On Thursday night, there were no memories of last season. There was no limping or painful change of direction for Carter. For the first time in a game situation in almost 21 months, the 6-2, 200-pound guard felt normal.
And he didn’t waste time showing it.
The redshirt junior posted a team-high 21 points, getting the team on the board with a layup in traffic to open the game and scoring eight of the first 14 points of the night for the Gators in a 79-70 exhibition win over Barry University.
"Night and day, night and day,” Eli Carter said about his return compared to last year. “It's a big difference. It's been a great process, a hard process. It felt great to be out here with my teammates. It felt great to be out there for myself, knowing all the work that I put in paid off. It was a long and strong process. I'm really excited to be back out there."
When Eli Carter transferred from Rutgers, all the schools that were interested in him knew about the injury. He broke his leg in February 2013, playing in what turned out to be his last game at Rutgers. He was granted immediate eligibility in Gainesville, but the Florida coaching staff was never sure if that was a good idea or not.
Carter tried to play through the pain last season. He made it through seven games before a decision had to be made. Florida coach Billy Donovan put no pressure on Carter either way, saying that the player and his family had to decide if he wanted to play or take a medical redshirt. They ultimately decided on the redshirt after the win over Florida State on November 29, and Carter watched the remainder of the season from the bench.
"Just not being able to go out there and play with the guys, my brothers, last year,” Carter said about the low point of last season. “I built a great bond with those guys, and it just sucked not to be out there on the court."
After scoring 799 points in two years at Rutgers, Carter didn’t know how to handle sitting out and watching others play. He put his energy towards the rehab process, spending long hours with athletic trainer Duke Werner.
None of Thursday’s points count, but when it was over, none of that mattered. Thursday was the first step in the right direction. There was no pain or any hesitation for Carter on the offensive end.
“Great for his confidence,” Florida guard Michael Frazier said. “Happy for him. He deserves it, he's worked very hard. It's been a long process for him to get healthy and get back on the court, so happy he had a good game tonight."
But not everyone was happy.
For all that went right on the offensive floor for Carter, Donovan wanted to see more on the defensive end. Carter wasn’t the only one in the coach’s crosshairs for defensive performance, but it needs to improve if he wants to contribute to the Florida lineup the way he expects.
“Eli made some shots,” Donovan said. “That’s going to come and go in games, certainly our balance wasn’t great, but like it’s hard for me to evaluate those guys on offensive performance when it comes to shooting the basketball because that’s going to come and go and a lot of that depends on kind of sometimes right place right time make the shot. I’m more concerned about his defense right now where his commitment level is over there.”
There’s time to make that happen for the Florida defense, but the most important part of Thursday night was that Carter looked to have his explosiveness back. After debuting in Gainesville with a limp following him across the country last season, Thursday couldn’t have gone any better.