Bulls

Wendell Carter shows off everything he could be for the Bulls

wendawg.jpg
USA TODAY

Wendell Carter shows off everything he could be for the Bulls

PORTLAND, Ore. -- Wendell Carter, Jr. has spent his rookie season feeling out his role on a rebuilding Bulls team. The offensive polish and defensive potential have been apparent, but as with any but between persistent foul trouble and defensive struggles all too common for a 19-year-old rookie, he’s seen his minutes change wildly from game to game, which has affected his consistency.

Recently, Bulls coach Jim Boylen has even taken to benching Carter down the stretch in bad losses, which he claimed was meant as a learning opportunity for one of the Bulls' future cornerstones.

On Wednesday night, Carter showed the Bulls everything he could be, everything that made him their no-brainer selection with the No. 7 overall pick in June. He was one of the bright spots of the Bulls’ 124-112 loss to the Portland Trail Blazers, their first game of a daunting five-game West Coast road trip. He led the Bulls in scoring with 22 points on 7-of-9 shooting, scoring with ease in the post and drawing contact, which he turned into a perfect 7-of-7 from the foul line.

“My shots were just going down,” Carter said after the game. “Attacked the rim when I could, drew fouls when I could. Just getting comfortable. But I don’t think about me scoring a lot of points today as much as taking a few steps forward. Feeling more comfortable taking my shots. I took my time on all my shots. Even if this next game I only have five points, I feel comfortable with the ability I have now, where I just go out there and play, especially on the offensive end.”

Carter even hit a three-pointer, his first in over two months.

Don’t expect him to turn into a stretch-five anytime soon — the low post is still his bread and butter — but Carter wouldn’t mind hitting a few more of those, to open up the rest of his game.

“That’s something I want to build on,” Carter said. “Just being more comfortable stretching out other players, and then being able to drive by once they respect it. I’ve been practicing it before and after practices, and it feels real comfortable coming off my hand, so I definitely look forward to shooting more of them.”

At times this season, Carter has been reluctant to assert himself in the offense. His usage rate is 19.7 percent, by far the lowest of the Bulls’ “core four” alongside Zach LaVine, Lauri Markkanen and Kris Dunn. On Wednesday, he made a strong case that he should demand the ball more.

“All my teammates know I’m a very unselfish player,” Carter said. “I’m never going to take any bad shots. Just me touching the ball is going to keep me engaged throughout the game. Especially on the defensive end, if I just touch the ball, I don’t have to put it up towards the rum at all, just me touching the ball on each possession, it feels good.”

Carter’s defense is still a work in progress. Foul trouble has limited him at times, and he’s still learning the positioning and footwork that come with guarding NBA bigs.

One thing he hasn’t shied from is the physicality.

“He embraces collision and contact,” Boylen said. “He likes to hit people. He doesn’t mind people getting into him. I think it’s maybe hurt him a little bit on defense in some ways, because he wants to grab and hold and hit people. But when you’re not afraid of getting hurt and you’re not afraid of contact, the game’s easy for you. He loves it.

“[Shaquille] Harrison was a football player, [Kris] Dunn was a football player. I think Wendell would have been a pretty damn good defensive end if he’d played football.”

NBA Draft: The two instances that sold the Bulls on Coby White

NBA Draft: The two instances that sold the Bulls on Coby White

From what Coby White, Jim Boylen and John Paxson have expressed, there appear to have been two key factors that led the Bulls to select the North Carolina point guard seventh overall on Thursday night.

The first came early in November when general manager Gar Forman was scouting the Tar Heels in Las Vegas. White was an absolute star in two games against Texas and UCLA, averaging 26.0 points on 57% shooting (16 of 28), 5.5 3-pointers on 11 of 17 shooting and 5.5 assists. White also had just four turnovers in 54 minutes and got to the free throw line 13 times.

"Gar saw Coby play out in Las Vegas early in the year and my phone was blowing up with texts from Gar. That was the moment he was on the radar for sure," Paxson said. "It was Gar seeing Coby in Las Vegas that got the antenna up."

Paxson also referenced White's success against Duke as attention-grabbing. White struggled in the first of three matchups against the Blue Devils, scoring just nine points on 3 of 14 shooting. But White responded at home with a 21-point outing in Game 2, and in the ACC Championship Game tallied 11 points, 5 rebounds 4 assists and 3 steals in 38 minutes.

"He talked about it when we did our background that he wasn’t’ going to have that happen again," Paxson said of White's initial clunker against Duke, "and the next two times he played Duke, he had really good games and learned from it. That’s what so much of this is about."

That second Duke game - a game the Tar Heels won, 79-70, over the Zion-less Blue Devils - was also the moment White began feeling like he might be a one-and-done prospect. He didn't arrive in Raleigh feeling that way, but the 21-point effort on 8 of 18 shooting (and a career-high 3 blocks) put the thought in his head. It was part of a dominant stretch that included 34 points against Syracuse, 28 more against Clemson and, five days after the Duke game, 19 points against Louisville in the ACC Tournament.

"I think it changed after we played Duke at home," White said. "I started to get a lot of buzz, started getting on draft boards in the top 10. And then kind of after the season, I talked to Coach (Roy) Williams before anyone, and he kind of gave me his blessing, saying that I should go. After that it was kind of an easy decision for me."

The other instance that brought White to Chicago was a pre-draft meeting on the Saturday before the NBA Draft. White arrived in Chicago and, despite opting not to work out privately for the Bulls, did meet with Paxson and Boylen. Both Paxson and White described that interview as a telling sign of the mutual interest, and Boylen reiterated that impressive interaction on Monday when White was introduced to the media at the Advocate Center.

“He looks you in the eye when you talk to him. He’s coachable. He has a soul and a spirit, which I think is important, and he’s been just awesome to deal with,” Boylen said. “We had a great meeting. It was great for both of us.”

