"He'll get after you no matter who it is," Holiday said. "He's one of them mean dogs and you always wanna be on the side of the gate that he's on. He don't back down from nobody, he don't care who it is. And you know somebody like me, I respect that."
That mindset helped Carter become the Naismith Defensive Player of the Year at West Virginia after being an unheralded three-star recruit, and it got him to the league. After being drafted in the second round in 2018, though, he bounced around to four teams in his first four seasons. Now in Year 5, he's started 21 games for a title contender. The opportunity arose because of injuries to Khris Middleton and Pat Connaughton, but Carter seized it through sheer force of will. On every defensive possession, he attaches himself to the opposing point guard and hounds him full-court, as aggressively as the rules allow.
Giannis Antetokounmpo said., Carter is to the front line. When his teammates see him meeting the challenge head-on and putting his body on the line, "the rest of us do the same,"
"I just try to make people uncomfortable," Carter said. "The more I feel like I make them uncomfortable, the more I tend to succeed. I just stick to that recipe."
Even in a world of hyper-competitive athletes, Carter stands out. Cleveland Cavaliers head coach J.B. Bickerstaff, who coached him during his rookie season with the Memphis Grizzlies, still vividly recalls his pre-draft workout.
"When he stepped on the floor you watched him and you knew he would always overachieve," Bickerstaff said. "We had one-on-one drills, two-on-two, whatever it may have been, and he figured out a way to win them all. He wasn't the most talented or skillful, or whatever it was, but you just watched him and there was a will and determination to figure out how to get the job done.
"We left that meeting and you knew, no matter what bar you put for him, he was gonna find some way to overachieve and exceed that bar. With time and opportunity, he's proven that to be who he is."
Carter split his first season between the Grizzlies and their G League affiliate, then Memphis traded him to Phoenix, where he played well enough to earn a three-year, $11.5 million contract in the 2020 offseason. Carter tasted team success with the Suns but didn't play a single minute in the 2021 Finals, after which they traded him to Brooklyn.
The Nets made a bet that the long-distance shooting Carter flashed in limited attempts in Phoenix — 39.7 percent on 297 total 3s — was real, but he couldn't buy a bucket in the Big Apple. They waived him so they could sign Goran Dragic, and the Bucks scooped him up immediately, giving him another chance to contribute to a team with championship aspirations.
Carter has seized it, in part because he's been more consistent as a shot-maker, converting 40.0 percent of a career-high 3.7 3-point attempts per game this season. His reliable spot-up shooting around Antetokounmpo – he's made 45.8 percent of his wide-open attempts – as well as his secondary playmaking abilities, mean the Bucks can keep him on the floor to take advantage of his calling card: defense.
There are times when Carter's impact is obvious, such as when he swipes a steal or surprises an opponent with a block – he's second on the Bucks with 1.4 steals per game, and third in blocks at 0.7. More often, though, he makes small, helpful, easy-to-miss plays that add up over the course of a game. No statistic captures the value of Carter's full-court pressure influencing the opposing point guard to let another player initiate the offense.
"When you make somebody else bring the ball up the court, they're out of sorts," Grayson Allen said. "It makes them a little bit more uncomfortable, they're not in their usual spots for the play. Or if he gets the ball back, they're starting their play with 14, 15 seconds on the clock instead of 20 from them just getting it in and walking it up. Now if you deny their first action, they have to get a shot up without getting into another action and have to iso ball because they don't have time."
Carter said his only goal on a defensive possession is to force a miss. He may not always get credit when that happens, but his commitment to pestering opponents tends to pay off. "It tires them out for four quarters and then by the end of the game we have a chance to win," Holiday said. On Nov. 16, Cleveland Cavaliers star Donovan Mitchell shot 6-for-10 from the field in the first half against the Bucks, then went 1-for-9 in the second half.
"You know he's always there, you gotta keep an eye out for him," Mitchell said after the 113-98 Bucks win. "He's always been like that with every team he's been on, going back from West Virginia to now. He picks his spots well and presents challenges definitely at the guard spot."
Atlanta Hawks star Trae Young shot 6-for-9 in the first quarter on Oct. 29 in Milwaukee, then shot 9-of-23 the rest of the game. Same story on Nov. 4, when D'Angelo Russell had a 3-for-8 first half and an 0-for-7 second half against Milwaukee.
CBS Sports HQ Newsletter
Your Ultimate Guide to Every Day in Sports
We bring sports news that matters to your inbox, to help you stay informed and get a winning edge.
Thanks for signing up!
Keep an eye on your inbox.
There was an error processing your subscription.
This has been something of a breakout season for Carter, but, even in his starts, he averaged just 7.9 shots a game. He knows his team needs him to take open 3s with confidence, study his opponents' tendencies and, as Budenholzer put it, bring "an edge to us defensively." If he sounds unimpressed with himself, it is because he has always believed he could do this, dating back to his first NBA game, in which he guarded both Chris Paul and James Harden and blocked one of Paul's patented midrange jumpers.
"After that game, that's when I knew I belonged," Carter said. "Honestly, I just play ball whether they respect me or not."
In the intervening years, Carter has learned how to "not be too aggressive" while "still pressuring and causing havoc," he said, repeatedly lamenting that on-ball defenders "can't touch guys" in the NBA as they can in college, lest they be called for "a lot of cheap fouls." The biggest difference between Carter then and Carter now, though, is that, after two trades and one straight-up release, he has found his place. In Milwaukee, he has not only the fearlessness that one needs in order to guard stars and the self-belief that one needs to survive in the league, but the backing of an organization and, above all, his teammates. For the first time in his career, he can exhale.
"It's really like taking a deep breath, honestly," Carter said. "Having these guys have my back, that's all I've been wanting and it helps me play freely. Basketball is a confidence thing, a rhythm thing. The more you have people pulling for you the easier your job is."