After an 11-game absence, Bulls big man Wendell Carter Jr. will return to action Monday night against the Indiana Pacers.
The root of Carter's absence was a right quadricep injury suffered in a collision with Denzel Valentine during a Jan. 20 practice, on which doctors told Carter Valentine inadvertently struck him in the perfect spot. An MRI conducted roughly a week later revealed a significant bruise on the quad and a four-week re-evaluation timeline.
But now, after just under three weeks, the Bulls' starting center is back. Head coach Billy Donovan said Carter is fully cleared to return without a minutes restriction, but that he didn't envision Carter reaching his season average of 26.9 minutes per game.
"[Feb. 14] was really the first day he actually 5-on-5 contact played. He had two sessions of that and responded well after it, but it's not like he's had a big build up to that," Donovan said. "So I just in my opinion don't see him playing extended minutes."
Given that the injury was of the lower-leg variety, Donovan said Carter wasn't able to keep his conditioning completely up to par while rehabbing. He'll be afforded some grace as he regains his wind.
"I'm not thinking that Wendell is going to end up being where he was before he got injured. This is probably gonna take him some time," Donovan said. "He looked fine yesterday moving and cutting and playing, there were no issues there. But I do think it's gonna take him some time to get his rhythm, his timing, his conditioning back, and hopefully that'll happen sooner rather than later."
The Bulls -- who went 4-7 in those 11 games and saw Daniel Gafford sputter in a starting role -- sorely missed Carter for his multifaceted impact. Fourteen appearances into his third professional season, Carter is averaging career-highs in points (12.8) and assists (2.4) and ranks sixth in the NBA in screen assists per game (5) while providing steadiness on defense and the glass.
"I felt like he was getting a little bit more comfortable offensively in that role as a facilitator," Donovan said. "I think he was getting back to offensive rebounding. Certainly his length and size at the basket helps us defensively, there's been times we've been small and haven't had great rim protection... We missed his screening. I always say this, when you miss out on a player that's certainly a vital and important role, it impacts your team."