White described that meeting with Boylen as the best he had with any coach in the pre-draft process. Paxson said White was “anxious for more” after the coaching Boylen did in that meeting, with the two looking at both good and bad film from White’s freshman season.

It all culminated in Thursday night’s selection. With both Darius Garland and Jarrett Culver off the board, the Bulls drafted for both talent and need in selecting White. He isn’t a traditional point guard – his 24.7% assist rate is evidence of that – but he gives the Bulls both a dynamic scorer and someone to push the ball in transition. Paxson said as much on Thursday and Boylen doubled down on that assessment four days later.

“Well I think the most important thing for us is when the ball is in his hands. We have to run with him. We want to play faster. We want to play smart, but we want to play faster when it's appropriate. He's a guy that can make decisions on the move. We've got to get the rest of our team to run with him. That's going to be our job, and I'm excited for that.”

White will also give the Bulls a floor spacer – he shot 35.3% from deep as a freshman – at the position, something they desperately needed the past few years. He’s hardly a finished product but should get the chance to improve right away, whether it’s as a starter or backing up a free agent acquisition in July.

But Boylen applauded White’s desire to get better, something that rubbed off in that pre-draft interview. White had a direct answer when asked what he needs to improve on in his rookie season.

“Coming in, decision-making. The league is ball screen-heavy so decisions off ball screens. At Carolina, coaches kind of wanted me to really just go one speed and that’s fast all the time,” White said. “I think coming into the league, I can use my change of speed and change of pace better. I’ve been trying to work on that a lot. Those two things are really key for me.”

Finding talent was key for the Bulls after a 22-win season. But they’re also thrilled with the personalities and workers they found in both White and second-round pick Daniel Gafford.

“We drafted these guys because of their ability to be coached and be teachable,” Boylen said. “Everything we got back on their background was teachable, coachable, want to get better, care for their teammates. Those are the kind of guys we targeted.”

Portis 2.0? Bulls get mature, hard worker in Daniel Gafford: 'He has a great feel for who he is'

usatsi_12950422.jpg
USA TODAY

Portis 2.0? Bulls get mature, hard worker in Daniel Gafford: 'He has a great feel for who he is'

Had Daniel Gafford kept his name in the 2018 NBA Draft as a freshman, he likely would have walked across the stage and shook the commissioner’s hand as a first-round selection. The Arkansas center instead returned to school for his sophomore season and, despite individual successes, saw his draft stock fall out of the first round.

Draft evaluators would consider his decision to return to school a failed attempt at betting on oneself. But Gafford, who the Bulls made the No. 38 pick on Thursday night, knew he wasn’t ready for the NBA and instead got himself ready for the league on his own terms.

“I decided to come back to get that year under my belt. If I would have came out my freshman year, this process would have (eaten) me up,” Gafford said Monday at the Advocate Center. “And I didn’t want that to happen.”

That maturity and self-awareness was apparent during Gafford’s introductory press conference that also included first-round pick Coby White, VP John Paxson and head coach Jim Boylen. He made no excuses for why he may have slipped to the second round in what was largely considered a weak draft class – “it could have been me, it could have been the draft – but owned that reality that he says will only push him to work harder.

Both Paxson and Boylen saw that ownership in the pre-draft process. Ironically enough, it reminded both of Bobby Portis, another Arkansas big man selected by the Bulls.

“His spirit of who he was in the interview, at the pre-draft camp, to where he came in and worked out for us, it was a Bobby-like spirit,” Boylen said. “Competitive, toughness, compete, take coaching, take correction, learn on the fly. We changed his free throw a little bit just when he came in for the workout. He was able to pick it up. Things like that.”

It’s common – and almost a requirement – for draft picks to describe their competitive nature and willingness to work hard in introductory interviews. But none of it felt rehearsed or fake with Gafford, who admitted he’s far from a finished product but also said he’s willing to improve wherever he can.

Gafford, who said he became a Portis fan before he even committed to Arkansas, won’t provide the same versatility as Crazy Eyes did in his time with the Bulls. Gafford is a true center, a rim-runner whose offense will come from pick-and-rolls and offensive rebounds – “I think everything's a miss,” he said when describing his rebounding prowess – and who will be relied upon to defend the rim on the other end. He admitted that at times he’s guilty of expanding his game too far but that he’s gotten better at realizing his strengths and playing to them. That’s something Boylen said stuck out to him when he first met Gafford in the pre-draft process.

“There’s an art in the world of kind of knowing who you are, and he has a great feel for who he is as a player,” Boylen said. “Again, he adds to our vertical spacing, he adds to our athleticism, our length, our competitiveness, and again, he looks you in the eye when you talk to him, he has a great spirit.”

The expectation is that Gafford will slide in behind Wendell Carter Jr. on the depth chart at center. There’s been no indication that the Bulls plan to bring back Robin Lopez, and Cristiano Felicio won’t be part of any rotation unless the Bulls are playing for Lottery balls in March and April.

His skill set also gives the Bulls an added dimension. He’s built like and plays like Clint Capela, a comparison he agreed with on Monday, and should allow the Bulls to run more in the open court. He’s an unfinished product (despite being 6 months older than Carter) but will get to learn on the fly for the rebuilding Bulls.

A new skill set, a hard worker and a guy who returned to Arkansas for his sophomore season to hone his game. Though they’re different players at different positions, the Bulls would be more than happy if Gafford’s career panned out the same as Portis’.

“Bobby was great for us and a great kid and I think that Daniel’s in that same mold, maybe on a different style of play, different position,” Boylen said. “He adds to our versatile spacing and our length and our athleticism. (The) Arkansas program has been good to us, so we’re gonna keep it going here.”