Bulls

Wendell Carter Jr. survives gauntlet of centers to begin career

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AP

Wendell Carter Jr. survives gauntlet of centers to begin career

Don't tell Wendell Carter Jr. the center position is a dying breed.

The 19-year-old rookie hasn't exactly been able to ease into the NBA, finding himself up against a handful of All-Stars and powerful frontcourts just five days into his career.

It culminated Monday night with a date against Mavericks center DeAndre Jordan, and once again the seventh overall pick held his own. It was much of the same as it was against Philadelphia's Joel Embiid and Detroit's Andre Drummond last week (and Nikola Jokic in the preseason finale): some good, some bad, plenty of poise and zero backing down. The NBA is unforgiving, but this could very well be the toughest stretch Carter faces all season.

"He’s playing against top level centers now," Fred Hoiberg said before Monday's game. "It’s a great experience for him. He’s going to learn and get better and he plays within himself, we will continue to look for him to be more aggressive."

He was as aggressive as the Bulls have seen him against Jordan and the Mavericks. He blew by the 20 and 18 minutes he played in the first two games of the year, totalling 32 minutes. His final line won't tell the story - 4 points, 9 rebounds, 4 assists and a block - of a Carter who defended well at the rim, picking and choosing his spots on when to attack shots and when to simply use his verticality.

He wasn't credited for a block but he contested a Jordan dunk that turned into a Bobby Portis dunk on the other end. Plus-minus isn't always a good indicator of a player's worth, but Carter was a +5 in a 14-point Bulls loss. He even attempted a corner 3-pointer early in the shot clock, showing no hesitation. Carter's had his moments, but it's also apparent he's got a 19-year-old body going up against veterans each night. That'll come with time in the weight room. For now the experience is 

"I appreciate the fact I’m able to play against these very talented bigs early in my career," Carter said after the loss to the Pistons. "What I need to work on is I have to get stronger; that’s the first thing I recognize; just being up against the best. I love the competition. It’s always a great feeling going against the best."

What the Bulls are finding out is they have a player mature beyond his years. As he progresses he'll continue to get more difficult assignments. He had his rookie moment late in Monday's loss, committing a turnover in the backcourt after the Bulls had cut the deficit to five with 35 seconds left. The fouls are also an issue, as Carter has committed 10 in three games (after committing 17 in five preseason games).

That doesn't necessarily seem important for a Lottery-bound team, but considering the continued struggles of Robin Lopez (and Cristiano Felicio is entirely out of the rotation) it is. Lopez had 2 points and 1 rebound in 10 minutes while committing five personal fouls. In three games he has 11 personal fouls and 11 points, and also has more turnovers (five) than rebounds (four). If the Bulls are going to compete until Lauri Markkanen returns, Carter will need to hover around the 32 minutes he played Monday.

He'll get a much easier test on Wednesday when the Charlotte Hornets arrive in town. Cody Zeller doesn't exactly have the credentials of a Jokic or Embiid, meaning Carter may have a little more room to work. 

The Bulls know they have something in Carter. It'll be abother month until they can deploy him alongside Markkanen, but if the first three games are any indication, Carter won't have any problems matching up with some of the league's best.

With Lottery positioning just about set, Bulls can focus on progress in final 2 months

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USA TODAY

With Lottery positioning just about set, Bulls can focus on progress in final 2 months

One year ago the Bulls came out of the All-Star break with a 20-37 record and in a dead heat for the top Lottery odds. When play resumed on Feb. 22, here’s what those standings looked like:

Phoenix – 18-41 – 0 GB
Atlanta – 18-41 – 0 GB
Dallas – 18-40 – 0.5 GB
Orlando – 18-39 – 1 GB
Sacramento – 18-39 – 1 GB
Brooklyn – 19-40 – 1 GB
Memphis – 18-38 – 1.5 GB
Chicago – 20-37 – 3 GB

Eight teams separated by just 3 games, with the difference in odds for the top pick being 25 percent (No. 1) and 2.8 percent (No. 8) and the difference for a top-3 pick being 64.3 percent (No. 1) and 9.9 percent (No. 8).

There was a whole lot at stake, and the Bulls made sure they positioned themselves as best they could to “improve” their positioning by the end of the season. It included playing Cristiano Felicio 24.2 minutes per game, including 27.9 in the final seven games, and Cameron Payne 23.3 minutes per game after not playing a single minute prior to the All-Star break thanks to foot surgery.

