Wendell Carter Jr.'s stock keeps rising after breakout performance vs. Nuggets: 'He can be an anchor for us'

Wendell Carter Jr.'s stock keeps rising after breakout performance vs. Nuggets: 'He can be an anchor for us'

It’s been quite a week for Wendell Carter Jr.

Two days after a career-high 18 points against the Golden State Warriors, and four days after a double-double in his hometown of Atlanta, Carter showed why his ceiling continues to rise just eight games into his NBA career.

Carter had his breakout performance on Wednesday night in the Bulls’ tough-luck loss to the Denver Nuggets. Battling MVP candidate Nikola Jokic, the rookie tallied a career-best 25 points, eight rebounds, five assists, three steals and three blocks. It was an all-around effort from the Duke product, and one that was able to overshadow another Bulls’ loss in which they surrendered a six-point lead in the final 2 minutes.

“I just tried to pick up a little bit of the slack on the offensive end,” Carter said. “And then on the defensive end I take a lot of pride in just not allowing people to score around the basket.”

Carter was active from the get go, attempting 10 shots in the first quarter as the Nuggets blitzed Bulls’ ball handlers, leaving Carter free in space in the lane to navigate. The 10 attempts were nearly half of the Bulls’ 24 shots and just three off his career-high for a single game. With a plethora of Bulls scorers sidelined with injury, and Jabari Parker committing two early fouls, Carter had the awareness to be aggressive and stay aggressive, all the while against a tank in Jokic.

Where finesse ruled the first half, a slugfest broke out in the second half as the 2-5 Bulls proved they weren’t going anywhere against a 5-1 Nuggets team that had already knocked off the Warriors in the early season. A frustrated Jokic, who went just 4 of 12 in the first half, got physical with Carter, backing the rookie down on multiple possessions. But Carter held his ground, forcing Jokic into difficult hook shots and floaters over the outstretched Bulls center, and even forcing a few turnovers; Jokic finished with six turnovers in 33 minutes.

Offensively Carter continued beating Denver with his pick-and-pop action. He connected on a 3-pointer early in the third and finished an alley-oop from Cam Payne with a thunderous dunk the next trip down. Playing in just his eighth career game, Carter always seemed to be in the right spot on both ends of the floor.

When he checked in early in the fourth quarter he made an immediate impact. He finished on a gorgeous up-and-under layup to pull the Bulls within one, and then swatted a Trey Lyles layup the next trip down. Minutes later he went on a personal 5-0 run, including another 3-pointer, to push the Bulls’ lead to 4, the biggest it had been at that point.

Carter was quiet in overtime, missing both of his attempts and fumbling a few passes on the baseline that wound up proving costly. And Jokic proved his MVP worthiness in the extra frame, scoring eight points and grabbing three rebounds in the deciding 5 minutes. But it didn’t diminish what Carter was able to accomplish on both ends of the floor, especially considering he contested Jokic’s final shot well before Paul Millsap got the game-winning putback.

“That’s as tough a cover as Wendell’s gonna have and he made him work for it,” Hoiberg said. “He battled with him, his help was great – he had 3 blocks out there. He has such an impact on that defensive end. He can be a great anchor for us at the rim and that’s an area we really lacked in last year.

Expected to improve the Bulls’ defense, Carter understood what was needed from him with Kris Dunn, Lauri Markkanen, Bobby Portis and Denzel Valentine all on the mend. Parker got the start, but he went just 3-for-10 in 36 minutes while he battled the foul trouble. The Bulls needed a second scorer to complement Zach LaVine’s 28 points, and they found it in Carter. His five assists didn’t hurt, either.

“He’s really good. He’s rolling, making the right pocket passes. He’s a threat, especially at the rim,” LaVine said. “He’s going up and blocking shots. We definitely appreciate him. I know I do.”

He wound always have to shoot 21 times, and on a healthy Bulls roster he won’t come close to that number in his rookie season. But the injuries to the frontcourt (and Robin Lopez’s ineffectiveness) have thrust Carter into a role that’s allowing him to progress at a faster rate. It’s not dissimilar to what happned with Markkanen as a rookie, and it’s going to make him even better when he’s the third, fourth or fifth option.

“With the players out I feel like I’ve had to come in and do a lot of things that other rookies don’t have to do for their team right now,” Carter said. “I’m blessed to be in that position where I’m able to just grow faster so I can help the team later on down the line.”

Bulls player preview: What can a healthy Denzel Valentine provide?


Bulls player preview: What can a healthy Denzel Valentine provide?

NBC Sports Chicago will preview a different Bulls player every weekday leading up to the start of training camp in late September.

Previous reviews: Lauri Markkanen | Ryan Arcidiacono | Antonio Blakeney | Coby White | Daniel Gafford | Wendell Carter Jr. | Luke Kornet | Cristiano Felicio | Tomas Satoransky | Chandler Hutchison | Otto Porter

How last year went

Well, Valentine didn't play. Instead, he underwent ankle stabilization surgery that kept him on the sidelines the entire season. What was initially ruled a day-to-day injury wound up costing Valentine upwards of 8 months. It was an obvious setback to a player who would have logged minutes in a backcourt that allowed Antonio Blakeney 14.5 minutes per game.

