Utah Jazz

Wendell Carter Jr. flashed his full potential against Rudy Gobert and the Jazz

Wendell Carter Jr. flashed his full potential against Rudy Gobert and the Jazz

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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Bulls fell familiarly to the Utah Jazz, but must build on silver linings

Bulls fell familiarly to the Utah Jazz, but must build on silver linings

Win or lose, most all of Jim Boylen's postgame press conferences start the same way: With an opening statement. What went well?

"They [the Utah Jazz] average 108 [points per game], they score[d] 102. We win the boards, we turn them over 17 times," Boylen began, unprompted. 

But the sentence that follows is always the most telling.

"We just couldn't get enough shots to get to 103, just couldn't get there," Boylen continued. "Thought we had some looks at the end that I think we can make, but we battled."

This Bulls team could fill a book with silver linings, and that's not intended to be facetious. A hard-fought 102-98 loss to the scorching-hot Jazz — a loss in which the Bulls battled back from down 10 in the fourth quarter to tie the game with just under two minutes to play — leaves a better taste than the undressing the Bucks handed them on Monday. Right?

"Those are the ones that even more frustrating," Kris Dunn said of close losses, like the one to the Jazz. "Instead of a game like Milwaukee, yeah, we were upset, but they just handed it to us. You know, they just came out there and blew us out the water. But a game like this, you're more frustrated because you play so well and then there's droughts throughout the game, you let things slip and they get out with the victory."

Yeah, the taste is still sour. Perhaps even more so. This was a game the Bulls led 59-48 early in the third quarter, then, ten game minutes later, trailed 71-63. Dry spells of that variety have become something of a pattern, as has an inability to close out quality foes. With the loss, the Bulls are now 1-13 against opponents with a record at or above .500.

Around the team, the diagnoses for such developments, and how to address them, vary. Ultimately, it's a smorgasborg of areas to improve.

"Defensive stops, or some execution plays. Making some shots," Zach LaVine said. "But I always look at the defensive side to where if we get an extra stop then we won't be in a position where we're trailing and we'll be in the lead."

"Just try to have more clean plays, you know, offensively," Dunn said. "I think certain times we get a little stagnant and we get away from what the system does when we do run our stuff fast with pace and execute well."

Wendell Carter Jr. cited the necessity of experience and adaptability, calling "about 95 percent" of crunchtime execution mental.

"We all know we can make shots, we all know that we can drive the ball, we all know we can get to the basket, but it's about making the right play at the right time," Carter said of the Bulls' late-game struggles. "But I don't think anything else beats that experience."

This variance isn't indicative of a fractured locker room, but of a team with many leaks to patch. Their defense, though currently rated top-five in the NBA, has been exploited at times by smart teams. The offense is drought-prone. Shooting spurts come and go, as does their reliability late in games. Most every rationalization for the Bulls' inability to get over the hump has its merits.

But the silver linings do, too, as frustrating as they are to some. Thursday night, even without a win to show for it, the Bulls did re-find themselves in a way they couldn't against the Bucks. And for all the smudges on this performance, the game was in the balance until the last moment.

"We created turnovers, we got in transition, we got a couple easy ones," Dunn said. "We did get our identity back, we were aggressive coming out in the first quarter. We were down 10, we got back into the game. It shows that we had some fight tonight."

"We compete with some of the best teams in the league night-in-night-out," LaVine said. "It might not show in our record, but we're right there pretty much every night."

To Dunn's point: The Bulls forced 17 Jazz turnovers Thursday night, converting them into 21 points, and bottled up Donovan Mitchell about as much as you could hope to in high-leverage spots.

And to LaVine's: The team ranks second in the league in NBA.com-defined 'clutch' games played, and their season-long average point differential of -1.1 is seventh in the Eastern Conference, compared to the No. 10 slot they actually inhabit.

Moreover, they're still just 2.5 games out of the eighth seed. With 16 games in the next 28 days (nine of those against current playoff teams), that's a precarious spot to be. But the Bulls know getting defeated now isn't an option.

"At the end of the day, it's about wins and losses, we ain't get the win," Dunn said. "Definitely frustrating, but at the same time it's the NBA, lot of games come quick, gotta get ready for Saturday."

"I don't think we really got a choice," Carter said, good-naturedly, on how the team continues to push on. "I feel like we are competitors, we still have a lot more games left, we still have a chance to get into this playoff run that we're trying to do."

