Chicago Bulls center Wendell Carter Jr.’s rookie campaign may be over after just 44 games. He has been sidelined since the Bulls’ Jan. 15 loss to the Los Angeles Lakers. Ultimately, he underwent surgery on the ulnar collateral ligament of his left thumb. Following the procedure, the Bulls ruled him out for eight to 12 weeks.
That timetable brings him back in mid-March at the earliest. However, the more likely scenario sees him missing the remainder of the 2018-19 season. For that reason, now is as good a time as any to look back on Carter’s unfortunately-truncated season. What did he do well, what didn’t work out, and is there hope for his future with the Bulls?
Wendell Carter Jr. ends his year averaging 10.3 points, 7.0 rebounds, 1.8 assists, and 1.3 blocks in 25.2 minutes per game. For comparison’s sake, his college numbers in his lone season at Duke were 13.5 points, 9.1 rebounds, 2.0 assists, and 2.1 blocks over 26.9 minutes per game.
Carter’s numbers are admirable for a rookie year. The interesting thing about his statline, however, is its strikingly similarities to those of Al Horford and Carlos Boozer during their inaugural seasons.
Carter’s game drew a number of comparisons to Horford’s coming into the NBA draft. Meanwhile, ESPN analyst Chauncey Billups called out some parallels with fellow Blue Devil Boozer when he was officially selected by the Bulls. Considering that both players would go on to make seven combined All-Star appearances, Carter seems to be on the right track.
When comparing Carter’s season to players within the last six years, BBall Index felt it matched closest to Mason Plumlee‘s 2017-18 campaign. Both players rebounded well, block shots at a high level, passed well, and demanded attention when they rolled to the rim.
Carter would pick up seven double-doubles during the season. His best game saw him rack up 28 points (career-high), seven rebounds, and three blocks in a Nov. 30 loss at the Detroit Pistons. He also logged 25 points, eight rebounds, five assists, three steals, and three blocks in an Oct. 31 overtime loss to the Denver Nuggets.
Carter was best at getting to the basket during his rookie year. He scored 10.1 Created Points Over Expectation in both Pick & Roll – Roll Man plays and when cutting to the basket. Those numbers aided in him grading out as a A- in Roll Gravity according to BBall Index, placing him in the 85th percentile.
Carter was also a pretty solid rim protector. 15 days after his last game, his 1.3 blocks per game is still 23rd-best in the league. It’s fifth-best among rookies. He also logged a defensive field goal percentage of 53.2 percent, second-best among Bulls rotation players.
Wendell Carter also came into the league with above-average passing ability for a big. While original head coach Fred Hoiberg sought to use this, the skill was less-utilized under successor Jim Boylen. Under Hoiberg, Carter’s 13.7 assist percentage was 12th-best among centers that played at least 15 minutes per game. That percentage dropped to 9.5 percent under Boylen, 31st under the same criteria.
Also, despite his ability to deter shots, Carter struggled mightily on the block on both ends of the floor. He produced -31.5 CPOE on Offensive Post-Up plays. He conceded 12.0 Defensive Points Over Expectation when defending Post-Ups.
His issues defending the post manifested itself into foul trouble. Carter averaged a whopping 4.9 fouls per 36 minutes and fouled out four times. He even had an eight-game stretch from Dec. 13 through Dec. 28 where he picked up at least four fouls in every game. He fouled out once over that span.
One facet of Carter’s game that wasn’t fully explored by either coach was his potential to stretch the floor with his shooting. He shot 41.3 percent (19-of-46) from 3-point range in 37 games at Duke. However, he only shot 18.8 percent (6-of-32) from beyond in 44 games with the Bulls. Carter scored -14.5 CPOE in Spot-Up situations.
Naturally, Carter sought to extend his range more under Hoiberg than Boylen. Through Dec. 3, Wendell went 5-of-24 (20.8 percent) from 3-point range and 24-of-60 (40.0 percent) on mid-range 2-pointers. Boylen compacted Carter’s range, with those numbers dropping to 1-of-8 (12.5 percent) from 3 and 8-of-31 (25.8 percent) from mid-range upon his arrival.
Wendell Carter Jr.’s rookie season may be over after just 44 games thanks to his thumb. For all of the ups and downs, he ultimately showed flashes of the two-way big he can become. That opinion is fortified by per game numbers that are eerily similar to the rookie years of players that would eventually carve out All-Star-caliber careers.
Moving forward, the most important thing for Carter is making sure that he returns to an environment that is more conducive for growth. The Chicago Bulls, as constituted, have a culture problem. It bears out in the archaic gameplan and the lack of accountability from leadership, both from the front office and coaching staff alike. If this organization wants Wendell Carter Jr. to realize his full potential, changes need to be made in those departments before he returns.
Header graphic by Akshay Ram