It matters when analyzing the dominant performances that Joel Embiid and Nikola Jokić dropped on the Bulls. And it matters when dissecting Wendell Carter Jr.’s post-practice comments from Tuesday.
Regarding the first point, there’s a reason Embiid and Jokić are firmly in the conversation for NBA most valuable player this season. As for the second, Carter was not complaining when he said the following; in fact, he looked inward often during his session with reporters.
But it’s still undeniably true.
“I’m in my third year. I’ve had three different coaches, three different systems,” Carter said. “It’s all about building trust with your coach.”
So, yes, in a perfect world Carter would be closing games over Thad Young (more on that in a minute). Ideally, he wouldn’t be just eight up-and-down games back from his third significant injury in three seasons.
And while we’re aiming high here, sure, it would be great if Carter, who is listed at 6-foot-10, actually looked like that when playing alongside the NBA's most talented giants.
But even as coach Billy Donovan hopes to expand Carter’s skill set so that he can play more on the perimeter at times or even some minutes at power forward, the big man didn’t hesitate when asked about his position.
“I’m a center,” he said.
Back when the previous management regime used the seventh overall pick on the former Duke star in 2018, the predraft scouting report cited Carter’s advanced defensive instincts and standing reach and wingspan as why, even if undersized, he could complement Lauri Markkanen.
Results have been mixed, which is why this storyline isn’t going away, even if Carter, again, looked inward when addressing it.
“There are a lot of centers in this league 7-foot or over. I mean, it’s just physics. I’m shorter. I don’t necessarily think I’m not as strong but I’m just shorter. Whenever they can get a hook shot in, they’re usually shooting over me,” he said. “What I have to do a better job of is using my strength, pushing catches out to make it more difficult for them to get to those areas around the rim.”
And the reason Donovan has been closing games with the veteran Young over Carter is for offense anyway, not defense.
“One of the things that has happened a lot for us closing games is Zach (LaVine) gets trapped a lot to get the ball out of his hands. And having shooting around, space around him and then probably the best guy on our team playing in that pocket and in that middle of the lane has been Thad. He’s really good at facilitating from there,” Donovan said. “I think Wendell has shown signs of getting better and improving in that, but these are all progress steps for him as well. So during the course of the game, he gets a chance to play in the pocket some. But to be honest with you, because he’s 14 years into his career, Thad is just right now probably a little bit more skilled and advanced than he is in that spot. And I think Wendell will get there, because he works hard at it.”
Donovan expressed similar optimism regarding Carter’s expanded offensive responsibility. A preseason emphasis on shooting 3-pointers faded amongst a flurry of bad misses. Carter only has attempted four such shots since his return.
"It’s all about building trust with your coach so he’s able to trust you -- me taking 3s, me putting the ball on the floor. He has great trust in me. But I also have to trust in myself to be able to space the floor. Take the shot. Miss or make. Let people know that I will take the shots,” Carter said. “It’s more of an internal thing more than getting reps or being in the practice gym. Not saying I’m not doing that but at the same time it’s a mentality that I have to overcome at some point to go forward.”
And about that return. Carter admitted he has felt a half-step slow since missing 11 games because of a severely bruised quad that Denzel Valentine’s knee hit during practice.
“I watched the film from the first game before I got hurt and I know I wasn’t scoring at a very high clip, but I was at least looking more mobile than I am now,” Carter said. “It’s just something that’s going to come with time. I just came back from a very serious injury. I wasn’t playing basketball for three weeks. It’s kind of tough, especially playing at this high level. I feel I’ve played OK. But I can definitely play 50 times better.”
Maybe even to the point where he’s closing games.
“It’s tough. I’m a competitor, I want to be out there. I want to help my team win. But at the same time I’m also a team player. I know coach (Donovan) has the best in mind for all of us. He has no motive. He has no hidden agenda. I don’t think he has,” Carter said. “You know he wants to win. I’ve got to build that trust with him so he can rely on me in those late-game situations.’’