In the eyes of the Bulls’ previous management regime, Wendell Carter Jr. projected to be a center for the modern NBA -- perhaps undersized but with the offensive tools, versatility and defensive instincts to form a potent frontcourt for years alongside Lauri Markkanen.
In the eyes of the Bulls’ current management regime, well, time will tell.
The trade deadline is March 25. Thad Young is closing games over Carter, who is playing and talking like someone in his own head. Markkanen is a restricted free agent this summer.
The alleged frontcourt of the future’s hold is feeling more tenuous than trustworthy.
“I just... I don’t know. I just got to play better. I don’t really know what else to say,” an extremely downcast Carter said following the Bulls’ 101-90 loss to the Heat. “Finishing around the rim, I feel I’ve regressed in that area of being more aggressive on the offensive end.”
Despite playing against Kelly Olynyk instead of Bam Adebayo, Carter didn’t record his first field goal until a fourth-quarter dunk. His four points marked his fifth straight game in single digits. Over his first 20, he posted just four such games.
“These last couple games have really frustrated the (expletive) out of me,” Carter said. “Just because I don't look at my numbers. But the day after the game, it’s like, ‘Damn, that's all I did for my team?’”
Markkanen, for his part, posted his second straight 20-point game in his return from a 13-game absence due to a sprained shoulder. For the second straight game, he didn’t attempt a free throw, though he did post six rebounds.
Before the game, coach Billy Donovan talked about Markkanen’s need to increase his free-throw attempts and finishing near the basket as areas of growth and maturation.
For the tea-leaf readers, Artūras Karnišovas has praised Markkanen twice, including his recent state-of-the-team address. And Karnišovas has publicly stated his fondness for shooting.
That’s the jump Carter was supposed to make in Year 3. Remember the 3-point shooting experiment that Donovan encouraged Carter to take during the preseason? Now, Carter is back to sometimes not even looking for his interior shot.
That’s what made Donovan’s postgame words stand out so much. This time, Donovan is the one who propped up the slumping center. He talked about teammates missing Carter on rolls to the basket after switches, in which he was guarded by a smaller defender.
And Carter did have nine rebounds, another area Donovan praised.
“Wendell’s competitive spirit was really good. And it was encouraging to see him battle through a difficult game, certainly offensively,” said Donovan, who also praised his passing. “He had a lot of plays around the basket he just couldn’t finish. But he kept fighting and he kept battling.”
Carter may be young. Friday marked his 112th NBA game. But he needs to be past the “battling” stage. He needs to be making a consistent impact, something he was doing with more frequency before he suffered a severe quad bruise. Since his return, he hasn't looked or played the same.
Like Donovan, Carter's teammates had his back.
"I think he has confidence. We were all talking to him. I think he’s just extremely competitive and he takes what he does not lightly," Zach LaVine said. "He knows how important to the team he is for us. We pick him up. I think he’s going to be just fine. He’s a mentally strong dude."
In general comments about the upcoming trade deadline, not anything specific about Carter, Donovan reminded all that it takes two sides to make a deal. At this point, given his injury history and inconsistent production, Carter’s value isn’t high.
A draft-day rumor about the Bulls and Warriors engaging on talks centered around Carter and the No. 4 pick for Kevon Looney and the No. 2 pick never fully checked out or gained traction. Several executives who spoke on background to NBC Sports Chicago at the time said the Warriors were set on drafting James Wiseman and the Bulls were focused on Patrick Williams.
Williams is definitely part of the current management regime’s frontcourt of the future. At this rate, though, the surprise might be if Markkanen and Carter join him for the long haul.