Last week during practice, Wendell Carter Jr and Denzel Valentine collided resulting in a deep quad contusion for Carter. He’s missed the last three games for the Bulls, and unfortunately, it looks like he is going to miss the next 4 weeks before he is re-evaluated. Fans are understandably disappointed with this news. Carter, like a lot of the Bulls young roster, hasn’t been the healthiest player over the past few seasons, missing chunks of each of his 1st two campaigns in the NBA.
With Carter shelved for the foreseeable future, it does give us a chance to take a look at what he’s been doing this season. These past three games have really shown how valuable Carter is to the Bulls, not only on defense, but as an option in the offense. Earlier in the season there was some debate among fans about whether Carter or Daniel Gafford should be the starting center on this team. The argument went something like: While Carter is a versatile player and strong defender (best on the team), he is undersized as a Center, Gafford is a more traditional big, good in pick-and-roll and a solid rim protector, if he starts the rest of the starters settle into easy to understand roles. That argument has been proven false.
Sure, Gafford gives an element of rim protection that Carter cannot provide, and yes, he has better hands than Carter, but Wendell is a much better offensive facilitator than Gafford, which gives the Bulls another dimension to their game. Gafford alters the flow of the Bulls offense, and takes away a much needed weapon in that starting unit. So far this season, Carter has been a fairly reliable 2nd to 4th option for the Bulls, depending on who the opponent is. He is averaging 12.8 points a game, with 8 rebounds and 2.4 assists. Gafford hasn’t played as much as Wendell so it might be unfair to compare per game statistics, but the per 100 possessions statistics also have Carter ahead of Gafford in scoring, assists, rebounds, and defensive rating (Basketball-reference.com).
The assists are the most important part of Wendell’s game, at least for this iteration of the Bulls and their flowing, motion based offense. His ability to make smart passes to open teammates from the high or low post give him an advantage over the slightly more limited Gafford. Carter has an assist percentage (the percentage of teammate field goals a player assisted on while he was on the floor) of 17.5% which is good enough for 4th among Bulls players that have played 10 games or more (nba.com). Only Coby White, Zach LaVine, and Thaddeus Young, have better assist percentages. Carter is an integral part of that starting unit, and the Bulls lose a large chunk of their ball movement when he doesn’t play.
So far, I’ve painted a fairly rosy picture of the Wendell Carter Jr experience, but it hasn’t all been happy passes and stellar defense. If you were to ask me who is the best center on the Bulls team, I’m kinda leaning toward the Expenda-Bull Thaddeus Young. Thadd is behind Carter in a lot of statistics, but just barely, and he is ahead of Carter in some important ones, like assist percentage (26.7) and net rating (Young 6.3, Carter -9.1 according to nba.com). And you can’t overestimate the importance of experience either. Thadd’s 13 seasons of NBA basketball give him an edge on the just-starting-out Carter.
All that being said, I believe Wendell is still the better choice as the starting Center. He needs that experience in order to grow. If he and Thadd are this close statistically in only his 3rd season in the league, imagine what Carter could be in season 4 or 5. He certainly has areas of his game he needs to improve on, and his injury history leaves a lot to be desired, but Wendell Carter Jr is a very important piece to this current Bulls team. Whether the Round Table see him as an important piece on future Bulls teams, I guess we’ll find out. It’s unfortunate this injury cropped up just as Wendell was really starting to get into a groove.
This is a very important season for Carter. He needs to make a positive impression on Arturas Karnisovas, Marc Eversely, and Billy Donovan. From a character aspect, Wendell has been one of the prime suspects when it comes to not handling adversity well. He can get very down on himself when things are going badly, and allow his play to tail-spin after making a couple poor decisions in a row. It’s a mark of Carter’s immaturity and another reason why he needs as much playing time as he can get. In the early part of this season, Donovan has been sitting Carter in crunch time (the last 5 minutes of close games) in favor of Young. One of the indicators of whether or not Carter will be around in the future will be if he works his way into the closing lineup. If he can prove himself to be a reliable player down the stretch of close games, I think the Bulls will hold onto him, but if he stays a liability, then I’m not sure if the Round Table will see him as a player to build on.
Bulls fans have placed a lot of hope in Wendell Carter Jr. He has shown some flashes of possibly realizing that hope. His defense is solid, and his play on offense has greatly improved. The next step for him will be to prove he belongs in the closing lineup of close games. Carter is currently the best person on this Bulls roster to start at Center, but he needs to get healthy, stay healthy, and continue to improve if he wants to be the Bulls Center for the future.
Until he does, thanks for reading and GO BULLS!