When the Bulls selected Wendell Carter Jr. with the seventh overall pick in the 2018 draft, John Paxson and Gar Forman talked about his rare intelligence, mental toughness and maturity for a 19-year-old prospect.
We saw signs of Carter Jr.’s leadership ability during his 44-game rookie campaign. He took the losses as hard as anyone in the locker room and spoke candidly about the need to change the mindset and focus of everyone on the roster. Carter’s first season ended early because of a broken thumb, but his emergence as a strong voice among the players was only beginning.
With the Bulls getting off to an unexpected slow start to the 2019 season, the now 20-year-old Carter has been a prominent voice in the locker room, saying the players need to feel the pain of the constant losing and do everything possible to turn things around.
Carter has certainly done his part, taking a significant step forward through the first 11 games of his second season. The former Duke star is averaging 13.2 points, 9.7 rebounds and has already notched seven double-doubles — the first Bulls center to accomplish that since Joakim Noah in the 2010-11 season.
After experiencing the physicality of NBA post play as a rookie, Carter put in extra work in the weight room this past summer, and showed up for training camp at a solid 265 pounds. He’s used that extra strength effectively on both ends, banging with the league’s biggest centers under the basket, while also maintaining his ability to switch onto smaller players in pick-and-roll coverage.
Carter also got advice from Bulls television analyst and former NBA player Stacey King to always run hard down the middle of the court after a change of possession to set up opportunities for easy baskets and offensive rebounds. With the Bulls playing at a faster pace this season, Carter's ability to beat opposing centers on the offensive end has already resulted in more scoring chances.
The Bulls coaching staff is still hoping Carter will develop his shooting range to the point where he can be a consistent threat from three-point territory, but at this point that’s not a high priority in the offense. Carter is outstanding in the pick-and-roll, setting solid screens and then rolling hard to the basket for lob passes. He also has the ability to pop out to the elbow area for midrange jump shots.
With all the preseason conversation focused on the possibility of Zach LaVine and Lauri Markkanen making the jump to All-Star consideration, Carter is the player making the biggest leap early in the season. And his increased production is coming without designed plays being run for him.
The Bulls’ offense doesn’t call for multiple entry passes into the low post, but we saw during Carter’s one season at Duke that he has a nice touch shooting jump hooks from close range with either hand. Carter’s offensive game figures to expand in the coming seasons, but his skill in protecting the rim and controlling the defensive backboard already makes him extremely valuable to what the Bulls are trying to accomplish.
Plus, we already know that a competitive fire burns deep inside the 20-year-old Carter. After former teammate Bobby Portis torched the Bulls for 28 points and 11 rebounds in a come-from-behind victory for the Knicks at Madison Square Garden last month, Carter vowed it wouldn’t happen in Tuesday’s rematch at the United Center.
“No words need to be said. We’re not letting that happen,” Carter said to reporters. “Bobby is going to want to put on a show. I’m not going to have it. I hope he’s watching this. I ain’t having it.”
Portis’ stat line in the Bulls’ blowout win following those comments? In 19 unproductive minutes, he tallied just 7 points and 3 rebounds on 3-of-9 shooting.
The Bulls’ 20-year-old locker room leader made sure he backed up his pregame comments. Now, he says he’ll look for something to fire up his teammates for every game left on the schedule.
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