Kris Dunn played the first 11 games after the All-Star break but was then shut down with a turf toe injury, missing the final 14 games. Likewise, Zach LaVine also missed the final 14 games with knee soreness. Lauri Markkanen finished the season averaging 24.3 minutes in his final eight games, down from 30.4 before his back spasms.

It was a nightmare. It was tanking. It did nothing to move along the rebuild and, worst of all, the Bulls went 7-18 after the break and wound up tied with the Kings for the seventh best odds on Lottery Night. We all know how that went down, though the Bulls are plenty happy with Wendell Carter Jr. as a consolation prize.

This season it’s different. The Bulls come out of the All-Star break with a 14-44 record and sit comfortably with the fourth worst record in the NBA. Here’s what the standings look like:

Phoenix – 11-48 – 0 GB
New York – 11-47 – 0 GB
Cleveland – 12-46 – 0 GB
Chicago – 14-44 – 2 GB
Atlanta – 19-39 – 7 GB
Memphis – 23-36 – 10 GB

We can forget about the Bulls “catching” either the Suns or Knicks. Phoenix has lost a whopping 15 in a row and the Knicks had lost 18 in a row before catching lightning in a bottle and beating the Hawks before the break. Even if the Bulls lost out (they won’t), it’s tough to see the Suns or Knicks winning three games the rest of the way.

There’s Cleveland, which has actually shown some fight the last two weeks and won three games after a 1-18 stretch. But no team understands the power of holding the top pick quite like Cleveland, and you can bet the tank will be on in full effect over their final 24 games. It’s hard to envision a scenario in which the Cavs win two more games than the Bulls to finish the season.

And below the Bulls (or above them, depending on how you look at it), the Hawks are cruising. They’ve got bona fide pieces in Trae Young, John Collins, Kevin Huerter and Taurean Prince. They’ve gone a respectable 5-7 over their last 12 games and certainly won’t be five games worse than the Bulls over the final two months.

So what does that all mean? That the Bulls are pretty much locked in to the No. 4 slot in the Lottery order. For those at home, that’s a 12.5 percent chance at the top pick and a 48.1 percent chance at a top-4 pick.

And that’s a good thing! True, moving into the top-3 is still coveted as it gives you the best chance at the top pick. But the new odds have made that less of a bonus – last season the jump from No. 4 to No. 3 was a 3.7 percent jump (11.9 to 15.6 percent).

The Bulls don’t need to scoreboard watch in the final two months. They can roll out their best players and watch them grow. Markkanen is playing his best basketball and LaVine has picked up the slack for a struggling Kris Dunn.

Sean Kilpatrick and Noah Vonleh don’t need to hoist up shots knowing they’re not part of the future. The Bulls can see what they have in players like Wayne Selden, Chandler Hutchison and Shaq Harrison as potential options for next season.

The Bulls have a good problem at hand. It’s difficult to see them moving up or down in the Lottery standings, and they’re doing so in a year where it doesn’t matter as much. Even if they got red hot and somehow passed the Hawks, their odds would move from 12.5 percent to 10.5 percent. Nothing massive, and if they were to pass Atlanta it probably means LaVine, Dunn and Markkanen are doing something special.

These final games matter for the rebuild. The Bulls entered this current season with little knowledge of how their core (LaVine, Markkanen, Dunn) worked together. It’d be ideal to have Wendell Carter Jr. in the fold, but even without him they can still improve as a whole.

Throw in Otto Porter Jr. to the mix and the Bulls can get 24 games with little expectation of needing to win (or lose). It’s cliché, but developing a winning culture – or something resembling it – could help entering next season. The Bulls have said all year that they need to learn how to win, and they could get their chance in the final 2 months without it affecting any Lottery balls.

NBA Draft Big Board Check In: Romeo Langford nets near double double in IU loss

NBA Draft Big Board Check In: Romeo Langford nets near double double in IU loss

Mark Schanowski's Big Board 5.0 had some movement, particularly around the bottom half of the top 10. We take the time to go over some performances from throughout the week, including a prospect who dropped out of Schanowski's top 10 earlier in the season.

