When the starting line-ups are introduced opening night in Philadelphia, it's a pretty safe bet that barring injury, Robin Lopez will be the starting center for the visiting Bulls.
Now in his 11th NBA season, Lopez has earned the right to remain the starter, coming off one of his most productive offensive seasons. Lopez averaged a career-high 11.8 points per game, shooting 53% from the field and just under 76% from the FT line. In addition, Lopez' role as a mentor on one of the league's youngest teams holds considerable value for the franchise.
Still, the time is coming, and maybe not all that far away, when Lopez will have to move to the bench in favor of rookie Wendell Carter Jr., the seventh overall pick in the June draft.
Carter possesses all the skills NBA coaches and talent evaluators are looking for in a big man given the way the game is played today. At 6-foot-10, with a 7-foot-4 wingspan, Carter has already shown excellent timing blocking shots at the rim, plus he has the lateral quickness to get out on the perimeter to switch on to smaller players in pick and roll situations. He also can score in the post with either hand and has a soft shooting touch out to the 3-point line.
In Sunday's preseason opener against New Orleans, Carter quietly and efficiently put up 11 points and 7 rebounds in just 24 minutes, making 5 of 8 shots from the field. Unlike many college stars, Carter isn't a stat-hunter who puts up low percentage shots just to make his line look better in the final box score. Matter of fact, the biggest challenge for Fred Hoiberg and his staff might be to get Carter to shoot the ball more often.
After playing in the considerable shadow of first team All-American Marvin Bagley III at Duke last season, Carter looks comfortable setting screens for his teammates and going to the offensive glass to get his shot opportunities. In one sequence during the opening quarter against the Pelicans, he ran two separate picks and rolls with Zach LaVine on the same possession to finally free LaVine up for a baseline jumper. Carter's ability to either roll to the rim or pop out to the perimeter makes him extra dangerous on pick and roll plays, and the Bulls will look to him more as a scorer as the season progresses.
Hoiberg told reporters Carter will get some playing time with the starters during Wednesday's preseason game in Milwaukee, and he also wants to get Jabari Parker minutes at the small forward position so Parker will be ready to make the transition when Lauri Markkanen returns from injury. Clearly, the coaching staff is already planning for what this team can be with the entire roster available.
Don't be surprised if Carter is playing crunch time minutes right from the start of the regular season. His ability to protect the rim makes him an essential part of the Bulls' best defensive line-up. Lopez is one of the best screeners in the league, but he doesn't have the foot speed to bring the versatility Carter offers at both ends of the court.
Both men are saying all the right things in the media, with Lopez going out of his way to compliment Carter's work ethic and willingness to learn. At the same time, Carter is lucky to have a veteran as generous as Lopez to show him the ins and outs of the pro game.
Lopez will be a free agent at season's end and could be headed to a sixth NBA team in 2019-'20, but for now the excellent working relationship between the 30-year-old vet and the 19-year-old rookie should make the center spot a position of strength for this year's Bulls' team.
Around the Association
Carter isn't the only big man making an early impression as the NBA preseason schedule gets underway. No. 1 overall pick DeAndre Ayton burst out of the gates with 24 points, 9 rebounds, and 3 blocks against the Sacramento Kings. Ayton made 9 of 16 shots from the field and 6 of 8 from the free throw line.
Some scouts questioned Ayton's motor during his one season at Arizona, but there are few questions about his skill set. Ayton is physically overpowering at 7-foot-1, 250 pounds and can be almost unstoppable when he catches the ball in the low post. The Suns have been trying to rebuild for years, but it looks like they might finally have a nucleus to build around in Ayton and wing players Devin Booker and Josh Jackson.
TNT's Shaquille O'Neal knows a thing or two about center play, and he called Ayton the next dominant NBA big man. Given the fact the charismatic Ayton has an outgoing personality, and enjoys the daily give-and-take with the media, he could quickly join Philadelphia's Joel Embiid on the list of must-see centers.
NBA fans are actually witnessing a renaissance of center play in recent years. Ayton, Mo Bamba and Carter joining the likes of young centers Embiid, Karl-Anthony Towns, Andre Drummond, Nikola Jokic, Steven Adams, Clint Capela, Myles Turner and Rudy Gobert.
Bamba knocked down a couple of threes in his preseason debut against Philadelphia and told reporters he worked all summer on a quicker release to be able to get his shot off against NBA defenders. With his unprecedented 7-foot-10 wing span, Bamba should be a force on the defensive end for Orlando. If he can develop on the offensive end, the Magic will have another foundation piece to go along with power forward Aaron Gordon, who signed a huge contract as a restricted free agent over the summer.
Of course, it's not easy being a rookie. The king of NBA twitter, Mr. Embiid, opted for Instagram to talk some trash on Bamba.
Actually, Embiid and Bamba are good friends who worked out together during the summer, but Embiid doesn’t want his protégé to learn his tricks right away.
With so many star players having the ability to enter free agency next summer, speculation about possible landing spots will be a big storyline throughout the season. Kevin Durant can opt out of his deal with the Warriors and rumors persist that he might be looking for his own team to lead after all the criticism he received for joining a budding dynasty in Oakland two years ago.
Meeting with reporters this week, Durant went on and on about how comfortable he is playing for the Warriors and is only focused on trying to win a third straight championship. But a column by our good friend Nick Friedell on ESPN.com contained this quote about Durant's upcoming free agency, "It's just where I want to play ball at, where I'm most comfortable, where I feel most at home, and I feel at home here," Durant said. "I feel like I belong here. I feel like I mix with this team, I mesh with this team well. With that being said, I really don't know what's going to happen this summer. But I really, really feel like a part of this team."
The Warriors are an overwhelming favorite to win another title this season, but after that all bets are off with Durant, Klay Thompson and DeMarcus Cousins all headed to free agency in 2019. No matter how much Durant says the media criticism of his decision to hop aboard the Golden State championship train doesn't bother him anymore, you get the feeling he might be ready to start the third act of his NBA career next fall. Teams like the Knicks, Nets, Clippers and yes, LeBron James’ Lakers will be waiting with open arms.