When Wendell Carter Jr. got the news that the quad contusion he suffered during a recent practice was more severe than many originally thought, he was hardly surprised.
“I was on the ground, I thought I did something more than what was told to me,” Carter told reporters Wednesday, describing the aftermath of a collision with Denzel Valentine that team doctors said struck Carter in a “perfect,” unfortunate spot. “After the initial pain that I had, I knew it was going to be longer. I knew it was just a contusion, but I knew it was a lot more severe than I was used to. It (the diagnosis) didn't catch me by surprise at all.”
Now, Carter is set to be re-evaluated in four weeks on top of the three games he’s already missed. It’s the third season in Carter’s three-year career in which he’ll have missed more than one month of game action, having lost 35 games as a rookie to a damaged ulnar collateral ligament in his thumb and 22 in 2019-20 to an ankle sprain.
That all those injuries could be easily classified as of the “freak” variety makes the news especially frustrating for Carter, who called availability one of his primary goals for 2020-21 during training camp.
“It's definitely frustrating just knowing that I do everything in my power just to make sure I avoid the injuries that I know that I 90 percent have control over. And then that other 10 percent, I can't really control them,” Carter said. “And those three injuries have been a part of that 10 percent. I just got to take it on the chin and keep going and just try to come back as strong and play as if I didn't miss a beat when I come back.”
Plus, with a new head coach and management regime in town, Carter is auditioning for a long-term role with the franchise. This offseason, he and the Bulls will be eligible to extend his rookie contract, but the laundry list of ailments he’s already accrued early in his career complicate evaluation.
Carter had posted double-figure scoring outputs in the seven games leading up to the injury, averaging 13.9 points, 8.3 rebounds and 2.6 assists while exhibiting advanced comfort in new roles on both sides of the floor.
“It's definitely tough. Especially in this business. I hate the label of being injury prone or always injured and things like that,” Carter said. “But at the same time as I look inside the business, the people who are a part of this business, they understand that all these injuries weren't because I wasn't prepared or weren't because I wasn't doing the necessary things to make sure my body could withstand the 72 game season.
“It's definitely tough, there's people I want to please, just like being out there on the court and helping my team win. And I can't really do much from the timeline.”
With the latest being a quad injury, Carter’s mobility will be impeded as he rehabs, limiting his ability to keep his conditioning sharp. Still, he says he’ll continue traveling with the team -- as he did for the Jan. 22 game in Charlotte against the Hornets he missed -- in an effort to stay active and keep his “quad firing” (the worst pain comes when he’s sedentary).
He’s also committed to staying engaged in team meetings, keeping his diet right and helping coach up Daniel Gafford, who has started the Bulls’ last three games in his place.
“I've set up some schedules with the assistant coaches to watch film each game. Find ways, if I was in those situations, what I can do, how I can help,” Carter said. “ Especially with DG (Gafford) now starting, just trying to give him little pointers here and there of things that I think I'm pretty good at, trying to help him out. And then, for when I come back, I think the biggest thing right now especially is my nutrition. Since I'm not playing as much I just got to cut on a lot of the foods I would normally eat, just to keep my energy up and things like that.”
Billy Donovan hasn’t committed to Gafford as the starting center for the entirety of Carter’s absence, leaving the door open for a by committee or matchup-based approach. Gafford has averaged 15.8 minutes in his three starts, with Thad Young, Lauri Markkanen and even Cristiano Felício also seeing run in the middle.
“You’re going to have to possibly look at [Felício] as well in that group. You’re going to have to look at Thad there and Lauri there. Those are really the three guys that you probably have to look at,” Donovan said, before also briefly mentioning Luke Kornet.
Gafford described his recent play -- he amassed 4 points (1-for-4 shooting) and 2 rebounds across 29 combined minutes against the Lakers and Celtics, and was in notable foul trouble throughout the former contest -- as being a bit “stuck in the mud.”
But even as he looks to fill big shoes on both ends of the floor in Carter’s, he’s ready for anything.
“I come in and do the same thing -- I set screens, I work to get rebounds and I just have high energy. Those are the main things that I'm always doing, so I've got to keep up with that,” he said.
“It's times where I kind of like speed up the game way more than what I'm used to. I just have to learn how to be patient out of the pocket situation or, like, dribble handoffs, certain things like that. I've got Thad Young in my ear, he's helping me out with that a lot. The big man coach here, John Bryant, he's helping me out with that too. My main focus is just basically trying to slow the game down as much as I possibly can, to be able to be a big effect on offense for this team."