The Bulls had a decision to make Thursday night at No. 7.
Staring them in the face was Michael Porter Jr., undoubtedly the biggest risk in the draft but also one of the most talented, and a fan favorite to boot. Both Villanova’s Mikal Bridges and Kentucky’s Kevin Knox presented options who would fill needs on the wing for a Bulls team desperate for a perimeter threat. The team was also reportedly interested in Alabama point guard Collin Sexton during the pre-draft process, and the potential to trade up for a Luka Doncic or Mo Bamba at 3 or 4 was on the table.
Instead the Bulls opted against going high upside, high risk. They passed on filling one of their glaring needs. They didn’t mortgage future assets to move up in a draft they felt was already deep enough. What the Bulls did on Thursday night in selecting Duke center Wendell Carter was make clear one aspect of their rebuild: Lauri Markkanen is the face of the franchise and the man they’re constructing this roster around.
Everything that makes the 19-year-old Carter a great prospect is what detractors felt might hold Markkanen back at the next level. Carter was built to thrive in the paint, an energetic center who posted a better offensive rebounding rate (the percentage of rebounds a player grabs while on the floor) than Texas’ Mo Bamba and his 7-foot-10 wingspan. Carter was one of the best players in the country at scoring off those offensive rebounds, and he did all this while playing alongside Marvin Bagley, the No. 2 pick to Sacramento and the ACC’s leading rebounder.
But Carter is more than just a young Tristan Thompson. Though he rarely had to use it on a Duke team littered with perimeter threats, Carter showed a solid touch in making 41 percent of his 46 3-point attempts. He looks comfortable at 15 to 17 feet, and he passed well from those areas, too. That shooting will come as an added bonus; Carter was the anchor a Duke defense that transformed to zone midway through the season, and the Blue Devils defense was nearly 6 points per 100 possessions better with Carter on the floor.
It's not surprising that the Bulls were reportedly interested in moving up with centers Jaren Jackson and Bamba on the table, more defensive-minded complements to Markkanen, and not Doncic or Porter. It felt as though the Bulls were drafting at 7 not only to grab the best player available, but to maximize Markkanen's potential.
What Carter will be asked to do, at least in the early going with this roster’s makeup – is much of what he was asked to do at Duke. He played second fiddle in the frontcourt to Bagley, who led the Blue Devils in all major offensive categories and won ACC Player of the Year. Carter posted modest 13.5-point and 9.0-rebound averages while doing the dirty work on defense. His 7.6 percent block rate (percentage of shot attempts he blocked while on the court) was impressive considering how often Duke played zone.
“The young man sacrificed a lot in order to be a good teammate. A lot of it speaks to who he is,” Gar Forman said. “We think in really studying his game is, if you look long-term, is a guy that can fit with Lauri and obviously Lauri is a huge part of what we’re trying to build here."
The Bulls are rolling the dice that Markkanen can be the face of franchise. A year ago LaVine was far and away the core piece of the Jimmy Butler trade, and that was while he was rehabbing from ACL surgery. Markkanen was a question mark and a project, and Kris Dunn was a 23-year-old rookie who posted awful numbers in Minnesota. Questions about LaVine's future in Chicago with restricted free agency this summer now linger, and Dunn is going on 24 years old with 50 career starts.
It's Markkanen's spotlight, and the Bulls know it. He showed he was for real as a rookie; he was not, however, Donovan Mitchell or Ben Simmons, a can't-miss, sure-fire star. Yes, he joined LeBron James and Dario Saric as the only members of the 1,000-point, 500-rebound, 140-3-pointer club last year. He put up shooting numbers for a 7-footer matched only by Hall of Fame center Dirk Nowitzki. Questions persist on whether he can make a leap to stardom, but adding pieces like Carter to complement him and cover some weaknesses are a step in that direction.
"You hope you draft players that become stars," Paxson said. "We believe that last year, in drafting Lauri, he has that potential. He has a long way to go, but we believe he has that potential."
That could be part of the reason the Bulls opted against moving up in the draft, like Dallas did in dealing No. 5 and a future first-round pick to grab Luka Doncic at No. 3. Paxson and Forman both hinted at the Bulls being in a state of the rebuild where giving up future assets to attain something greater didn't provide a positive net worth. They're happy and comfortable with where they stand at this stage in the rebuild, with Markkanen, Zach LaVine, Kris Dunn, Bobby Portis and an enormous amount of cap space.
Now they can add Carter and No. 22 pick Chandler Hutchison to that list. The 6-foot-7 Boise State forward was yet another complementary piece to the roster. Like Carter, Hutchison projects as a high floor, low(er) ceiling player. Hutchinson is a four-year senior compared to Carter being a year removed from high school, but the two are similar. Hutchison will provide a physical presence on the wing the Bulls have lacked, and he can cover defensive weaknesses of players like Denzel Valentine, LaVine and even Markkanen.
"We feel these two players complement the team and the roster that we have very well," Paxson said. "One year later we feel like we’ve added five really good young core pieces to build and that's important to us. We’re excited about the future, the direction we’re headed."
The Bulls didn’t need to roll the dice with their 7th pick on Thursday night. They rolled the dice with the same selection one year ago and hit on it. Taking Carter midway through the Lottery is a complement and a compliment to what the Bulls believe Markkanen is and what he will be for a franchise looking to get back in contention.
It's a lot to ask for a 21-year-old Finnish stretch forward. But superstars win in the NBA and the Bulls believe they have one budding at the power forward position. Thursday's decision to play it safe and draft a complementary piece in Carter, one who played a role in college he'll be asked to play in Chicago, only cements that belief.