Wendell Carter Jr.’s first two NBA seasons have been defined by flashes. The brightest may have come within two weeks of debuting, when he exploded for 25-8-5 in a tight loss to the Denver Nuggets in October 2018. Ever since, there have been teases of nimble ball-handling, heady facilitating and even long-range shooting -- all tantalizing traits for a modern center whose defensive prowess is already established.
But a combination of injuries -- both of the freak variety -- and scattered usage -- he ranked seventh on the Bulls in touches per game in 2019-20 -- have stymied such flashes sustaining.
“Staying healthy is probably going to be the biggest thing for me,” Carter said during his media week availability session. “Being available for all 72 I feel like is a skill that I need to develop.”
He’s only seen the floor for 87 through his first two years. But availability could unlock a breakout third season for the Bulls’ young big, especially under a head coach in Billy Donovan that bubbled with belief in Carter’s versatile skillset during his presser days prior.
“Just watching him and being around him and even communicating with him, I think there's a lot of different things he can do,” Donovan said of Carter. “I think he can be a facilitator for us, I think he's got very good vision, he's a good passer for a big man. I think, also, him being put in some situations where he can kind of stretch his range a little bit and maybe do a little bit more on the perimeter, I think that will be a big part of his growth and development as a player.”
Donovan will be the 21-year-old’s third head coach in three NBA seasons -- a theme for many of the young players on the Bulls’ roster. But there’s reason to believe he’s destined to coax Carter closer to his ceiling than either of his predecessors.
After all, Donovan steered the development of two highly-skilled two-way centers at Florida in Al Horford and Joakim Noah. Even Steven Adams grew a slick-passing element to complement his bruising style under Donovan in his final season coaching the Oklahoma City Thunder.
Similar potential exists in Carter -- you remember the Horford predraft comparisons -- and it appears Donovan sees it.
“He watched film on us and saw how versatile or the potential of me being versatile on the court. He actually came to me and told me that he wants me to be more interchangeable,” Carter said of Donovan. “I think that’s a good thing.”
That proactivity marks an extension of Donovan’s reputation as being a coach that values player input in the scheming and the development processes. Multiple Bulls, including Zach LaVine and Lauri Markkanen, have detailed positive conversations with Donovan about their usage in the weeks since his hiring.
What does that look like in practice for Carter?
“He wants me to play a lot from the trail position, catching it at the free-throw line, making my decisions there, possibly attacking the rim from there or going dribble hand-offs, picking-and-popping, playing from there, playing out of the dunker (spot),” Carter said.
It could also mean toggling between the power forward and center spots. The Bulls want to play a more positionless brand of basketball.
With such an array of offensive responsibilities, Carter’s unique blend of handling, passing and outside shooting promise could make him something of a fulcrum. Under Donovan, and flanked by a multitude of scoring guards (as Carter will be this year), Adams played that role last year for the Thunder more than ever before. He ranked sixth in the NBA in elbow touches -- defined as a touch inside the 3-point arc and within five feet of the lane or free throw line -- per game last season, and of the five bigs ahead of him, only Domantas Sabonis, Nikola Jokić and Bam Adebayo logged higher assist percentages.
Carter, meanwhile, ranked 12th among centers in the category and languished in measures of passing and scoring in an offense that often lacked off-ball creativity. Adams finished the season averaging a career-high 2.3 helpers per game, up from 1.6 the year prior. Carter’s career assist average rests at 1.5 through two seasons. But that’s not emblematic of his skill in that area -- not in Donovan’s eyes, at least.
“For frontcourt players in the NBA, a lot of times guys are dominant because of their size and strength. But because of a wider lane, bigger bodies, more experienced players it takes time for players to carve out their identity offensively,” Donovan said. “I do think that Wendell is somebody that's very bright, he's a smart player, he's an unselfish player and I think he's a guy that can make people around him better.”
With his switchability, smart rotations and plus rebounding and rim protection, Carter already augments his teammates on the defensive side -- even while undersized. Though being 6-foot-9 has been deployed as a critique against him since his college days, Carter sees the potential to make it an advantage for him at the offensive end.
“With [the Bulls’ coaching staff] allowing me to be more versatile on the offensive end, making [bigger centers] have to guard on the perimeter, making them have to move their feet, it will just make it harder for them when they go back down on the offensive end,” Carter said. “They’ll be a little bit more winded. It kind of just plays hand in hand like that.”
If Carter can become a weapon distributing from the perimeter and diving to the rim, he could be a boon for a Bulls offense in dire need of spacing and shot creation.
But the best thing he can do to stretch defenses is simple: Take (and make!) outside jump-shots, especially from 3-point range.
“I’ve been shooting a lot. Working on expanding my game from the mid-range to the 3 level, just shooting, shooting, shooting every workout I’ve had,” Carter said of his offseason training regimen. “The offseason was cut kind of short, I had other plans of course, but of the time I had, I feel like I just mastered my shot, got more comfortable and confident in my shot.”
After canning 41.3 percent of 46 total 3-point attempts (1.2 per game) at Duke, Carter is at 19.7 percent on 61 tries (0.7) in the NBA. He’s taken multiple 3s in a game just 11 times in his NBA career. The mechanics seem to be there. But his eschewing of putback attempts and mid-range jumpers -- much less 3-pointers -- has long been a point of consternation among Bulls fans. Especially because his uber-limited, mop-up offensive role at times appeared to be by design.
“I don’t want to blame it on injuries, but the injuries that I did have kind of made me feel like I couldn’t jump as high, I couldn’t move as fast. I always relied on making that extra pass. I was always big on going good to great, but sometimes I was going from great to good,” Carter said of his penchant for pass-outs. “After watching some of the film from last year, I saw that I was being very passive and even talking to some of the coaching staff, they told me, ‘Man, we’re better off with you going up and missing instead of you passing out from inside the restricted area to the 3.’ It was just kind of a conversation that I had to have. Now that I know I need to go up, I can definitely do that.”
Again, it comes down to availability. And trust. Neither has abounded for the Bulls’ young center in his first two seasons, but he’s hoping for more in Year 3 with a fresh guiding hand.
“Billy’s an amazing person. I’m glad he’s my head coach,” Carter said -- another theme among the Bulls’ young players. “He’s putting a lot of trust in me on the offensive end.”
Empowered by the new regime, and playing in a system that Donovan and his players alike insist will be suited to the roster’s strengths, the expansion of Carter's game should spell positive returns for the Bulls.
"I feel like everybody getting back on the court, that certain level of excitement, I feel that's going to take us a long way," Carter said. "After playing with most of these guys for two years now, I know what they're good at, what they're not good at. And I feel like Billy has kind of catered to that... That's what's giving me that confidence that we're going to be really good this year."