Why a more assertive Wendell Carter Jr. is key to unlocking Bulls potential

Why a more assertive Wendell Carter Jr. is key to unlocking Bulls potential

Before most every game, Wendell Carter Jr. shoots a text to Wendy Borlabi, the Bulls’ performance coach.

The Bulls’ big man does so to put into writing his goals for that night. They’re often the same.

Grab at least 10 rebounds. Don’t commit two fouls by halftime. Take 10 or more shots.

For a player who leads the Bulls with 13 double-doubles — the rest of the team has six combined — the first goal makes complete sense. Given that Carter leads the NBA with 120 fouls, the second does, too.

It’s the latter that’s perhaps most encouraging, a sign of a player who knows he needs to make more of an impact offensively and one who is listening to what his coaches and teammates are telling him.

“From [coach] Jim [Boylen] to [assistant coach] Roy [Rogers], everyone is telling me to be more aggressive and take my shots. They tell me to look at the basket,” Carter said. “They say I might have someone sagging off me so I can take my 15-foot jumper or attack the man in front of me. That’s what is going to help us in the long run.”

Carter reached his goal with 10 shots in two of his last three games, and took eight in Wednesday’s overtime victory over the Wizards. His last, a nifty reverse layup off a Zach LaVine feed, represented the winning basket with 9.1 seconds left.

“Zach told me, ‘Yo, that big is stepping up and nobody is smashing down to you. So just be ready for the pass when it comes,’” Carter said. “I was ready.”

In other words, add LaVine to the list of those telling Carter to look for his shot more.

It’s one thing to be unselfish and know a role. Carter’s is mostly to rebound and defend. But for a player who drew pre-draft comparisons to five-time All-Star Al Horford, whose range extends beyond the 3-point line, Carter knows he needs to take what the defense gives him.

“That’s just how I am. Even if you go back and look at some of my Duke or high school highlights, I was so big on getting motion in the offense or getting people moving around that I wouldn’t shoot,” Carter said. “Even though I may be open, I feel like it may be a good shot but it wasn’t in rhythm or didn’t feel good in my hands to take it right then and there. So that’s just kind of me as a person. Coach is still on me about it. Even if it is the first pass, this is the NBA. You only get 24 seconds. If it’s open, take it. We can live with the results. That’s something I’m still trying to get used to.”

Where Carter has become comfortable in his second season is speaking up more off the court and being a professional basketball player, in general. Newness flew at him his entire rookie season, including a thumb injury that ended his season after playing only 44 games.

But this year, Carter is more familiar with opponents’ tendencies. He has continued his strong communication on the court at the defensive end. And if his offensive mindset ever matches his defensive one, well, there’s no telling what he can accomplish.

He’s currently averaging 11.9 points and 9.7 rebounds on robust 55.6 percent shooting.

“I feel at both ends I’ve become a little wiser. I still can rebound more consistently and foul less. That’s what I’m working on right now,” he said. “But other than that, I feel I’m in a good spot and I feel like I have definitely improved from last year.”

The way Carter speaks and leads, the way he makes intelligent decisions in split-second situations, it’s easy to sometimes forget he’s only 20. There’s still room for him to grow.

But consider the final play from Wednesday’s victory: Carter said he glanced at the clock and realized Bradley Beal’s short attempt over solid defense from Shaq Harrison almost certainly would be the last shot.

Knowing he didn't have to worry about a potential rebound, Carter moved to challenge the shot, adding length to Harrison’s already strong positioning. Beal missed, and Carter was credited with a block.

“From a mental standpoint, I feel I’m a little more mature. On the court, I feel better and different. I’m starting to learn players' tendencies, so I know how to shut off certain aspects of their game,” Carter said. “Off the court, I feel I have a voice now. So I use it.”

Carter said the changes to his second season extend even beyond the locker room, where he’s getting recognized and acknowledged more consistently by fans. Some players find such attention intrusive and difficult.

“I like it,” Carter said, smiling. “Just like me, the fans just want us to win.”

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Jim Boylen takes positive approach to injuries, Bulls' disappointing season

Jim Boylen takes positive approach to injuries, Bulls' disappointing season

One thing that has stood out throughout this disappointing Bulls season is Jim Boylen’s positivity.

Following most every game, he has highlighted in-game moments that he feels are signs of progress, even if they’re as basic as winning a quarter. He has praised players for their care factor and development.

The approach, like many of Boylen’s, has bothered some fans and observers. Perhaps not to the degree that his late-game timeout usage or rotational decisions or systems have, but the trait has caused some angst nonetheless.

It also stands in contrast to when Boylen first took over for the fired Fred Hoiberg. You remember his “shock and awe” campaign, the one where he openly questioned his players’ conditioning, made them do push-ups and in general sounded like a drill sergeant.

But the approach has at least served Boylen well as the Bulls have endured yet another stretch of injuries that has bordered on ridiculous. Wendell Carter Jr. is aiming for a Saturday return, while Otto Porter Jr. and Lauri Markkanen are trending in the right direction.

But the Bulls weren’t expecting to be playing two-way player Adam Mokoka rotational minutes in February, particularly alongside Cristiano Felicio and Shaq Harrison.

“What I’ve learned to do from people I’ve worked for and from being in this business is I take it as it comes,” Boylen said following Thursday’s practice at Advocate Center. “I try to stay in the moment, do the best I can to help this team get better and grow. I do not worry about tomorrow and I try to stay right in where we’re at. And where we’re at right now is banged up.

“I cannot wallow in that negativity or the things I can’t control. Otherwise, I don’t do as good a job on that floor teaching the guys that are practicing and are playing and staying positive and upbeat. And that’s what I get paid to do. I take a lot of pride in my attitude in these moments. That’s what this league is about to me. It’s easy when your team is healthy and you’re playing good and you’re winning games. But a lot of us in the league right now are going through these moments. And that’s part of it.”

So Boylen will continue stressing whatever he sees as positive, trying to set an example for his young team. On Thursday, that featured more talk of the Bulls’ shot profile. The Bulls rank second in shots from 5 feet or less and ninth in 3-point attempts.

“We have areas on the floor that we really value. A rim-2, which is right at the rim in the restricted area, or a corner 3, those are your highest-valued shots. Then you have a mid shot and an above-the-break 3. There are four distinct areas that we talk about,” Boylen said. “You would like more of the rim-twos and the corner 3s because those are the most valuable shots.”

The next step is converting them. The Bulls rank 26th in shots from 5 feet or less and 22nd in 3-point percentage.

“You hope to make those good looks you get. You hope to finish plays at the rim. And we’re working to do that,” Boylen said. “And that’s strength and youth and toughness and all those things we’re developing, You would say Coby White’s finishing has improved dramatically as he’s grown in the system. Our shot profile is very good.”

At 19 games under .500, that’s more positivity from Boylen.

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Bulls Talk Podcast: More injuries for the Bulls & storylines around the NBA


Bulls Talk Podcast: More injuries for the Bulls & storylines around the NBA

Host Jason Goff is joined by those entire NBCS Chicago Bulls beat, including insider KC Johnson, sideline reporter Leila Rahimi, and writer Rob Schaefer. They discuss the mounting injuries the Bulls have and go into the main storylines around the association.

(2:07) - Covering a hurt Bulls team

(9:30) - What do you make of Lauri Markkanen so far?

(21:35) - Rockets small ball is working

(32:50) - The Sixers have issues

(42:42) - Do NBA fans care about the historic regular season the Bucks are having?

Listen to the full podcast here or via the embedded player below:

Bulls Talk Podcast