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.”