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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Here are key Bulls players' most recent public comment on coach Jim Boylen

Here are key Bulls players' most recent public comment on coach Jim Boylen

It’s Day 147 since the Bulls last played a game. The NBA has restarted its season to first-weekend-of-March-Madness-esque affect. With no positive COVID-19 cases yet reported from within the bubble, and games taking on a playoff feel, buzz is palpable.

But no, the Bulls have not yet announced a decision on the future of head coach Jim Boylen.

Still, tea-leaf reading continues to abound with respect to Boylen’s job status, and it’s easy to reason why. After a tumultuous third year of the current rebuild, ownership installed fresh leadership at the highest level of the front office in executive vice president Arturas Karnisovas; in turn, Karnisovas brought on general manager Marc Eversley, assistant GM J.J. Polk and VP of player personnel Pat Connelly. John Paxson retreated to an advisory role and Gar Forman was fired. There’s been a bit of deck-shuffling in the training and coaching staffs, though most were based on contract option deadlines.

All of which is to say, winds of change are howling for a franchise that was in dire need of it.

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So — whichever direction the team goes — what’s the hold up on committing to or moving on from Boylen? Karnisovas publicly addressed that question at his end-of-season conference call nearly two months ago.

“I know that you are anxious for me to comment definitively on our future of the Chicago Bulls. I understand that anticipation,” Karnisovas said. “That said, I take pride in being deliberate and thoughtful in my decision-making and take the weight of my decisions seriously. I’m not inclined to make evaluations prematurely to satisfy our excitement to move this team forward.”

Then: “I’d like to be in a building, to be in practices, to be around the coaching staff in meetings. We’re looking forward to getting in the video room together, analyze the games, to watch games together… In order for me to keep players and coaches accountable, I have to have personal relationships with them.”

That, and leaguewide financial uncertainty due to the COVID-19 pandemic, appear to have contributed to Karnisovas playing the long game in deciding on Boylen’s future.

But a vocal segment of the fanbase hasn’t been satisfied with that approach. And a common mantra among that group has been that keeping Boylen aboard as long as the new regime has is directly contradictory to their stated goal of making the Bulls a “players first” organization. Boylen’s 39-84 record through one-and-a-half seasons is the kindling for calls for his job. Reports of players privately expressing discontent with him have stoked the flames further.

So, in the spirit of getting it down on paper, let’s run through key Bulls players’ most recent public comments on Boylen (disclaimer: since the league shutdown began). We’ll update this piece if and when more filter through:

Tomáš Satoranský, Aug. 4: “I certainly don’t want to throw dirt on him”

Tuesday, Lukas Kuba, who’s all over all things Sato, had this tidbit from an interview Satoranský conducted on Express FM, a Czech radio station. In it, Satoranský acknowledged the harsh realities of the 2019-20 season, but was largely sympathetic towards Boylen due to a combination of his first-year status, front-facing role and work ethic:


Per Kuba, Satoranský has commented on Boylen to Czech media multiple times since the Bulls last played, and stayed diplomatic doing it. A common thread: Sato seems to see Boylen as a positive thinker who works hard, even if the fruits of that care factor haven’t bloomed on the court. He has also criticized Boylen’s rotations, but maintained — at least publicly — that he thinks Boylen will be back next season:


All of the above is likely translated from Czech — important context to note if analyzing every word.

Daniel Gafford, July 21: “He aight”

For the most part, Bulls players have maintained diplomacy speaking on Boylen since the NBA shuttered on March 11. Rookie center Daniel Gafford represents the most glaring exception. Here’s how he responded to a viewer question on his opinion of Boylen while live-streaming on Twitch:


“He aight. I don’t like him a lot but he OK,” Gafford said. “Got some things he can work on. Got some things he can get better at — as a person and as a coach. Not gonna hate on him, not gonna hate the man, but you know (trails off)...”

Far from a ringing endorsement, especially when you listen to Gafford’s tone in the audio itself. 

Context: Boylen light-heartedly admitted in the preseason that he’d been hard on Gafford in the run-up to the start of his first year; then, Gafford started the season out of the rotation in favor of free-agent-signing Luke Kornet before the rooke from Arkansas burst out with 21 points (10-for-12 FG), five rebounds and two blocks on Nov. 18 against the Milwaukee Bucks, unimpeachably proving his merit.

And on Jan. 6, there was this incident, when Boylen appeared to leave a timeout in his pocket with Gafford writhing in pain on the floor after turning his ankle in a game against the Dallas Mavericks. Gafford was allowed to sub out only after play stopped for a foul called on Tim Hardaway Jr.


Zach LaVine, June 5: “I think he goes out there and does his best.”

