Bulls

Why Wendell Carter Jr.’s strengths are subtle, but undeniably impactful

Bulls

NBC Sports Chicago is breaking down the 15 full-time players on the Bulls' roster. Next up is Wendell Carter Jr.

Past: Zach LaVine | Coby White | Tomas Satoransky | Kris Dunn | Ryan Arcidiacono | Otto Porter Jr. | Chandler Hutchison | Denzel Valentine | Shaq Harrison | Thad Young | Lauri Markkanen

2019-20 Stats

11.3 PPG, 9.4 RPG, 0.8 BPG | 53.4%, 20.7% 3P, 73.7% FT | 16.2% USG 

Contract Breakdown

July 2018: Signed 3-year, $15,091,440 rookie contract (with third- and fourth-year club options)

2020-21: $5,448,840 | 2021-22: $6,920,027 | 2022-23: RFA

(via Spotrac)

Strengths

At age 21, Carter is already an exceptionally heady defender and, despite being considered undersized for his position at 6-foot-9, a plus rebounder at center. In fact, he kept the Bulls afloat in both categories in an injury-shortened 2019-20 season (even by COVID-19 standards).

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With Carter on the floor, the Bulls defended at a rate of 105.3 points per 100 possessions and corralled 74.4% of available defensive rebounds; when he sat, that defensive rating ballooned to 109.3 and the defensive rebounding rate plunged to 70.2%. That defensive rating jump is the equivalent gap between the fourth- and 15th-stingiest units in the league; the rebounding dip the difference between seventh and dead-last. He boxes out physically, makes crisp rotations and notched 17 double-doubles in 43 games in 2019-20.

And don’t take too much stock in depressed shot-blocking numbers — Carter’s fluid feet on the perimeter and 7-foot-5 wingspan allowed the Bulls to play the aggressive, turnover-happy style that propped up their defense all season, even though it often pulled him up and away from the basket by the end of possessions. When he gets in the vicinity to contest looks inside of six feet, he does so at a rate statistically comparable to Bam Adebayo and Clint Capela. (Broke down all of above on a micro-level after an early January game against Rudy Gobert and the Utah Jazz here.)

He’s not a premier post threat, nor a high-flying pressurer of rims, but he does savvy work as a dribble-handoff hub when afforded the opportunity (partly because he’s a solid screen-setter), and is a reasonably efficient putback artist. His virtues are understated, but undeniably impactful — his plus-4.4 net rating impact in non-garbage time, per Cleaning the Glass, was second to Tomas Satoransky on the team of players who logged over 1,000 such minutes.

Areas to Improve

Much has been made of Carter’s 41.3% 3-point field goal percentage at Duke (46 total attempts), but he hasn’t yet flashed knockdown jump-shooting ability at the NBA level — he currently sits at 19.7% from deep on 61 career attempts (0.7 per game, less than his 1.2 in college). 

 

Adding something of a steady jumper to his offensive repertoire could unlock a lot, and he had his moments this season. In a seven-game stretch before he sprained his ankle in early January, Carter canned 4 of 11 3s, and looked both confident and fundamentally sound taking open ones off the catch.

 

Jim Boylen was happy for him to let those fly. Carter’s offensive rebounding and average finishing make him servicable on that end, but his role can continue to expand if he’s allowed more opportunity to facilitate, whether it be in DHOs, on the roll or from the elbows. The flashes as a passer are tantalizing.

 

Forgive a cliché, but more often than not, Carter just makes the right play. He just needs to be involved in more of them. His touches per game was about level from his rookie to second season, but it would behoove both him and the Bulls good to see a bump in Year 3.

Part of being an impactful player, though, is staying on the court. Defensively, for all the areas he excels, Carter does get himself into foul trouble fairly often. If he qualified for the NBA leaderboards, his 3.8 personal fouls per game would rank third in the league to Jaren Jackson Jr. and Dillon Brooks (hilariously, both of the Memphis Grizzlies), and he fouled out of five contests. And then there’s the matter of durability: Carter has appeared in just 87 of a possible 147 games in his first two seasons, though if there’s a silver lining in that point, it’s that all 22 of his missed games this season were due to a fluky, trauma-induced ankle sprain. He returned for six games before the shutdown, but didn’t look himself. Across 43 appearances, he averaged 29.2 minutes per game.

Ceiling Projection

Carter’s skills are subtle, meaning that even his best possible outcome might not feature a litany of individual accolades (e.g. All-Star/All-NBA nods). But he can be a defensive building block, and with the above improvements to his offensive game, a real two-way threat. We’ll call his ceiling perennial All-Defense contender, and glue starter on a winning team.

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