Joe Barry Carroll: The Next Preeminent NBA Center? 1982

[Joe Barry Carroll arrived on the NBA scene in the early 1980s. Like Bill Cartwright, featured on the blog yesterday, Carroll was advertised as an up-and-comer, one of the league’s marquee seven-footers for the 1980s. Well, maybe. In this article, reporter Ralph Wiley touches on the maybe early in Carroll’s career and tilts it heavily in favor of the likely. 

Carroll would dribble out a solid 11-season NBA career, most notably his early run with Golden State. But J.B., as he was known, would exasperate just about everyone on the NBA scene with his inscrutable demeanor. “You study the face of Joe Barry Carroll at work,” wrote the popular San Francisco newspaper columnist Art Spander in 1982, “and you understand the definition of the word inscrutable. The eyes are open, the jaw occupied with a wad of gum. Otherwise, there is not a hint of passion, or of interest.”

Spander is just getting started. “If Carroll were sweeping floors or laying bricks, the expression wouldn’t matter. But he’s playing in supposedly the most hysterical and emotional of sports, professional basketball. While others around him lose their cool, Carroll seems barely to be losing sleep.”

Carroll impassively weathered these unsolicited judgments of his character, retired from the most hysterical and emotional of sports, and let his humanity blossom in peace and quiet. Carroll taught himself to paint and has become quite an accomplished abstract artist. He also folded his art into a touching, self-published 2017 memoir. 

He writes in the introduction, “While putting away old newspaper clippings, magazine articles, and audiotapes with myself as the subject of interest, it occurred to me that many had weighed in on Joseph Barry Carroll—with the exception of Joseph Barry Carroll.”

Hopefully mixed in among those articles in Carroll’s files was Wiley’s brief story below, published in the January 1982 issue of Basketball Digest. Wiley, now long passed, had a light writing style, but a keen basketball eye. His story offers a fair appraisal of the young Joseph Barry Carroll, just fresh out of Purdue University.]

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Is Joe Barry Carroll about to become the preeminent center in the NBA? The basketball minds behind the Golden State Warriors believe so—but then, none of them have to get down on the blocks with the likes of Moses Malone, Artis Gilmore, and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. 

But Carroll does, and has, and will.

J.B. Carroll has the body (7-foot-0, 255 pounds), the moves (an 18.9 scoring average and 9.3 rebounding average in his maiden voyage in the NBA last season), and, perhaps above all, his unique serenity going for him.

The calm portrayed on Carroll’s face is what caused the Boston Celtics to trade away what became his rights in 1980 for center Robert Parish, to help turn the shamrock green into championship gold in 1981. The Warriors cannot complain. Carroll’s rookie numbers need no defense. But the fact is, he really did not find his waters until about halfway through last season.

“At the beginning of last season, I was thinking ‘uh-oh’,” admits Warrior coach Al Attles. “It took the veterans some time before they bought J.B. [Rookie] Larry Smith, they bought right away. J.B. was different. But eventually, they bought him. Believe me, they bought him.

“I think he looks like a different body this season. He looks better than at the beginning of last year. He’s much stronger than he looks.”

There goes those looks again. That serenity of face. What does it mean?

“Intelligence,” says Warrior assistant and former Penn State coach John Bach, echoing a league-wide sentiment about the most-unique feature of Carroll’s game. “He has as many moves as any center in the game,” said Bach. “His game is well-defined. It’s just that quiet mask fools you, and I know it’s only a mask. I’ve seen him angry.

“He won’t hesitate to tell Al, ‘If you get the ball to me, I can score,’ and I’ve heard him say that when some of the biggest names in the game were playing behind him.”

Carroll (right) and Moses Malone agree to disagree.

Pete Newell, the Warriors’ talent consultant, runs a two-week summer camp for pro talent in Los Angeles, and Carroll took a break from his summer at home in Denver to visit Newell’s shop. “We had people, some pretty big people down there,” Newell said. “Kermit Washington, Kenny Carr, Steve Johnson. J.B. would flow right along, but every now and then, something would happen out there, and he would decide to take over.

“When he decided to take over, that’s exactly what would happen. He dominated, and he has the potential for domination at any time.

“He’s very intelligent, and he’s becoming more and more aware of the adjustments that are necessary for each player that he faces. He gives the lethargic appearance, but he’s far from that. As he becomes more experienced, he’ll become more dominant.”

As examples of this, Bach and Newell and other Carroll watchers point to the final 30 games of last season, when the Warriors were operating with one center, for all intents and purposes, and a quilt-work backcourt.

Carroll, duly assisted by Smith and Bernard King, kept the Warriors’ playoff hopes alive until the final week, when they lost important home games to Houston and Denver. A victory over Houston that week could have propelled the Warriors all the way to the NBA finals and a chance meeting with Parish and the Celtics.

In that final stretch of 30 games, Carroll averaged nearly 40 minutes per game, 22.5 points per game and 10 rebounds. He scored 46 points one night against the San Diego Clippers and drew even in matchups with Malone and Abdul-Jabbar in their final confrontations.

In fact, Carroll, using a low-block posture and his monstrous legs and derrière adroitly, made scoring against these giants look ridiculously easy. “No question we have some of the greatest scorers to ever play this game on this team,” says Attles. “But defense is the question.”

A question that Carroll will answer, one way or another, starting this season. He has problems offensively with shot-blocking type centers like San Antonio’s George Johnson. But that was the only flaw at that end. Defensively, he is still acquiring an ability to eat court space, the way Wes Unseld used to.

Unseld is a good parallel for Carroll. With the advent of the above-seven-footers, Carroll’s game can be most effective on a horizontal as well as a vertical plane. As they used to say about Unseld, it’s a five-dollar cab ride just to get around him.

Carroll’s defense has to be helped by the shot-blocking, intimidating factor of Larry Smith and rookie Sam Williams. Smith made the All-Rookie team with Carroll last season, but J.B. was the only player every coach in the league voted for.

And it’s not like Carroll can’t block a shot either. He led the team with 121 knockdowns last year. But his main power lies in getting the important deuce on the scoreboard.

Carroll is only 22 years old. He is rather close-mouthed about all these technical basketball tidbits, which the public insists on gorging itself on through the minions of the media.

His teammates have not only accepted him, but beginning with the end of last season, they have begun to lean on him, which is the way any great center would have it. J.B. Carroll is on the threshold of becoming a great center, and they know it.

Lee Rose, the former coach at Purdue, is Carroll’s favorite college coach. Rose came to the Warriors’ San Jose preseason site to visit and take J.B. to dinner. He knows, too, that J.B. is on the threshold.

But if Carroll knows, he’s not saying. Not just yet, if we don’t mind. 

“I’ll do a story later in the year,” he said, as if to infer he’ll provide the story material after there is something to do one about. 

Were you intimidated by anyone in the league last year, J.B.?

“No.”

Was there a particular point, a particular game, which was a breakthrough?

“Not really.”

The big man smiled his see-you-later smile.

“I’d rather not discuss those things, not yet. We really don’t have to go through this, because I’m about to get into my closed-mouthed stance again.”

Talk is cheap, we suppose. Deuces and J.B Carrolls are not. Carroll wants to be alone. The Warriors don’t mind, as long as it’s at the top.

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