Draft coverage for the Bulls is much different this year. No longer picking in teens, instead with a high lottery pick in an exceptionally deep draft assured to a team with holes up and down the roster.
The earliest clue as to who the Bulls have their eye on comes from glossy profiles by Darnell Mayberry of the Athletic and KC Johnson of the Chicago Tribune, released on the same day immediately after the NBA Draft Combine, about Duke center Wendell Carter Jr.
Both stories center around largely the same themes. Carter, a McDonald’s All-American, was set to become the premier freshman at Mike Krzyzewski’s one-and-done factory. But when Marvin Bagley re-classified and came to Duke a year early, Carter handled the situation, essentially a demotion in the offensive pecking order, with class and maturity. Both stories highlighted Carter’s willingness to embrace his role on the team, while acknowledging that there is more to Carter’s game he was unable to showcase in Bagley’s shadow.
We’ll never know what Carter’s season could have looked like in a primary role in Durham, but we can take a look at what he did accomplish during his one season at the collegiate level. In 37 games, Carter averaged 13.5 points, 9.1 rebounds, 2 assists, 2.1 blocks and .8 steals per game. He shot a tidy 56% from the field, an extremely impressive 41% from three point range, and a very solid 74% from the line.
Beyond the traditional box score measures, Carter’s advanced statistical profile has some impressive indicators. Carter gathered 18.4% of all rebounds and a gargantuan 12.8% of his own team’s misses. I closely watched all three of Carter’s games against North Carolina this year with my Tar Heel girlfriend, and in all three he made a tremendous impact on the glass with his energy and timing. Carter is not a nuclear athlete, but he knows how to leverage his 260lb frame and 7’4 wingspan to gobble up missed shots.
The 6’10 Carter’s rebounding numbers are especially impressive considering he spent much of his time on court with the 6’11 Bagley.
Carter’s most impressive statistic may be his 13% assist rate, which is extremely high for a player of Carter’s physical profile. Carter showed impressive vision finding shooters and cutters from the low post, and was comfortable facilitating from the high post. Carter displayed good feel for the game and it’s not hard imagining him filling Robin Lopez’s role in Fred Hoiberg’s system. No Bull benefited more from Lopez’s playmaking ability than Lauri Markkanen. Lauri was either able to take advantage of an uncluttered lane for deep postups when Lopez was above the foul line, or used Lopez’s massive screens to free himself on handoffs from Robin in three point range. It is easy to imagine Carter, of similar size and apparently basketball acumen, sliding comfortably into that role.
Carter is one of only 11 freshmen in the past eight seasons to average 13% assist rate and 7% block rate. A weird cherry-picked statistic, yes, but it’s also a clear indication that Carter has a unique skill set that should translate at the next level.
Carter’s combination of size, strength, and intelligence give him a relatively high floor as a prospect. Even in today’s NBA, every team could use a player with Carter’s skill set somewhere in their rotation.
But does Carter have a ceiling to his game that makes him a worthy selection at number seven?
Wendell Carter is not the dynamic athlete teams look for when constructing a championship roster. Carter is not explosive going to the rim and does not project to be a dangerous lob threat rolling to the hoop. Carter is not in the mold of Clint Capela, a force of nature who creates open threes for his teammates simply by charging hard towards the hoop after setting a screen.
Carter will be able to hold his own in the paint and act as a solid deterrent at the rim thanks to his enormous wingspan, he does not possess the lateral quickness necessary to switch onto NBA guards. He would not last a second in Houston’s base defensive scheme this season.
Carter’s excellent three point percentage last season is impressive, but came on only 46 attempts all season. While a solid free throw stroke is a good historical indicator of three point accuracy at the professional level, Carter’s shooting mechanics are not pretty. He takes quite a while to load up his shot, and in most of the attempts I watched he was wide open and being ignored by the defense. He doesn’t appear to have the footwork or versatility to immediately make an impact in the pick and pop game.
The Bulls just slogged through their most miserable season since the Bill Cartwright (coached) era. Outside of Markannen, I personally do not see anybody on the current roster who I believe could start for a team in the conference finals. And with seemingly no major free agents ever wanting to winter in the Windy City, the Bulls best chance at finding a star to pair with Markannen will come via the draft.
If the Bulls want to bolster their front court in the draft, I’d much prefer using the 22nd pick, a range where other conventional, safe big men make sense for a rebuilding organization (with virtually zero talent on the wing). Carter’s shortcomings as a rim runner should give the Bulls pause when projecting his fit next to Markkanen. Don’t forget that the Bulls already have a young center under contract for three more years who has shown an adeptness at running pick and roll that I don’t know Carter will ever match.
With that in mind, I think the Bulls need to be thinking more aggressively heading into an especially deep draft. There will be future all-stars drafted seventh or later this June, and the Bulls need to prioritize a strategy that maximizes their chance of landing one of those players. Wendell Carter will likely be a solid contributor for years to come, but from what I can see, the chance that Carter develops into a true star is pretty small.
[Previously in this series: Trae Young, Mo Bamba]