This summer, Wendell Carter Jr. watched every play from his rookie season. Every shot. Every decision. Every mistake.
It was a disappointing first year. The Chicago Bulls lost 60 games, and their offense stagnated when Carter was on the court, scoring five fewer points per 100 possessions than the league’s worst attack. He shot an icy 48.5 percent from the field and failed to spark the same type of optimism as other big men in his draft class.
Thumb surgery ended Carter’s season after 44 games, but injuries (including a sore abdominal muscle that was operated on in July) were only part of the problem. Unselfish almost to a fault, the player Carter saw on film lacked confidence in areas of the game that used to come naturally. Too often he’d defer. Instead of turning to a low-post move he spent hours baking into his repertoire, he’d pass out to a teammate. One particular sequence (though he couldn’t remember the opponent) rolls around in his head to this day: Carter catches a pass at the elbow, and instead of lining his eyes up with the rim he scans the floor for an open teammate until the shot clock expires.
“The man that was guarding me was almost underneath the rim,” Carter says. “It would’ve been an easy 12-foot jump shot. I’m sure I would’ve made it. But I didn’t even take a chance.” Carter does not rely on points to influence a basketball game, but no player can ascend in the NBA without self-belief. This season is about him finding it.
To be a megastar at the center position requires a certain mentality Carter might not have. That’s OK. Not everyone can be Joel Embiid, Karl-Anthony Towns, or Anthony Davis. But as the seventh overall pick in the 2018 draft, Carter flaunts similar skills — he’s a smooth roll man with solid low-post moves and a reliable jump shot — while filling holes on the floor that his teammates either cause or can’t see. Some of his contributions are understated, and others make you wonder how many All-Defensive teams he’ll crack over the next 15 years. Carter is light on his feet with great anticipation, and those who challenge him at the rim tend to regret it.
The league is short on players who can do the same things Carter does. He is tractor-pull strong with touch, speed, an appetite for basketball-related violence, and a copacetic feel for what his team wants to accomplish on every play. His chest is as wide as a refrigerator. Chicago Bulls head coach Jim Boylen calls him “our best defender.” When asked how Carter gives opponents trouble, New York Knicks head coach David Fizdale begins monologuing his way through the 20-year-old’s bank of physical advantages before stopping himself for a quick laugh: “I can keep going if you want.”
One day, Carter will probably be the spine of a top-10 defense who can also stabilize and enhance the offense. The Al Horford comparisons out of college were made for a reason, and it’s no coincidence Carter decided to model his game after the five-time all-star. Carter will score at all three levels, protect the rim, and organize a cohesive defense with his voice and 7’5 wingspan.
But right now, if Carter wants to stand out he’ll need to be a bit more selfish, especially on a roster overloaded with self-sufficient scorers who play as if they’re alone in a gym.
“It’s usually the other way around,” Carter says with a smile. “You go from selfish to being unselfish.”
He’s been that way since he was 15, never caring about the number of points or rebounds he tallies so long as his team prevails. Carter is always looking for the open man, and doesn’t steal rebounds from teammates just to pad his stats.
“What I’ve always known when it comes to winning: one person can’t win the game,” he says. “Everybody has to be a factor in their own kind of way.”
Carter is not wrong, but the Bulls won’t complain if he’s more involved in their offense, at the very least forcing opponents to respect him as a legitimate threat. More of this won’t hurt:
The good news is that Carter doesn’t need the ball to impact games while surrounded by players who treat jumpers like oxygen, otherwise his tenure on the Bulls might be a short one. Balance is constructive. Lauri Markkanen, Zach LaVine, and Otto Porter Jr. were born to take a lot of shots. Luke Kornet and Coby White are in the rotation because they score. Floating alongside so many aggressive options can be frustrating for any prospect trying to establish himself. It also highlights how critical Carter’s development will be on a team that desperately needs what he’s seemingly able to provide.
So far, the Bulls’ defensive scheme hasn’t done him any favors. They’re extremely aggressive defending pick-and-rolls, meaning bigs (like Carter) stay high on the floor in an effort to squeeze passes from ball-handlers or force steals. At times they look competent—the Bulls are fourth in defensive turnover rate — but more often find themselves scrambling with unnecessary rotations that yield open threes and looks at the rim.
As a result, Carter gets extended in ways he wouldn’t if he functioned in more conservative coverage. Boylen wants to stick with his plan as long as he can, but he may have to tweak it as the season goes if he wants to accentuate his young center’s strengths.
“We’ve had some times when it’s been very effective and some times where we’ve struggled,” Boylen says. “It’s a learning process. You don’t build your defense overnight. We’re continuing to grow with it.”
When asked how long he’d go before making a change, Boylen adds: “Well, you know I’ve heard some coaches talk 10 games, I’ve heard some coaches talk 15. Chuck Daly used to say it takes 25 games to know your team. I don’t know. I just know we’re going to work at it and we’re going to tell our guys the truth. We have a willing group that cares about doing it right and a lot of times it’s about experience and just growth.”
Carter’s rock-hard toughness is both fierce and nostalgic. You can see it whenever he braces to set a screen, or plows through a pile of bodies only to emerge with his hands tightly wrapped around the ball. Every team can appreciate a determined tackle dummy who absorbs as much punishment as he doles out, but Carter aims to bruise every possession with a physicality as unique as it is helpful.
“He’s got a little shit to him,” Bulls forward Thad Young says. “When you say, ‘somebody has a little shit to him,’ it’s not a bad thing. It’s actually a good thing. He has that dog in him. He has that mentality where he wants to be the aggressor. He wants to be the bruiser. That old-school mentality where he’s gonna be there and knock a guy out if he needs to.”
Boylen agrees: “He embraces things in the game that I really value, which is collision and contact.”
Carter’s game face maintains the seriousness of a mannequin before, during, and after these flashes of brutality.
“I’ve got a lot of friends in this league, but when we step inside those lines and that time is going down, you’re not my friend,” Carter says. “My dad kind of taught me that since I was a little kid. Visualize and attack. That was his little motto for me.
“During the game … we’re not joking, we’re not laughing. I’m trying to win. I want to get every rebound. I want to block every shot. I want to stop everybody from scoring. I want to get every loose ball. All of that.”
He was raised as a box-out artist, and the tenacity with which he creates second chances is second to none. Watch how Draymond Green literally bounces off Carter’s body on this play from last year.
Or how Ed Davis, a true savant on the offensive glass, gets completely neutralized by Carter’s backside.
Carter will never have his own chapter in a playbook, but if he can apply his aggressive mentality on defense to when Chicago has the ball, his impact can be universal in a way only the game’s very best centers can replicate. Right now, he’s picking his spots and constantly reminding himself to shoot when open, something his teammates encourage. The fact that Carter is always thinking about the textbook right play is admirable, but great offensive players must bend the game to their will, whether that means popping out for a three, ducking in to bully a weaker man, or orchestrating offense from the high post.
Selflessness for the sake of being selfless won’t help the Bulls win games. Carter is smart enough to know this, and too powerful to be his own worst enemy. Defensively, he’s already on track for greatness. Once he’s comfortable toggling between his own scoring opportunities and setting up his teammates, Carter will be the center every team wishes they had.