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What to watch for: Bulls host the red-hot Utah Jazz in another key matchup

What to watch for: Bulls host the red-hot Utah Jazz in another key matchup

The Jazz roll into the United Center one of the hottest teams in the league, which would make a Bulls win all that sweeter. The game tips at 7 p.m. CT on NBC Sports Chicago — until then, here's what to watch for:

Jazz’s last five games (4-1)

  • Dec. 30 — W vs. Pistons: 104-81

  • Dec. 28 — W at Clippers: 120-107

  • Dec. 26 — W vs. Trail Blazers: 121-115

  • Dec. 23 — L at Heat: 107-104

  • Dec. 21 — W at Hornets: 114-107

Storyline(s) to watch

After a tumultuous beginning of the season relative to expectations, the Jazz are beginning to find their tune. They enter the this one 21-12, winners of eight of their last nine and two games removed from knocking off the Clippers (at full strength) in LA. For the foreseeable future, they’ll be without Mike Conley (hamstring), who’s enduring a nightmarish season, but their current lengthy, sharp-shooting starting five of Donovan Mitchell, Royce O’Neal, Bojan Bogdanovic, Joe Ingles and Rudy Gobert has been shredding opponents on both ends of the floor. Tonight, the Bulls are getting a good team at the wrong time.

Both teams haven’t played since Dec. 30, so fresh legs should abound. The Bulls’ last loss saw them struggle mightily with the Bucks’ length and defensive versatility; well, here’s another team that brings that in droves. The Jazz are, of course, more mortal than Milwaukee, but a win tonight remains a tall order (which, to look at it another way, would make one that much sweeter).

Player to watch: Rudy Gobert

Though Gobert is averaging his lowest blocks per game total (1.9) since his rookie year, his impact on the Jazz’s defense remains profound. When he’s on the floor, Jazz opponents take only 31.4% of the field goals at the rim and a whopping 35.5% from midrange, per Cleaning the Glass’ calculations. 

Even those impressive on/off numbers have tapered a tad compared to his transcendent mid-20s, but Gobert remains an enormous challenge for a Bulls team that likes to shoot around the basket, struggles to do so efficiently and gets shots blocked at an unnatural rate.

 

And all that's without mentioning, he’s second in the NBA in both rebounds per game (14.2) and field goal percentage (68.2%). He’s the exact type of player the Bulls have so often struggled with this season — his performance tonight will be an interesting barometer of the growth of guys like Wendell Carter Jr. and Daniel Gafford.

Side note: This would be a perfect game to see Wendell Carter Jr. continue to dust off his jumper. The Jazz switch a ton, but prefer to keep Gobert anchored around the basket — if the Bulls decide to try to exploit that, the worst case is a couple missed open jimmies for Carter. The best case (if he makes a few) could be pulling Gobert out from the paint, opening up some driving and cutting lanes. 

Matchup to watch: Pace of play

If the Jazz have their way, this game will be a plodding affair. They rank 17th in the NBA in pace and though they employ a few potentially dangerous transition weapons, they rank 27th in the league in percentage of total points off fastbreak opportunities (the Bulls are sixth in that metric).

Utah has also demonstrated a penchant for turnovers, averaging 16 per game as a team (27th in the NBA). This is the formula for a Bulls win, as it is on all nights: nudge their opponent into errors and run.

Jim Boylen said Kris Dunn will take lead responsibilities handling the dynamic Donovan Mitchell. If Dunn is his typical hounding self and loose balls are flying, the Bulls could find an edge. Speaking of...

Battle to watch: Donovan Mitchell vs. Zach LaVine

This one could be a lot of fun. Mitchell is having the best all-around season of his young career, averaging career-high 25.2 points on improved efficiency, and has moved into a pseudo-point guard role with the Jazz starters in Conley’s absence. Zach LaVine is in the midst of an All-Star push after a month of December in which he averaged 25.1 points a game and shot an impressive 39.3% on 8.4 3-point attempts per game.

Obviously these two aren’t in direct competition for an All-Star spot, but it’s a chance for LaVine to go toe-to-toe with another premiere scoring guard and continue asserting his case. If this one goes down to the wire, a one-on-one showdown between them would be scintillating.

Injury update

Just one: After fully participating in practice on Wednesday, Chandler Hutchison was a full go at shootaround this morning. Boylen called him a gametime decision. 

Based on Boylen’s assessment of Dunn’s role guarding Mitchell, it didn’t sound like Hutchison would unseat Dunn in the starting lineup even if he does play. More to come as the day progresses.

UPDATE:

Chandler Hutchison will NOT play against the Utah Jazz, though he is healthy.

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