The photograph is not visible when you walk into the office of the Bettendorf boys basketball team’s coaching staff.
Stuffed in a box on a shelf above a desk, head coach Curtis Clark has a still photo of Desi Justice Carton, known as D.J., in mid-air launching a running 3-point attempt against Davenport Central during his sophomore season.
In that sequence, Carton took an outlet pass, executed a behind-the-back dribble, crossed over and buried a shot in the final seconds of the first half.
“That moment right there, it was like, ‘Whoa, that’s special,’” Clark said. “Those are plays as coaches you can’t put drills together to develop. I knew right then, it was different. He was a special talent.”
Clark received a color print of the image and had Carton autograph it.
“That’s probably going to be worth something down the road, or it has a chance to be anyway,” Clark said.
Based on Carton’s trajectory, it eventually could turn into a collector’s item.
Uncertain if basketball was even the path for him five years ago, the 6-foot-2 and 195-pound Carton has blossomed into one of the top high school point guards in the nation.
The five-star recruit, who signed with Ohio State last month and was invited to participate at USA Basketball Men’s Junior National Team tryouts this past summer, is ranked 25th in the 2019 class by ESPN and 247 Sports. Rivals.com has him 28th.
An appearance in the McDonald’s All-American game and claiming Iowa's Mr. Basketball are possibilities come spring. With continued development and good health, the NBA is the long-term goal.
“Growing up, I never would have imagined this,” Carton said. “I looked up to players like this, and I watched YouTube videos of five-star point guards like John Wall and Tyler Ulis. To be in a position now where kids look up to me, even some out of this country, it is crazy.”
How did Carton evolve into such a hot commodity?
Genetics did nothing to hinder Carton’s development.
His mother, Jennifer, was a Division I volleyball player at the University of Colorado.
His biological father, Desi Wilson, starred in basketball and baseball at Fairleigh Dickinson University in Teaneck, New Jersey. Wilson was drafted by the Texas Rangers in 1991, spent multiple years in the minor leagues and played 41 games with the San Francisco Giants in the 1996 season.
Carton has not had any communication with Wilson since he was 3 or 4 years old.
“It doesn’t bother me very much,” Carton said. “Sometimes I feel like I wish I got to know my real dad, but I’m very happy with the people I have around me.”
The family changed addresses multiple times in the first five years of Carton’s life before he moved to the Quad-Cities with his mother and his grandparents.
His grandfather, Gene Meeker, played basketball for Iowa in the late 1950s. He served as an early father figure for Carton. They would fill out March Madness brackets and watch the games together. Meeker read books to his grandson at night, taught him a bank shot and provided play-by-play commentary as Carton played on a plastic hoop in their basement.
“They were very, very close and still are to this day,” Jennifer said. “My dad has had a huge influence, and he is D.J.’s No. 1 fan.”
When Jennifer married Dale Carton, the family moved to Geneseo. Around that time, D.J. switched his name from Desi Junior Wilson to Desi Justice Carton.
Dale, from Geneseo, became his father.
“He’s done a great job of raising me into the person I am today,” Carton said. “My parents have made a lot of sacrifices.”
Asked if he’s tried to connect with his biological father, Carton said Wilson heard about his success last year and reached out to an extended family member.
“Honestly, I’m going smooth right now and don’t need any distractions,” Carton remarked. “Maybe in the future I can connect with him, but life is going pretty well, and I’ve gone pretty far with the people I’m with right now.”
Gravitating toward hoops
Raised on a 10-acre property in Geneseo, Carton was active in multiple sports. He was involved with baseball, basketball and football.
Playing for the Quad-City Hitmen, a travel baseball team considered among the tops in the country for his age group at one point, Carton was an outfielder and a dominant left-handed pitcher. He was throwing 75 miles an hour by seventh grade.
“I loved basketball, but baseball was probably my best sport,” Carton admitted.
With Geneseo’s storied football tradition, Carton was a running back in middle school.
“They take (youth football) very seriously there,” he said. "It was quite an environment."
A rotator cuff injury, coupled with his mother’s concerns about his safety, halted his football career. Elbow discomfort and the slow pace of baseball eventually led to him walking away from that sport in eighth grade.
His athleticism aided him in basketball, but his fundamentals were lacking. He could only dribble with his left hand and was a marginal shooter.
“I loved the pace and excitement of it, and I wanted to be good at it,” Carton said, “but I knew it would be hard with all the repetitions you have to put in with skill work.”
After eighth grade, the family moved into the Bettendorf school district.
Carton said competition was a factor. Also his cousins, Michael and Morgan Lintz and Dylan Sortillo, spoke favorably of their academic and athletic experiences at Bettendorf.
Basketball was part of the decision, but Jennifer wanted to be closer with her parents and a school with more diversity for her children.
“That was important to me,” she said, “for him to be in a more diverse environment.”
Carton was on Bettendorf’s sophomore squad as a freshman. It was months after the season ended when his game started to make a quantum leap.
Disciplined by his parents for a large portion of the summer, Carton could not play video games or hang out with friends. He was allowed outside for three hours a day, and the family has an outdoor basketball court.
“I would just be out there shooting (baskets) the whole time because I couldn’t do anything else,” Carton said. “My dad bought me one of those shooting guns and that’s when I started to notice improvement and got excited about it.”
He and his mom laugh now about how a punishment turned into stoking his fire for basketball.
