Midway through Jackie Carmichael’s career at Illinois State, he shared a goal with his coach at the time, Tim Jankovich.
“He made it clear he wanted to play in the NBA,” said Jankovich, now the associate head coach at SMU, where his boss is Larry Brown. “And I told him in no uncertain terms that we should stop talking about the NBA if he was only going to get five or six rebounds a game. Because anybody can do that.
“I told him he needed to be in a special category, that he had to get 10 or more rebounds a night, like Kenneth Faried did. Put up crazy numbers. And he bought into that.”
For the next two years, the 6-foot-9, 240-pound Carmichael became a double-double machine. Rebounding was his calling card, and Jankovich’s advice was on point. Carmichael has a chance to get drafted. Most analysts are projecting him to be taken in the middle of the second round, but Carmichael’s got a surprise or two to show NBA teams during individual workouts in the next few weeks that could boost his stock.
Carmichael has come a long way from Manhattan, Kan., where he attended the same high school as Jankovich and dreamed of playing for the hometown Kansas State Wildcats. But it wasn’t meant to be.
“Long story short, I didn’t measure up to what they were looking for,” Carmichael said. “I grew up in the Michael Beasley, Bill Walker era. Bob Huggins had his guys from the East Coast. No knock on them. They were great. But I didn’t fit the mold of what they were looking for.”
Jankovich, then an assistant to Bill Self at Kansas, might have eventually talked Self into signing Carmichael, but he took the top job at Illinois State. And Carmichael, not happy with the Division I offers he was getting, decided he had to head East to better showcase his talent.
“I felt like I was a high major player,” Carmichael said. “But Manhattan is not the Mecca of basketball. I wasn’t playing against top tier competition. So I wanted to get closer to New York City, which is the Mecca. I relocated to see if I could raise my stock.”
Carmichael wound up at South Kent (Conn.) Prep, but his dream of playing for a power conference school got derailed by a chance meeting with Jankovich, then in his first season at Illinois State.
“We got into the NIT, and they sent us to play at Kansas State,” Jankovich said. “We had a heckuva team, and at the time, I thought it wasn’t a very favorable pairing. But we ended up getting the last laugh.”
Carmichael, home for spring break, went to the game, where, reconnected with Jankovich, he began thinking less about power conferences and more about playing at Illinois State.
“Something kind of clicked with coach Jankovich,” Carmichael said. “I was familiar with him. We were from the same hometown and went to the same high school. In my gut, it felt right to sign with Illinois State. The Missouri Valley wasn’t a BCS league, but that was the place I was supposed to go.”
Remember that Jankovich had considered asking Bill Self to sign Carmichael at Kansas. He was elated to land Carmichael for Illinois State.
“If I’d stayed at Kansas, let’s just say it could have definitely been interesting,” Jankovich said. “I knew abut Jackie even when he was young. He had not fully developed by any stretch. But I certainly would have recommended him [to Self]. Not many guys with his size could run and jump like he could.”
Carmichael had the physical tools when he showed up at Illinois State, but he was lacking the mindset.
“Early on he was too nice a kid,” Jankovich said. “That was a problem. But he developed his motor and his toughness. He totally bought into that. He became a tremendous rebounder. His activity level went through the roof. He was blocking shots, running down loose balls. He saw the game for what it was, and knew that he’d have to play harder than he ever had before.”
Jankovich coached Carmichael for three years, but he didn’t get to see the big man’s career to the finish. When SMU asked if Jankovich wanted to be Brown’s head coach in waiting, it was an opportunity he couldn’t pass up, even though it meant leaving Carmichael, and a potential NCAA Tournament team, behind.
“I pretty much knew he had to go to SMU,” Carmichael said. “I was close to coach Jank, and to his wife and son. But he had to do what was best for him and his family. His leaving didn’t strike me as anything I hadn’t been through before. Just a little adversity, another roadblock to overcome.”
Jankovich’s replacement was Dan Muller, who played at Illinois State and had been an assistant for 12 years at Vanderbilt, where he coached three players, including post man Festus Ezeli, who were chosen in the 2012 NBA Draft. Carmichael knew he could learn from Muller, just as he had from Jankovich.
“[Muller] taught me all kinds of little tricks, but he really challenged me mentally,” Carmichael said. “He told me that I had all the physical tools, but if I wanted to play at the next level, I had to be ready to be challenged mentally every night.”
Muller coached Carmichael just one season, but that was long enough to form an opinion about his NBA chances.
“Jackie is an NBA player,” Muller said. “Physically, he’s just bigger, quicker, stronger and faster than most people his size. And he’s a big-time rebounder. He can rebound above the rim in traffic. He’s just a natural, go-every-time guy. That’s very rare. As much as anything, that mentality is what makes him what he is.”
Muller thinks Carmichael, intelligent and well spoken, will shine in interviews. But he’s also got a few surprises in store for his workout sessions. One of the knocks on Carmichael’s skill set has been the perception he doesn’t have a face-up game. Muller begs to differ.
“People will be shocked by how well he shoots it,” Muller said. “That’s one of the reasons he’s got a chance to move up [in the draft]. From 17 to 18 feet, he can shoot the heck out of the ball. He can pick and fade, pick and roll, shoot a little 12 footer … that’s one thing that people will see in workouts that will improve his stock.”
“I’ve kind of been hiding the last couple of months, ever since the season ended,” Carmichael said. “I’ve been working with some really good people, including coach Muller and his staff, and I’ve done so much to alter my shot. I really feel like I can shoot it well. Like coach said, people are going to be surprised.”
The retelling of Carmichael’s story wouldn’t be complete without mentioning his college major. It was apparel merchandising and design. If this guy ever makes it big and gets his own clothing line, he’ll be involved in every facet of its production.
“I’ve always enjoyed art and designing stuff, being able to be creative,” Carmichael said. “I feel like clothes are the No. 1 way you can express yourself. In school we spun yarn, knitted and crocheted, stuff like that. We learned how to use different tools to test fabrics. I’m well versed in the actual design of clothing, but also the merchandising side of it. My dream is to be able to do something with Nike, or some company like that.”
If that happens, Carmichael might have to send a little cut of the action to Jankovich, the man who helped put Carmichael on the path to the NBA. But Jankovich wouldn’t take the money. His reward will come when Carmichael steps on the floor in the NBA. Jankovich thinks that’s bound to happen.
“How many guys in the world are his size and his speed with his strength and can also shoot the ball as well as he can?” Jankovich said. “That’s a pretty small number, a very small class of people. I think he’s got an outstanding chance to make it.”