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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