The 5-9 combo guard from Flowery Branch, Ga., played in just seven games last season before shoulder surgery ended her first year before it really got started. The shoulder, which popped free at least three times, limited her time on the court – one game she logged just a few minutes before it dislocated – but she did start five of those seven games.
Several of those starts last season occurred because then-sophomore Ariel Massengale had an ailing foot. But the junior point guard had started all 19 games this season and has tallied 110 assists – the next-closest Lady Vols are Meighan Simmons and Cierra Burdick with 45 apiece – and is averaging 12.5 points per game.
Then, a swipe for a loose ball by a Florida player last Thursday resulted in Massengale taking a hard blow to the forehead. She left the court before halftime and didn't return to the bench. Massengale also didn't travel to Texas over the weekend. She has a concussion history, thus medical personnel will be extra cautious about when she is allowed to return to the court. Massengale didn't practice Tuesday and remains listed as day to day.
That is where Carter re-entered the starting lineup at point guard. She played the entire 40 minutes against Texas A&M, tallied 10 points, added six assists and was a major reason why Tennessee left town with a 76-55 win over the Aggies.
The coaches knew Carter could be a difference-maker – they were dismayed when her first year was severely truncated by injury – but she is still just a freshman, and first-year players often get a pass from the type of practice Carter endured last month.
"We were running because of me," Carter said. "And it was a hard practice, an up-and-down practice and having to run sprints on top of that and it be mainly my fault, it was terrible.
"It was probably the worst practice I have ever had in my life. I was so frustrated."
The sprints were assigned over issues of "communication, energy, effort, and it just wasn't there," Carter said. "We didn't have high energy that practice. We didn't really seem motivated, and our coaches were not going to let it slide."
That is not unusual. Pat Summitt directed players to the line multiple times for various infractions. She won a national title in 2008 because if any player didn't crash the boards with eight seconds left on the clock and Tennessee down a point – that was the scenario Summitt put on the clock; sound familiar in Tampa? – the entire team ran.
What was unusual is that a freshman got singled out. Usually upperclassmen draw the ire because they can take it, and it sets the tone for the youngsters. But that practice speaks to what the coaches expect of Carter.
"They specifically were not going to let my behavior and my play slide that day," Carter said. "It just shows that they have high expectations of me. We were warming up one day before a game and Ariel said, ‘I forget that you're a freshman.' I am sure the coaches forget.
"But I don't want to use that as an excuse. I played some last year. I watched a whole season and took mental notes. I've had a ton of preparation in the off-season. So, I don't feel like a freshman. I have the talent, I have the skill and my coaches see so much in me.
"It's a blessing."
So, how did the redshirt freshman react to that brutal practice? Like any player would. She broke down in the locker room afterwards.
"It was rough," Carter said.
Carter played at Buford High School for coach Gene Durden, who was demanding and inclined to raise his voice.
"I got kicked out of a couple of scrimmages in high school because coach Durden's expectations of me were so high, too," Carter said. "I've been yelled at, and I cried in high school. I was prepared but … the environment and pressure here are different. It's way different than high school."
Carter said Durden taught her to be resilient.
"Coach Durden has done so much for me – the fact I was able to bounce back from a practice like that has a lot to do with coach Durden," she said.
The first player to offer comfort was Massengale.
"She pulled me to the side," Carter said. "She said, ‘They're doing this for a reason. You have to learn. You have to learn how to lead. They want it from you. And they wouldn't want anything from you that they didn't think you could do.'
"She said the coaches may seem unreasonable at times, but they know what they're doing. She told me to keep my head up, have confidence, let it go and just play."
Carter has started five other games this season, but Massengale was on the court with her. On Sunday, Massengale was watching on television, and Carter had the ball in her hands as point guard.
A long tip meant she retrieved the ball deep in the backcourt on the first possession, and Carter looked a tad anxious as she headed up court with it. But Carter settled down quickly and never gave coach Holly Warlick a reason to take her out.