“Parents are always right,” he said. “Every punishment I’ve had always comes out to help me in the end. There were some hard times not hanging out with friends, but there was always meaning behind it.
“Who knows where I would be today without that? I could be in trouble or not playing sports at all.”
Given her athletic background, Jennifer knew her son had the work ethic to succeed. Carton just needed some guidance to channel it in the right direction.
“I was pretty hard on him,” she said. “I told him you’re not always going to like me, but I know what it takes to get to that level and the commitment involved. There are sacrifices you have to make.”
Carton lacked self-control at times. As Jennifer describes it, her son was a go-getter with no off-button. It was a frequent topic during parent-teacher conferences.
But after going through an extensive national recruiting process, one where he had daily conversations with high-major coaches he respected, it changed him.
“He has matured so much in the last year and a half, and I really truly believe it was the whole recruiting process,” Jennifer said. “Speaking to adults, returning phone calls and text messages, it has been important to his growth.”
Playing with an edge
Carton was with the Iowa Barnstormers AAU team throughout middle school. Playing time was sparse.
Before the beginning of his freshman year, he joined Quad-City Elite.
“I knew they weren’t as good of a program as Barnstormers at the time, but they gave me an opportunity,” Carton said. “They believed in me when a lot of AAU teams didn’t, and they gave me a chance to showcase my skills and run a team.”
Carton was elevated to Bettendorf’s varsity squad as a sophomore. Surrounded by nine seniors, Carton was primarily a facilitator for an 18-win team that reached the Class 4A state tournament.
“Playing with a bunch of seniors, it was hard for him to expand his role,” Clark said.
Still, there were glimpses of his talent. Carton showcased his athleticism with a breakaway dunk versus Burlington and recorded 18 points, four rebounds and three assists against Central.
The confidence soared the spring and summer after his sophomore season.
He averaged more than 25 points per game with Q-C Elite. He improved his vertical by 5 to 6 inches. He added 15 to 20 pounds to his frame.
Suddenly, Carton was playing with a swagger on the court, and college programs took notice. Wisconsin extended an offer in late June. Other power conference teams followed.
Eventually, his offer list exceeded 15. Michigan, Indiana and Ohio State were his three finalists.
“When he’s on the court, he wants to win at all costs,” Bettendorf teammate Trevor Feller said. “He’s the most competitive guy we have.”
That fighting spirit comes from his mother.
“Me and her will bang heads because she’s just like me,” Carton said. “From who gets to pick where we eat to little sports bets, we’re competitive.”
It often can be misconstrued as arrogance or cockiness on the court. Jennifer thinks it stems from the street ball mentality of AAU and the determination of people not initially believing in him.
“People say things and he’s often misunderstood as cocky or a jerk, but D.J. is very loyal, very sensitive, very sincere and very loving,” Jennifer said. “He has a different personality when he’s playing.”
Off the court, teammates describe him as funny and engaging.
“I’ve seen him talking to little kids, and he’s so humble,” Bettendorf senior Connor Steele said. “He’s earned everything he’s gotten.”
On the court, that edge is what attracted Ohio State and many other top-flight programs to Carton.
“He plays hard and plays with a lot of emotion,” Jennifer said. “He loves his teammates and loves the game.”
Going out a winner
Statistically, Carton had a banner junior season. He averaged 23.6 points, 5.7 rebounds and 3.4 assists per game in earning first team all-Mississippi Athletic Conference and first team all-state honors.
Still, it wasn’t enough. Bettendorf was 10-13 and lost in the substate semifinal round to Dubuque Senior.
Carton wants more. He expects more.
“I feel there is a lot more to prove,” he said. “We didn’t have the season that we wanted last year, and I want to prove that we can win.
“I love winning more than anything, and it would mean the world to me to bring this city a state championship.”
Much like what Muscatine’s Joe Wieskamp experienced last season, there will be added pressure to perform each night out. There will be casual basketball fans wanting to catch a glimpse of Carton.
Even during Bettendorf’s recent public scrimmage against Cedar Rapids Xavier, there were multiple people videotaping his every move.
“Now committed to Ohio State, there is a whole lot of pressure from people in the community, our area and even people in Columbus,” Carton said. “I’m a lot more known, so they want to see me play well.”
Teams will throw gimmick defenses or swarm multiple defenders at him to disrupt Bettendorf's flow.
Carton realizes there will be detractors. He’s heard from many already on social media about how he’s overrated, can't shoot consistently from the perimeter and can only dribble with one hand.
“I feel like I’ve added a lot of things to my game that a lot of people haven’t seen in the last few months,” Carton said. “I’m smoother, stronger, more confident and more under control.”
Ultimately, Clark said it boils down to winning games.
Wieskamp willed Muscatine to the state tournament last season. Carton wants to do the same for his team.
“We all know with social media and highlight films, you can get caught up in yourself,” Clark said. “People want to see 38 points and four or five dunks a night, but that’s not always the game plan of the team.
“Everybody knows he can shoot, penetrate, dish and has great vision, but can he find ways to win as a senior? His skill set is far better than we need him to be, but his leadership is where he can take us to that next level.”
Carton is eager to lead, and his teammates have put in plenty of hours this offseason to make sure his career and their season ends in Des Moines.
“Not everybody in life gets to play with somebody the caliber of D.J.,” Steele said. “With a core built around D.J., this can be one of the greatest seasons in Bettendorf history.”
If so, that signed photo in Clark's office might have added value.