The last time we saw Valentine healthy, he averaged a modest 10.2 points on 42% shooting and 38.6% from deep for a tanking Bulls team. He added 5.1 rebounds and 3.2 assists, solid counting numbers for the former first-round pick. He's expected to be ready for training camp.

Expectations for this year's role

Whatever he can give the Bulls. The front office addressed the point guard and power forward depth this summer but did very little on the wing. Perhaps it was because they couldn't improve every aspect of the roster, or perhaps they're expecting to get production from Valentine after he missed all of last season. With Chandler Hutchison nursing a hamstring injury, Valentine could have a path to early minutes behind Otto Porter at small forward. More realistic is Valentine seeing minutes at shooting guard, where he'll be taxed less defensively and can focus as a perimeter shooter. In that regard, he should fight with Ryan Arcidiacono and Shaq Harrison for minutes behind Zach LaVine. His expectations are tough to peg because we just don't know how healthy he is or how he'll respond to missing so much time. He hasn't played an NBA game since April 1, 2018.

Where he excels

Assuming he's healthy, Valentine is the Bulls' second best 3-point shooter behind Otto Porter. Consider that in his last 20 healthy games after the 2018 All-Star break, Valentine shot 43.0% on 5.0 3-point attempts, seventh best in the NBA among players who attempted that many per game. Included in that stretch were 3-point shooting nights in which he went 4-for-6, 5-for-7, 8-for-11, 4-for-7 and 4-for-7. He certainly had the green light on a Bulls team playing for Lottery balls and a chance at Deandre Ayton, Luka Doncic or Marvin Bagley, but the numbers were nonetheless impressive. Valentine also shot 39.1% on above-the-break 3-pointers. Why is that important? The Bulls were 26th in FG% on those triples last season, and Valentine's mark would have ranked second behind Porter (Markkanen and LaVine were both 36% on above-the-break 3-pointers).

He's also got sneaky playmaking skills. The belief that Valentine could play point guard in the NBA was nixed quickly, but he's been an above-average passer on the wing. In 2017-18, Valentine averaged 3.2 assists on just 27.9 passes per game. Even if he can simply keep the ball moving on the second unit, he'll give the Bulls something they lacked a season ago off the bench. An offense can never have enough good passers, and Valentine is a good one on the wing.

Where he struggles

Valentine isn't going to provide much defensively. It wasn't his calling card at Michigan State and hasn't been his calling card in the NBA, especially not after ankle reconstruction surgery.

And maybe he'll continue getting that floater to go down, but Valentine isn't going to provide much inside the 3-point line. He'll turn 26 during the season's first month, so there's not much optimism he'll improve in either facet of the game. His value will come from beyond the arc, as both a shooter and passer.

Best case/worst case

It all comes down to health. Valentine missed 25 games his rookie season and all 82 last season. Ankle reconstruction is a major surgery and, while there's precedent of players coming back stronger, Valentine is the roster's biggest unknown. His best-case scenario is he's able to give the Bulls 70+ games as a second unit sharpshooter. He probably isn't going to give the Bulls much on the defensive end, but perhaps he'll play minutes with Shaq Harrison or Chandler Hutchison to help cover some of his deficiencies. Any playmaking on the wing would be a bonus, and it'd be a major positive if he can get anywhere close to the 3.2 assists he averaged on the tanking Bulls in 2018.

Worst case is pretty simple: Valentine, who wasn't athletic to begin with, is really hampered by the ankle. It'll be apparent early in the preseason and regular season what Valentine is going to provide. Sure, he'll be rusty, but you'll be able to see his limitations if he has any.

One key stat

Over the last three Bulls seasons, just four players have an individual Game Score, per Basketball Reference, of 31 or better. Jimmy Butler accomplished the feat on 10 different occasions. Lauri Markkanen accomplished it against the Celtics last year. Otto Porter did it against the Grizzlies a week into his Bulls career. The fourth Game Score of 31? Denzel Valentine, when he scored 34 points on 13 of 20 shooting, and added 7 rebounds and 6 assists in 39 minutes against the Cavs in March 2018. The performances are few and far between, but he's capable of really going off. He made 8 3-pointers in that game, which is still the most Nikola Mirotic had nine triples against the Knicks in March 2016.

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Bulls Outsiders Podcast: Zach LaVine gets no respect

NBC Sports Chicago

Bulls Outsiders Podcast: Zach LaVine gets no respect

On this edition of the Bulls Outsiders podcast, Matt Peck, Dave Watson, and John Sabine react to the week in the NBA and ‘list’ season.

1:45 - On Sports Illustrated top 100 NBA players list and the Bulls players, LaVine disrespect

13:10 - Which recent draft class would have the best starting five?

22:30 - Would Iman Shumpert be a good fit for the Bulls?

32:55 - Matt Peck goes on a rant that involves Wade+Melo

34:45 - Dave gives his top 5 PG’s of all-time

Listen to the full episode in the embedded player below: