Where were you when Wendell Carter Jr. showed out against the Denver Nuggets?
If you happened to be out partaking in Halloween festivities, then you just missed the Bulls’ newest draft pick showing glimpses of how effective he can be at center over the next 10-plus years.
Despite losing on the last possession in overtime to the visiting Nuggets, this felt like a win, thanks in large part to the complete performance from the young big.
Unlike his previous seven games, this one was different. From the outset, there was a clear intent from all to get the rookie involved early. More importantly, however, Carter Jr. imposed his will on the game, actively looking to exert himself on every possession.
In the opening quarter, the Bulls were set on utilising their center’s natural passing skills to hit his teammates for scoring chances through the high post.
Finishing the game with five assists, Carter Jr. showcased his willingness to distribute, acting as a hub within the offense, something Stephen Noh of The Athletic recently noted the Bulls should do more of, particularly as opponents begin to load up on Zach LaVine on the perimeter.
Creating scores for others is instinctual for Carter Jr — if anything, he’s been too willing to defer to teammates, often turning down good looks at the basket to pass out to a more experienced veteran. Put that down to a timid rookie being conscious of not overstepping his bounds. But for a team with injuries to four rotational players, the Bulls needed some offense from him, too.
In an otherwise forgettable performance against the Warriors, Carter Jr. setting a career-high in points and shot attempts was one of the few bright spots. Two nights later, he eclipsed both marks, making nine of his 21 shot attempts, en route to a 25-point night.
It may not have been an efficient performance, but it didn’t matter. More important than the misses was the intent to influence the game with his own scoring — 10 shot attempts in the first quarter alone is the most aggressive we’ve the rookie.
Showcasing an array of ways he can be used on offense, perhaps the best and most immediate option is forming a two-man game with LaVine. This budding partnership is something that emerged against the Nuggets, with Carter Jr. routinely setting picks and handoffs for LaVine, then flashing out to the three-point line — both of his made threes came from crisp passes from LaVine.
Developing as playmaking threat for others is the next step for LaVine. That task is made simpler if he can consistently work with a frontcourt player who can set a strong screen and step out and shoot. Now, along with the Lauri Markkanen, the Bulls are fortunate to have another young, modern day big man who can act as a credible jump shooting threat in pick-and-pop action.
On occasions, only one of these bigs will be involved in pick-and-roll sets with a perimeter player, leaving the other close to basket. Should Carter Jr. be the one to remain at rim, he can hurt you in the air, too.
As good as his own offense looked, Carter Jr. developing into a defensive anchor is arguably more important for a Bulls team void of competent two-way play.
For a team yearning for as many easy points in transition as possible, it all starts on defense. So far, though, the results haven’t been good — the Bulls currently rank 29th in defensive rating, 26th in points off turnovers, and 18th in fastbreak points. In time, to fuel their own offense, those numbers will hopefully trend upward. Given personnel and past performances, a defensive uplift may not come soon, but Carter Jr. is trying to turn the tide.
Matching up against Nikola Jokic, one of the best and most creative offensive centers in the league, Chicago’s young big more than held his own. Needing 20 shots to score 22 points, the Nuggets star was unable to shift his inexperienced opponent in the post with size or finesse.
As impressive as Carter Jr’s defensive positioning near the rim has been to open his career, his ability to alter shots and play the passing lanes has led to leak-out points for the Bulls.
On nights when he isn’t scoring, you can be sure Carter Jr. will be creating buckets for others with timely defensive stops. These effort plays are becoming a trend, and several times now LaVine has reaped the benefit of his center’s work in the form of transition dunks.
Reading a box score, it’s difficult to measure defensive impact. For those who haven’t seen much of Carter Jr., it’s understandable how his impact may not be obvious. Against the Nuggets, however, closing the game with three blocks and steals, Carter Jr’s effect on defense was highly visible.
Something less obvious: There have only been 14 games from rookies aged 19 or younger who have registered three or more blocks and steals in a game. After last night, Carter Jr. became the 15th.
Joining such company, which includes Kevin Garnett, Anthony Davis, and Kevin Durant, is notable. Whilst it’s highly unlike Carter Jr. ever reaches the lofty heights of these three players, after a dominant performance against a good Nuggets team, the Bulls should feel confident in knowing they have found their solution a center for years to come.