Bulls player preview: Wendell Carter can be defensive foundation

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.

Previous reviews: Lauri Markkanen | Ryan Arcidiacono | Antonio Blakeney | Coby White | Daniel Gafford

How last year went

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.

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Bulls Outsiders Podcast: Daniel Gafford breaks out in loss to Bucks


Bulls Outsiders Podcast: Daniel Gafford breaks out in loss to Bucks

On this edition of the Bulls Outsiders podcast, Matt Peck, Dave Watson, and John Sabine react to the Bulls 115-101 loss to the Bucks.

0:45                        Reaction to breakout game from Daniel Gafford

3:30                        On Gafford getting limited minutes and not playing in the 4th quarter

7:00                        Viewer comment on sitting Markkanen

8:55                        Viewer comment on on Zach and Lauri

10:15                     On the rotations and bench play

12:45                     Viewer comment on Coby White long-term potential

14:30                     Dave needs to do a show with no hat?

16:15                     Viewer comment on Zach LaVine

18:00                     Viewer trade idea with Warriors

19:45                     Viewer comment brings back Rose memories

20:05                     Change the starting lineup?

22:05                     Viewer makes Sabine happy by referencing Doncic

23:10                     Matt Peck breaks his mic

25:00                     On the Bucks having fun before the Bulls game

Listen to the full podcast here or via the embedded player below:

Daniel Gafford makes his case for an increased role in loss to Bucks

Daniel Gafford makes his case for an increased role in loss to Bucks

Jim Boylen seemed pretty sure of what he was getting from Daniel Gafford when he announced he would be available for the Bulls’ Monday night matchup with the Bucks.

“Just run somebody over, knock somebody down, play hard,” Boylen said of his expectations for Gafford. “I’m expecting Daniel, besides maybe a few nerves, to have a smooth transition into what we do and who we are.”

What he got was much more: One night after playing 31 minutes for the Windy City Bulls in Long Island, the rookie from Arkansas posted 21 points, 5 rebounds, and 2 blocks on 10-for-12 shooting Monday night against one of the league's most fortuitous frontcourts in the Bucks. He led the Bulls in scoring and threw down six dunks (tied for the highest single-game total by a player this season), each one seemingly more vicious, timely and acrobatic than the last.

But the nerves? Non-existent. In fact, Gafford fit into the Bulls’ three-guard sparkplug bench unit like a glove.

“If you throw it anywhere near the rim, he’s gonna go get it,” Coby White said. “Everybody trust[s] him, so that’s all that matters. You gotta trust your teammates.”

“He can dunk the sh*t out of the ball,” Kris Dunn said.


Gafford was active every second of his 20:58 on the floor, hunting screen-and-roll opportunities, rebounds and lob-passes, as if for sustenance. He even said after the game that, energy-wise, he could have handled a weightier minutes total, if needed.

“That’s just the practice and stuff we do every game,” Gafford said of the chemistry between the lineup of him, White, Dunn, Ryan Arcidiacono and Thad Young — a unit that posted a 150.0 offensive rating in 12 total minutes together on Monday. “All the time, we always building relationships...

"I didn’t really have to say anything, they already knew what my plan was… Just go get anything off the rim.”

Even in defeat, Gafford played to a level beyond even his wildest supporters' dreams, corralling one-handed alley oops, mopping up missed shots by teammates and providing security coming over from the weak-side in the Bulls’ aggressive, blitzing defense.

The Bulls offense was 22.2 points per 100 possessions better with Gafford on the floor. And even though the ancillary defensive metrics weren't ground-breaking, he showed flashes of being the type of player that can anchor the undersized three-guard lineups that Boylen loves to utilize, without sacrificing the level of activity and athleticism that makes the purest form of this Bulls defense so difficult to deal with.

“He brings a whole other dynamic to our team,” Dunn said. “He’s a forceful roller… [and] defensively, someone gets blown by, we know we got help-side with him, we know he’s gonna come over and try to deflect the ball.”


As he did before the game, Boylen credited Gafford’s instruction with schematically similar Windy City for preparing him to take full advantage of this opportunity. Now, the question becomes: With Luke Kornet likely to miss at least 7-10 days, can Gafford continue to expand his role with this team, moving forward? 

“I think he made a great case for himself today,” Dunn said. “As long as he just keeps working hard, keep doing what he’s been doing, staying disciplined, I think good things are gonna keep happening.”

“I still got a lot more left,” Gafford said. “Whenever I get my chance again, I’m gonna do the same thing.”

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