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.”