"I just wanted to go hard," Carter said. "That is all I try to think about, ‘Just play hard.' That is what I went out there and did. And then my teammates cheering the whole time on the sidelines, ‘You got it, Draya. Good job, Draya.' "
Fellow freshman guard Jordan Reynolds, who was effective with her minutes as was freshman post Mercedes Russell, also offered encouragement. Assistant coach Jolette Law, a point guard in college at Iowa, offered tips of fixes and adjustments during timeouts.
"Everybody was so encouraging," Carter said. "It's hard to be nervous or apprehensive when everyone around you and everyone close to you is building you up."
With Massengale still listed as day to day, it is very likely that Carter will be back in the starting lineup for Thursday's game against Arkansas at 7 p.m. at Thompson-Boling Arena.
Carter doesn't just push tempo – that will keep the head coach happy – but she also is an effective defender. She is active in the zone, capable of keeping the ball handler in front of her and leads the team with 30 steals. Carter's 43 assists to 25 turnovers is highly respectable, and of her 64 rebounds, more have come on offense with 35 than defense at 29, and she isn't grabbing her own misses. Carter uses her tremendous leaping ability to steal boards from post players and keep possessions alive for Tennessee.
The Razorbacks opened the season with 13 wins, including victories over Middle Tennessee State and Kansas, before stumbling in the SEC with a 2-5 record. However, all of the losses were by 10 points or fewer, including a 55-51 loss to South Carolina.
"We can't overlook anybody," Carter said. "We have four losses. Just hearing about the upsets and all the close games and then this team losing to this team and then beating this team. It is up and down and so crazy the SEC is.
"You can't take any team for granted. We are well aware of that."
That is a lesson that can take some players a couple of seasons to fully learn. If Carter has already absorbed that, she is well ahead of the game. The win over Texas A&M, which had not yet lost to an SEC team until Tennessee claimed its victory, allowed the Lady Vols to get back in the race for the top of the league.
"After that game we were so happy because it felt like a win," Carter said. "It felt like a team win. I don't think we were even thinking about the SEC at that point. We were just so excited that we played the way we were supposed to play.
"We executed a game plan. We played together. It was such an overall good feeling after the game. Maybe it hit us on the way back on the plane, ‘We're back in this.' But right after the game it was a feeling of being a team, being a family, being cohesive and getting that win together."
Carter clearly is capable of handling the team's needs at the point position. But Massengale has put together an All-SEC season, and the two are compatible on the court. Warlick has a nice problem for any coach to have – which of her stellar point guards does she put in the starting lineup?
And does it matter to Carter?
"Goodness, no," Carter said. "I don't ever think about that at all. Whether I start or don't start, I am going to have an opportunity to get in the game and impact the game. That is coach's decision.
"I just want to help the team. When I get on the court, in the beginning, after four minutes, I am going to go as hard as I can."
The January slate of SEC games will be completed Thursday, and the standings remain very much in play for the coveted four byes for the SEC Tournament. The month of February and the first Sunday in March, which will conclude the regular season, are likely to record some surprises and upsets.
The SEC tourney will be in Carter's backyard in Duluth, Ga., the same site as 2013. Carter was sidelined for the tournament a year ago because of her shoulder. She is expected to be a critical piece of the team in 2014, and the SEC Tournament should be the perfect competitive entry into postseason.
"It is going to be a great tournament," Carter said. "I am so excited. I had so many people there last year, and I wasn't even playing. I have so much support here in Knoxville, so much support back at home. I am just blessed beyond belief when it comes to support."
Perhaps by March it will be warm in the South. Carter, a native of the Peach State, wants no part of the cold and especially the snow that fell across Knoxville on Tuesday with temperatures in the teens, turning sidewalks and streets into ice.
"It's terrible. I hate the snow," Carter said. "I don't think anything is appealing about it except pictures online are pretty. I don't like it. I don't want to play in it. I don't want to touch it.
"It's not pretty unless it's on my computer screen. Then, it's pretty."