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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Tributes to Kobe Bryant, city of Chicago highlight memorable All-Star Sunday

USA Today

Tributes to Kobe Bryant, city of Chicago highlight memorable All-Star Sunday

The specter of Kobe Bryant was omnipresent throughout All-Star weekend. Too often, it felt that the city of Chicago was not. 

But both took center stage at the All-Star game itself on Sunday night. The result was poignant, powerful and downright enthralling.

Magic Johnson set the tone early with a eulogy to Bryant that elicited multiple, impassioned ‘Kobe!’ chants from the crowd. That gave way to South Side native Common seamlessly weaving a cadenced monologue dedicated to Chicago, Bryant and daughter Gigi, as images of city legends from Barack Obama to Michael Jordan to Hebru Brantley flashed across the screen. The United Center rippled with emotion from start to finish.

For Bryant, the homage was a culmination. For Chicago, it was an essential re-centering to cap a weekend that saw only one Bull participate in an event — Zach LaVine, who exited after round one of the 3-point shootout. After 32 years since last hosting, this city deserved its moment in the sun. That one delivered.

“Chicago held it down,” Anthony Davis said. “I think they showed the league and everyone around the world about our Chicago history, about the city. I think everyone enjoyed it and respects Chicago a little bit more.”

Of course, there was a game to play, too — and embedded within were moments of pure symbolism.

On the surface: Members of Team Giannis and Team LeBron donned No. 24 and No. 2, respectively, in honor of Bryant and Gigi. The final quarter of the game went untimed, a slog to 157 (24 points more than the 133 Team Giannis entered the period with, per the league’s new Elam-inspired format). 

Chicago charities — Chicago Scholars ($400,000) for Team LeBron, After School Matters ($100,000) for Giannis — also received a cumulative $500,000 over the course of the game. Seventy-nine assists between the two teams means $79,000 will go towards STEM research in the greater Chicago area, too.

But now, let’s get a little nebulous. 

That fourth quarter, after a familiarly lackluster previous three, was electric. The offenses were legitimately running plays, the defenses were scrapping. There was controversial officiating, sweat dripping, and charges and clutch blocks galore. By the end, you could cut the tension with a knife.

“It felt like playing in the league in a playoff game,” Davis said.

Forgive me this contrivance, but how fitting a finish to commemorate both this city and Bryant. A true grind-it-out, scratch-and-claw affair. And as epic a pickup run as you’re like to find.

Most poetic, then, was the winning bucket. Yes, it was a free-throw — an anticlimactic ending to a memorable night — but the man that took it, Davis, was both born and bred in Chicago, and currently reps the same purple and gold Bryant did for 20 seasons as a member of the Lakers. 

“It was a great feeling, to be back home,” Davis said. “And I’m happy I was able to be the one to knock down the free throw to seal the game.

“For our side to get a win, for Kob (Kobe), this whole weekend was honoring him. And I think the league did a great job of doing that.”

Davis went on to congratulate Kawhi Leonard, who tonight took home the first ever Kobe Bryant All-Star game MVP award. His 30 points led all scorers in the game.

“It’s very special,” Leonard said. “I had a relationship with him (Bryant). Words can’t explain how happy I am for it. Able to put that trophy in my room… And just to be able to see Kobe’s name on there. It just means a lot to me. He’s a big inspiration in my life. He did a lot for me.”

On Thursday, normalcy will return to the United Center in the form of the Bulls and Hornets. But this was a night no one will soon forget. Thank you, Chicago. Thank you, basketball.

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New All-Star game format brings competitiveness that does NBA, city of Chicago proud

New All-Star game format brings competitiveness that does NBA, city of Chicago proud

Team LeBron defeated Team Giannis 157-155.

Team LeBron’s charity, Chicago Scholars, won $400,000. Team Giannis’ charity, After School Matters, took home $100,000.

Kawhi Leonard won the first Kobe Bryant All-Star game MVP award.

Another winner? How about the sport of basketball, the NBA and critics of All-Star games everywhere?

Thanks to a new format that featured charities benefitting by whichever team won each quarter, plus the first usage of an Elam Ending, the United Center featured a fourth quarter whose intensity might make Michael Jordan smile.

Man, that was fun. They fixed the NBA All-Star game. It still seems surreal.

Anthony Davis sank the second of two free throws after Team Giannis coach Nick Nurse used a second coach’s challenge — and third of the fourth quarter overall — to finalize matters.

But not until — deep breath here — Giannis Antetokounmpo dived for a loose ball; Kyle Lowry took two charges; Antetokounmpo blocked Davis twice and LeBron James once at the rim; officials called back-to-back offensive fouls, one of which felt like a makeup call; and players argued with officials like the NBA Finals, or maybe playground bragging rights, were at stake.

“Throughout the whole fourth quarter and at the end of the game, everybody was like, ‘That was pretty damn fun,’” James said.

That it was.

In an interview with NBC Sports Chicago last month, NBA commissioner Adam Silver credited Chris Paul for bringing him the idea to incorporate the Elam ending, which establishes a target score rather than using a clock to discourage late-game fouling. Paul returned the compliment.

“The good thing about our league is we’re always adding new things and trying to figure out from our fans what they like,” Paul said.

Silver and the league introduced their own twist by making the target score 24 points more than the leading team after three quarters — a nod to Kobe Bryant’s number — and having the quarter-by-quarter charity winners.

Actually, nobody won the third quarter. It ended tied despite Nurse and Team LeBron coach Frank Vogel trading timeouts in the waning seconds to try to win the quarter.

“Every quarter from a coaching standpoint was really fun,” Nurse said.

Several players likened the ending intensity to that of a playoff game. How much did the Elam Ending benefit the ramp up in effort?

After three quarters of lob dunks, behind-the-back passes and uncontested 3-point shots that featured 55.5 percent shooting, the teams combined for 35.5 percent shooting in the fourth quarter.

“The end was amazing,” Nurse said. “Offensively, it was hard to get anything started. Even first passes were being denied. It felt like the end of a playoff game, which was really cool.”

Fans greeted it as such, standing down the stretch. What better way to honor Bryant’s legendary competitiveness than the way this one played out in the waning minutes?

That it was Davis who sank the winning free throw seemed a fitting end to honor the legacy of Chicago basketball that had been on display all week and then intensified with a beautiful pregame tribute to the city narrated by the rapper Common.

Davis, who attended Perspectives Charter High School, is the latest in a long line of stars this city has produced.

“Listen man, Chicago is right up there with one of the top cities in the world with producing some of the greatest basketball players to ever play this game,” James said. “You’ve even got Ben Wilson, who was on his way to being a star and obviously we know the story about that. So you got it all the way from grade school-era through high school through college and then so many pros and so many Hall of Famers.

“KG (Kevin Garnett) is about to go into the Hall of Fame soon. The great Isiah Thomas. DWade (Dwyane Wade) at some point will go into the Hall of Fame.”

That James cited Wilson, the late Simeon star gunned down on the eve of his senior season, showed the ultimate respect to this city’s rich heritage. A heritage that was honored by a competitive ending that would make anyone playing on playgrounds from Margate Park to Murray Park proud.

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