Rui Hachimura, Gonzaga (vs San Diego): 22 PTS (10/15 FG), 10 REB, 1 STL

Hachimura’s efficient double double came on Saturday against San Diego but we wanted to make sure we discussed he continued excellent play. Against the Toreros, Hachimura was an imposing force in the paint and finished the night shooting 66.6 percent from the field. But just as important, he was 1/3 on his shots outside the paint, which included a (missed) 3-point attempt. The fact that he has improved year-to-year as a jump shooter bodes very well for his NBA future.

At this stage of his development, Hachimura figures to be a nice pick-and-roll scorer based off of his quickness alone. If Hachimura’s defender is trying to hedge and then get back to him, it’s a near impossible task if the weakside defense is not helping early.


At 6-foot-8, Hachimura is a bit undersized for what seems like it would be his natural position at center. And if he plays power forward in the NBA, he will certainly need to improve his touch from outside and his ball-handling. Overall, Hachimura is an intriguing prospect but the lack of depth in this class makes it tough to peg exactly where he should go. But with a solid post game, tremendous finishing inside the paint, great rebounding and an explosive faceup game, he is more than worth a look inside the top-15 to 20 picks.

Romeo Langford, Indiana (vs Purdue): 14 PTS, 9 REB, 2 AST, 1 BLK, 1 STL, 9/10 FT line

Langford continued to flash all the things that make him both impressive and frustrating as a prospect on Tuesday night. His 14 points against rival Purdue came on only six shots, which was awesome to showcase just how efficient he can be as a scorer without needing to use up a ton of possessions.

His 10 free throw attempts were the sixth time this season that he has reached double-digit attempts from the charity stripe. Langford is as physical as they come as a wing prospect. He knows that opponents are playing him for the drive, but he still barrels into the chest of his defender, forcing the referees to make a call one way or the other. When you watch Langford play, it is easy to picture him getting to the free throw line a considerable amount at the NBA level. And on top of his clear ability to get to the free throw line, Langford has shown a tremendous step-back jump shot that could one day become a staple in his offensive game.

On the negative side, Langford--a solid perimeter shooting in college--shot 1 for 3 from the 3-point line on Tuesday. On the season, he is shooting a very concerning 26.5 percent from the shorter, college 3-point line. Langford’s free throw percentage is 71.8 percent, which would indicate that he has the ability to be a positive 3-point shooter at the NBA level, but isn’t a huge indicator of long-term success. So we will simply need to see more repetitions of Langford’s jumper to get a better handle of it. But as of now it seems that he will be a primarily midrange-focused shooter, at least in his NBA rookie season. But if he can’t develop that 3-point shot long-term, it definitely changes his ceiling as a prospect, even with improvements in his ball handling and elsewhere.


But when you are talking about a 19-year old with an NBA-ready frame, shot creation skills, strong defensive instincts and a team-first attitude, a lack of a projectable jumpshot does little to dissuade me from taking them somewhere in the bottom half of the top 10 at worst.

Keldon Johnson, Kentucky (vs Missouri): 5 PTS (1/6 FG), 6 REB, 1 AST, 1 STL, 3/3 FT

Keldon Johnson dropped out of Schanowski’s NBA Draft Big Board top-10 after version 3.0. He has done little to show that he deserves to be back in the top 10, but still seems like a player worthy of serious lottery consideration. On Tuesday, Johnson was third on the team in shot attempts, going 1/6 from the field (0/2 from 3-point range). Though, Mizzou’s guards shot the ball well, Johnson was great on help side defense, especially when it came to disrupting drives by getting his hand on the ball.

He plays within the team concept on offense, taking smart shots and picking his spots well. But when things get tight down the stretch, Johnson has not showcased the ability to go get an easy bucket in one-on-one situations. His passing is extremely underwhelming and he has yet to reach 5 assists in a game (NCAA career-high is 4 AST). Johnson only makes the simple skip pass right now and his lack of playmaking ability is a huge concern when coupled with his below average finishing at the rim.

If Johnson can’t string together great performances the rest of the season, a few big scoring nights against elite competition could do a lot to help his draft stock.

Johnson has shown that he can be a solid catch-and-shoot option on offense and a good defender in the right defensive scheme, which means that he definitely can be a good top-end starter in the NBA. But for Johnson to have a ceiling that is higher than “good NBA starter”, we will need to see more in terms of shot creation skills and finishing at the rim.