Bulls player preview: Wendell Carter can be defensive foundation
NBC Sports Chicago will preview a different Bulls player every weekday leading up to the start of training camp in late September.
Carter played himself into a starting role early in training camp, beating out Robin Lopez for the position within a day or two of practices. The seventh overall pick from Duke never looked back, starting all 44 games he appeared in before a broken thumb ended his rookie campaign. Carter also got to play a handful of different roles: Injuries to Bobby Portis and Lauri Markkanen (and Kris Dunn) made Carter at times the second option on offense, with a usage rate in October/November of 21.2% and 21.7%. He got to work with Lauri Markkanen in December and January in an inside-out look, and Jim Boylen gave him plenty of reps under the basket after Fred Hoiberg played him farther out on the perimeter.
Carter was given myriad looks as a rookie, though his role will be more cemented in Year 2. All things considered, he played well. He averaged 7.0 rebounds and 1.3 blocks as a defender, while contributing 10.3 points on 48.5% shooting and a pleasantly surprising 1.8 assists in just 25.2 minutes. He's certainly more a defensive presence at this stage in his career, but he put together three 20+ point games and six games of four or more assists. Touted as a big who could step out to the perimeter on offense, Carter didn't do much; he shot 36% from 17 feet to the 3-point line, and just 18.8% from deep. Still, that would have been a cherry on top for his rookie season. He showed plenty.
Expectations for this year's role
He's the man in the middle. The Bulls are deep at center but not necessarily over-talented. Luke Kornet, Daniel Gafford and Cristiano Felicio all provide different skill sets but aren't any real threat to take minutes from Carter. If he can limit his foul trouble (more on that later) Carter will have no issue topping 30 minutes a night. In addition to his own prowess, he'll elevate Lauri Markkanen's game by picking up some of the slack defensively. Whereas Carter was the second or third option offensively at times, he may take a back seat with Markkanen, Zach LaVine and Otto Porter all needing touches and shots.
And that's fine. Carter is going to do the dirty work - along with passing out of the pocket - and on the other end he'll be the foundation of the defense. The Bulls will rely on him to cover some of his teammates' shortcomings, contest at the rim and help them get out in transition.
Where he excels
Where to start with Carter? How about his team rebounding? Carter averaged a modest 7.0 rebounds in 25.2 minutes, but there's more to that skill than simple numbers. After Lauri Markkanen returned on Dec. 1, Carter averaged 7.9 box outs per game, sixth most in the NBA (Aldridge, Adams, Nurkic, Vucevic, Ed Davis were ahead of him). Carter averaged just 1.3 rebounds on those 7.9 box outs, meaning he essentially was giving himself up on six missed shots per game for others to grab a rebound (most often Markkanen, who posted outstanding rebounding numbers himself). Carter had double-digit rebounds in nine of 44 games, and he certainly has double-double potential every night, but watch how the Bulls rebound when Carter is in rather than looking at the box score.
Carter is a gifted passer, too. His 1.8 assists per game won't jump off the page, but consider that under Fred Hoiberg he averaged 2.9 assists per 36 minutes, compared to just 2.0 under Jim Boylen when the offense slowed down (on more passes per game, nonetheless). With a hope that the Bulls will push pace shoot more 3-pointers this season, Carter could be a benefactor passing out of the pocket on pick-and-roll action or sliding into the middle of the defense. He plays with his head up, doesn't get rattled when looking for passing lanes and found open shooters and cutters more often than not. It was on full display early in the season when his usage was up, and with more shooters on the perimeter it could really open up the offense.
Carter has elite rim protection potential, too. He was one of 20 players with a block rate of at least 4.5%, and he did so on a Bulls defense that was one of the league's worst. The Bulls were more than 2.0 points per 100 possessions better with Carter on the floor, and while he lacks true center size, he uses his body and footwork exceptionally well to put him in the right position. The addition of assistant Roy Rogers will only further his growth in that area.
Where he needs work
It's tough to be overly critical of Carter's shot selection considering the Bulls' offense did a 180 (from Hoiberg to Boylen) at a time when Carter was using a bunch of possessions. He had to change his game almost instantly, and the arrival of Lauri Markkanen in early December threw him off. He shot just just 51.3% from inside the arc and made just six 3-pointers. The Bulls can live with Carter not being elite around the rim if he's able to stretch the defense - think Lauri Markkanen, who shot below 50% from 2 but made 120 3-pointers.
But again, Carter was a 19-year-old rookie put in a less-than-ideal position of having to shoot more than the Bulls ideally would have liked him to in Year 1. The Bulls were a whopping 8.9 points per 100 possession better with Carter off the floor. Shot selection and finishing better around the rim will be critical for him in Year 2, though he should have much better looks with Tomas Satoransky running the point, and Otto Porter around to stretch defenses and, thus, opening up the paint.
Best case/worst case
In a best-case scenario, Carter breaks out as a perimeter threat. Let's remember: Carter and Otto Porter haven't shared the floor for a single minute. Porter's 15-game run with the Bulls post-trade all came with Carter sidelined. When the Bulls were going on their mini-run of offensive prowess in February, it was Robin Lopez at center. Granted, Lopez played well, but he's not the versatile type like Carter would have been. If Carter shows off some of the range he had at Duke, the Bulls could conceivably have a starting lineup with five capable 3-point shooters.
Defensively, Carter learns to play without fouling (more on that below). Blocks are nice, and Carter is an excellent team (and individual) rebounder. But he needs to stay on the floor. He would have played more than 25.2 minutes if he weren't in foul trouble so often. That's not to say it's Carter's fault - he was a 19-year-old center going up against the best bigs in basketball - but it's a scenario in which he could improve and see serious growth with the rest of his defensive game.
Worst case? Fouls continue to plague him, he continues to struggle from beyond the arc and he's essentially relegated to the same role he had a year ago. The Bulls would probably be fine if a 20-year-old who is the fourth or fifth option offensively averaged 10.3 points, 7.0 rebounds and 1.3 blocks, but they're certainly counting on his growth in Year 2. He's a core piece to the puzzle, arguably third in line behind Markkanen and LaVine.
One key stat
Carter fouled quite a bit. His 3.5 fouls per game were fifth in the NBA (41-game minimum) and they came in just 25.2 minutes. It's worth noting that the four centers with him in the top-6 were Jaren Jackson, Karl Towns, Jusuf Nurkic and Andre Drummond. They all averaged 1.3 blocks or more, so fouls are going to come with the territory of being elite rim protectors, something Carter is certainly capable of.
But digging further, Carter was sixth in first-quarter fouls and fourth in second-quarter fouls. Because of that, he led the NBA in first-half fouls. Again, he was just a rookie, and a shot-blocking one at that. Fouls were bound to find him, but it's something he can improve upon in his sophomore season. The Bulls like Kornet and Gafford, but they want Carter on the floor as much as possible, if for nothing else than to gain as much chemistry with the rest of the core as possible after an injury-riddled 2019.