It’s easy to forget Wendell Carter Jr. is only in his second NBA season. Performances like the one he just put together against Rudy Gobert and the Utah Jazz illustrate that sentiment to a tee.
In the box score, Carter matched Gobert — two-time Defensive Player of the Year, second best career field goal percentage in NBA history (min. 2000 attempts) — pound for pound, tallying 18 points, 13 rebounds (6 offensive) and four assists to Gobert’s 17 points, 12 rebounds (2 offensive) and 3 blocks. It was Carter's 16th double-double in 35 games this season.
“Man, Wendell’s been amazing all season long. Can’t say enough good things about him,” Thad Young said. “Arch [Ryan Arcidiacono] was asking me about what is it Wendell needs to do to take the next steps as far as being an elite defender, an elite big in this league. I told him, honestly, he really has all the tools, he just has to keep brushing them up each and every year.
“Games like that can turn him into an All-Star type big.”
Those are glowing words, especially from a vet of Young’s stature. Also encouraging is the fact that Carter’s impact doesn’t stop at the stat sheet.
Those 13 rebounds fail to fully encapsulate the rabid yet fundamentally sound box-outs Carter persistently put on Gobert to free up teammates to crash the glass. Nor do his goose eggs in the blocks and steals columns account for the crisp, on-time rotations that routinely forced the Jazz into tough, and sometimes destructive, decisions.
Gobert had moments of dominance on the glass, but Carter jostled him around all night, even while giving up four inches of height and five years of experience. In this sequence, he recovers from the perimeter to snare a contested board over Gobert, then bodies him en route to a layup on the other end:
Here, he boxes Gobert out of the play, allowing Lauri Markkanen to swoop in:
“I’m not going to be the tallest out there, I’m not going to be the strongest, the fastest, but I know I’ll be able to beat my opponents in one or two ways throughout the game,” Carter said. “Whether it’s being more physical than him, boxing him out, creating space, getting into their body… Those are the ways that I can find a way to beat him out.”
His awareness and smarts show up in every phase of the game. Though they boast a top five defense, the Bulls have at times struggled to stay connected on the back end of rotations, ceding an abundance of open looks at the rim and behind the arc. But don’t fault Carter there. He's a heat-seeking missile on every defensive possession, leaping out to blitz pick-and-rolls, adeptly maneuvering his way back to his man and fearlessly taking on the brunt of help assignments when teammates are in need:
The fluidity of his defensive movement jumps off the screen. Watch how much ground he covers on these two possessions:
“You have some guys that are ahead of the curve and some guys that it takes a little time,” Young said of Carter’s basketball IQ. “I think Wendell is further ahead of the curve just because of the mentality he brings to the game, his physical nature when he walks out on the court."
His brand of savvy is rare for a 20-year-old big. And he's still only 79 games into his NBA career.
“To say it’s his second year, I understand that. I think he’s just at a full NBA season now," Jim Boylen said. "The credit goes to him. He’s an intelligent, tough-minded, developing young player... He’s a big part of what we’re doing and our future.”
The offensive potential is there, too — on the first play of the game, Carter stroked an in rhythm 3-pointer, then whipped out a touch floater a few possessions later. As a facilitator, his work as a screener and dribble-handoff hub generated a handful of open looks for Zach LaVine and Tomas Satoransky.
This Satoransky jumper stymied an 11-0 Jazz run:
"He can be that kind of elbow type player that can be kind of like that Al Horford type player who can do a lot of different things, who can make passes, who can shoot the basketball, has great touch on the inside but also man the paint," Young said.
Those aspects of his game are still a work in progress, especially in the context of the Bulls' current offensive system. But for the time being, these types of flashes on both ends against high-level competition — along with his established tenacity on the offensive glass and putback plays — are enough to validate the notion that Carter is ahead of schedule.
“It just shows that with a little bit more confidence, I can hang with these premiere bigs in this league,” Carter said. “I just look at the situation like, 'Oh, Rudy is a great big, but I think I'm one of the great bigs in this league, too.' And now I'm just able to show the whole world that I am.”
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