Caroline has spent his whole life crafting his game and figuring out who he is as a player. He has an unusually keen understanding of what his role will be in the NBA.
Now, he has a new big three of players he models his game after: Jae Crowder, PJ Tucker and Kawhi Leonard. Leonard, the two-time Defensive Player of the Year and 2014 NBA Finals MVP, is a household name and a superstar. As Caroline put it, Leonard is “the epitome of a two-way player.”
But Tucker and Crowder are unassuming names, even more than Kirilenko, Howard and Granger. Tucker and Crowder, just like his old big three, are the players Caroline wants to be. The ones who play hard and unselfishly on both ends of the floor, whom every single NBA team would love to have.
Caroline described himself as “a guy who’s extremely hard-working and very versatile and will try to help the team in whatever way possible.”
That player – the one who works his tail off, stays focused, helps his team in just about every facet of the game and is frequently referred to as a “glue guy” – is the archetype of Kirilenko, Howard, Granger, Crowder and Tucker. It was the archetype of Leonard before his ascent to superstardom. And now, it is the archetype for Caroline.
Musselman voiced a similar prediction for Caroline’s career, saying he believes he will be a player who brings energy, hustles for loose balls, averages a lot of free-throw attempts and rebounds “at an exceptional rate for his position” in the NBA.
“[He will be] a guy that helps give your team an identity and toughness,” Musselman said.
That type of player rarely gets the widespread respect and attention they deserve, and Caroline is accustomed to being overlooked.
He didn’t receive an invitation to the NBA Draft Combine and was only invited as a replacement to the NBA G League Elite Camp, which took place May 12-14 in Chicago.
It really doesn’t matter if the masses know who you are or recognize your value, however. It matters that the right people do, and Caroline is starting to be noticed by the right people.
Already this summer, he has worked out for the Atlanta Hawks, Pistons and Minnesota Timberwolves, and has another workout Friday, this one with the Phoenix Suns. The Hawks have asked him to return for a second workout later in the summer.
Caroline impressed at the G League elite camp, particularly in his Day 2 scrimmage, when he scored 17 points on 7-of-10 shooting and snared five rebounds. According to Jonathan Givony of DraftExpress, Caroline was one of the 13 most productive players at the camp, but still didn’t receive an invitation to the draft combine – yet another cliff added to the mountain of a chip on his shoulder.
With the first scrimmage of the NBA Combine about to tip in under an hour, here's a look at who were the most productive players at the G League Combine, which graduated 11 players to the NBA Combine (ten of whom are on this list) pic.twitter.com/L9toQelaPJ
— Jonathan Givony (@DraftExpress) May 16, 2019
He earned even more eyes at OneLegacy’s pro day May 22 at the PHHacility in Phoenix, which was attended by 29 NBA teams.
Caroline has spent his life flying under the radar. He is accustomed to operating in the shadows, putting in the work that goes unnoticed until it doesn’t.
His hard work took him from central Illinois to a starting spot on the best high school team in the country. From there, it took him to college stardom.
Now, he’s trusting it to take him to the NBA.