Thad Young, June 5: “He’s probably one of the more energetic coaches I’ve played for”

Both LaVine and Young took the high road when asked about Boylen in their end-of-season press conferences back in early June.

“I’m going to keep the same stance I always have. It’s not for me to judge somebody. I think he goes out there and does his best. I don’t think anybody in any organization in the NBA goes out there and tries to fail,” LaVine said. “Sometimes, it’s out of your power on won-loss record or what happens during the game. I know for a fact he tries and does his best. That’s all you can ask for sometimes. As a player, I just follow the lead and do my job. On decisions and things like that, I leave that up to higher management. That’s not my role in the organization.”

And, in a perfect closing line: “I think you know I was going to answer that correctly.”

“That’s not really a question for me to answer,” Young echoed. “I think that’s more up to the front office. Obviously, Jim is very energetic. He’s probably one of the most energetic coaches I’ve played for. My job is to go out there and basically help lead this team to try to win games and play to the best of my ability each night. It’s the same for each guy down the line. That’s something you’ll have to ask Marc and Arturas and let them answer.”

Both LaVine and Young also had public differences of opinion with Boylen throughout the season. For LaVine, the inflection point was being pulled three-and-a-half minutes into an early-season blowout loss to the Miami Heat for what Boylen termed “three egregious defensive mistakes.”

“I’ve got pulled early before by him. I guess that’s just his thing to do,” LaVine said that night, only to drop 49 points and 13 3s on the Charlotte Hornets the next. 

An evident show of frustration (“Why?”) caught on camera following a last-minute Boylen timeout amid a 27-point defeat to the Toronto Raptors stands out, too. The near-coup that took place when Boylen took over in 2018 is well-documented, as is LaVine paying a $7,000 fine for the coach late last season — at the time, a sign of an evolving relationship that has since seen more bumps.

And Young’s frustrations with his role, first made public in a report by the Chicago Sun-Times in December 2019, permeated an up-and-down campaign in which he was asked to adjust to a style he hadn’t encountered in his 13-year career and inconsistent playing time. His best stretch came in place of an injured Lauri Markkanen, but he finished 2019-20 with non-rookie-year career-lows in points, rebounds and minutes per game.

How much stock you put into the above comments is in the eye of the beholder. They all contribute to the murky picture around the Bulls’ coaching situation right now.

RELATED: Why Arturas Karnisovas’ long play on Jim Boylen's future is the smart play


WNBA players wear ‘Vote Warnock’ shirts in continued stand against Kelly Loeffler

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WNBA players wear ‘Vote Warnock’ shirts in continued stand against Kelly Loeffler

In a show of support to Raphael Warnock, a Democratic challenger for Kelly Loeffler’s (R) Senate seat in Georgia, players across the WNBA donned T-shirts that read “Vote Warnock” Tuesday afternoon.

Loeffler, who owns a partial share in the Atlanta Dream and was officially appointed the junior United States Senator from Georgia by Governor Brian Kemp in January, penned a letter to WNBA commissioner Cathy Engelbert in July voicing opposition to the league’s plans to honor the Black Lives Matter movement throughout its season. Her seat is up for grabs in a special election set to be held Nov. 3.

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Here’s a look at the Sky, who sported the shirts both in advance of and following the team’s fifth game of the season, an 82-79 victory over the Dallas Wings. 

“It’s very clear, we’re an incredible league that has always been very vocal,” Courtney Vandersloot said in a Zoom conference after the game. “We have 80 percent Black women who are absolutely amazing and if you feel so strongly about them, why are you even associated with the WNBA? That part I don’t understand. We don’t need you. And that’s that.”

Dream forward Elizabeth Williams personally tweeted out her support for Warnock.


After Loeffler’s letter to Engelbert, players across the league were swift and universal in condemning her; in a tweet, the WNBPA joined its constituents by publicly calling for Loeffler to vacate her post with the Dream. The WNBA then said in a statement that Loeffler was “no longer involved in the day-to-day business of the team” and hadn’t served as the Dream’s Governor since October 2019.


Loeffler doubled down on her opposition to Black Lives Matter in an interview with ESPN’s Ramona Shelburne in late July, saying she has no intention of selling her stake in the Dream. She tripled down Tuesday in a statement:

But a league notorious for leading the charge in athlete advocacy on issues of social justice presented a unified front Tuesday.

“It was important to me (to wear the shirt) because my teammates wanted me to wear it,” Cheyenne Parker said in her postgame Zoom availability, though she added that she isn’t fully acquainted with Warnock’s politics. “The whole point in us wearing this is to try to get the partial owner of Atlanta out of office. That was the whole point. 

“Obviously I support that because she doesn’t stand for what this league stands for. So whatever it takes to get her displaced and removed, I’m willing to participate in it. I don’t know much about Warnock, but I wore the shirt for my team.”