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Vince Carter’s on-court play cements his off-court message

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The 41-year-old isn’t only there for leadership.

NBA: Indiana Pacers at Atlanta Hawks Jason Getz-USA TODAY Sports

Nearly every conversation surrounding Vince Carter’s tenure with the Atlanta Hawks centers on his leadership of the young roster. Veterans hang around the NBA long after their on-court usefulness has left them because teams value their immense experience and essentially treat them as a player-coach, a liaison between the coaching staff and the rest of the roster, someone who can connect with the players and teach them what the organization wants from them.

The most famous current example of this is Udonis Haslem, who has been in Miami since before Dwyane Wade first suited up for the Heat, but there are players like Haslem littered throughout recent NBA history. As players are coming into the league younger and younger every year, a veteran presence who speaks for the organization has become more important.

However, these players garner the respect from the younger players based on their history with the team and what they’ve accomplished in their careers. Haslem is a three-time champion and has the backing of every human being in the Greater Miami Area. Nick Collison began his career with the Seattle Supersonics in 2003 and, along with Russell Westbrook, grew to embody everything that the Oklahoma City Thunder represent in their new home.

Carter, on the other hand, signed up with Atlanta in what is likely the final year of his storied career and the eighth stop in 21 years. When he walks into the Hawks’ locker room, there’s a reverence based on what he’s done in his career and what he meant to the game of basketball, but it’s a different type of respect than what Haslem or Collison earned with their teams.

While Haslem and Collison represent their teams and their cities and can use that history to convince young players to fall in line, Carter’s history is based on what he’s accomplished on the floor and keeping that reputation means continuing to produce, even in a lesser role. Hawks head coach Lloyd Pierce intimated as much before a November game against the Boston Celtics, saying, “You can have a vet, but if he can’t do anything, then you’ve just got a guy in the locker room talking.” Haslem and Collison don’t have to bring it on the floor to earn their spots as the leaders in their respective locker rooms, but Carter’s situation is different – he can’t rely on his play before he got to Atlanta to entirely speak for him and give him the role he covets with the younger players.

It doesn’t have to be anything special from Carter, but like Pierce said, it has to be something. And something is exactly what Carter has brought to the Hawks so far this year; his play at the power forward spot has been exactly what they’ve needed in times of uncertainty surrounding lineups or in tough spots against better teams.

It’s a bit strange, given his long history of being a primary scoring wing, to call him a 3-and-D forward, but that’s precisely the role he’s assumed for Atlanta on the court this season, continuing a trend that’s persisted throughout this decade. Carter’s transformation from superstar to role player has been one of the smoothest in league history; it’s exceedingly rare for a player to come to grips with the fact that he’s no longer the player he once was and to take a back seat to others as his athleticism and ability to consistently be a star deteriorate.

It’s easy for the rest of us to sit back and tell Superstar X that he no longer has it and that he needs to come off the bench, but the same personality traits it takes to become a superstar don’t exactly lend themselves to acquiescing to anything. Yet, that’s precisely what’s happened with Carter over the last eight or nine years.

Carter’s three-point rate is the highest it’s ever been – nearly 65 percent of his attempts are from beyond the arc this year. By comparison, that number was just 27.3 percent in his final All-Star season in New Jersey and has been steadily climbing over the last decade to get where it is today.

Not exactly an elite shooter in his early years, he’s done a fantastic job adapting to the new world order in the NBA offensively. On the other end of the floor, he’s being tasked with banging with power forwards, something he rarely did as a perimeter player in his early days. In November, Carter matched up with LeBron James in the closing minutes of a game in Los Angeles in which he played the entire fourth quarter:

These moments help to solidify Carter’s message both on and off the court. He has a high baseline and can lead on his name and experience alone, but as he’s told the media in various scrums throughout his short stint in Atlanta, it’s important for him to show the young guys that he still has the ability to put the ball in the basket and defend his position to really hammer home what he wants those players to understand.