CHICAGO – Every August, the NBA holds its rookie transition program to give its newly minted pros an idea of what life in the league is going to be like, from handling their money and dealing with reporters to fending off assorted unsavory outside forces.
And then, every October, the young guys begin their real rookie transition.
Consider Wendell Carter Jr. of the Chicago Bulls. In a span of five days, he will have gone through a gauntlet of imposing NBA big men that would have some 10-year veterans flinching and wondering if their tendinitis needed a night off.
Carter’s on-the-job rigors began Thursday, when he became only the 10th Bulls rookie to start on opening night and was met in his matchup at center with Philadelphia’s Joel Embiid. It continued Saturday in Chicago’s home opener against Detroit, with Carter banging at various times against both Andre Drummond and Blake Griffin.
Now the 19-year-old will travel to Dallas, where he’ll get his first test against the Mavericks’ salty DeAndre Jordan. And just for the record, in the Bulls’ final preseason game, he had to cope with Denver’s crafty Nikola Jokic.
For someone so young, against such a slate of established or eventual All-Stars, Carter’s early lessons have been difficult. There really is no other way.
“I’m sure it’s just chaos and confusion right now for him,” Griffin said after leading the Pistons with 33 points, 12 rebounds and five assists in a 118-116 victory at United Center. “He doesn’t look that way, but that’s just how you feel – no matter what – when you’re a rookie. The game is moving so fast.”
Carter, the No. 7 pick from Duke in this year's Draft, fell victim to foul trouble early and the Bulls’ need to play catch-up late, which had coach Fred Hoiberg sticking with Jabari Parker at the end. Carter logged less than 18 minutes, finishing with eight points, two rebounds and two blocks.
Drummond had foul issues of his own, exiting with his sixth after just 23:33. Still, Drummond and Griffin won the frontcourt battle with 43 points and 25 boards to Carter and Bobby Portis’ combined 14 and 16.
It wasn’t the sort of Windy City debut Carter would have scripted. This was, after all, kind of a big deal – he’s the player Chicago landed after an entire 2017-18 season spent gaming the NBA’s Draft lottery system. The Bulls consciously tried to dive deep, won a little too counterproductively in December and January and wound up waiting until after the first six picks were gone.
That tortuous process led everyone to Saturday, when 21,289 in the stands got their first official look at the alleged silver lining from last season’s dark cloud.
Carter wasn’t happy with either his or his team’s performance afterward, pulling his clothes from the hangers in his locker as he dressed and bemoaning the Bulls’ lack of defensive communication (they’ve given up 245 points in two games).
Not to worry, though, Griffin said.
“He’s so talented, he’s going to be fine,” the Pistons star said. “It’s just a matter of time for him. I watched him play probably more than any other player in college last year – I really like his game. I’ve known of him since he was in high school. He would be the least of my concerns if I was over there in the front office or on the coaching staff.”
Hoiberg and his staff have approached Carter’s trial by fire by starting him in response to the challenges he handled in summer league and in the preseason. He arrived with a maturity, poise and defensive bent some players never achieve – a young Al Horford was a frequent comp – and isn’t about to blow that image, no matter how many lumps he takes.
“I appreciate the fact I’m able to play against these very talented bigs early on in my career,” Carter said. “Learn what I’ve got to work on. I’ve got to get stronger, that’s the first thing I recognized. … Just being up against the best, I love the competition. I love going against the best players.”
Truth be told, Hoiberg said he talked with Carter on Friday about handling the frustrations he’ll surely encounter. He’s a little cranky about the officiating, for example, picking up at least three fouls in all six preseason and regular-season appearances while playing fewer than 23 minutes every time. He’s does the “verticality” thing as if from a textbook and still hears a whistle.
“At this point, I just feel like it’s rookie calls. I don’t care what nobody’s saying, that’s how I really feel,” Carter said. “I still have respect for the game, though. I have respect for the referees. If they call it, it’s a foul. I’ve just got to do better, learn from it.”
Then there was the chatter from Embiid in Philadelphia, a 19-point Sixers romp.
“He was telling me what I should and shouldn’t do,” Carter said. “‘C’mon rookie, you’ve got to do’ something ‘better.’
Carter didn’t chatter back, he said. “Not yet. I’m gonna get there at some point though.”
Drummond didn’t pile on, thanks perhaps only to the referees.
"If I played more, I think it woulda been more of a schooling,” the Detroit center said. “This is a helluva three games for him.”
Drummond, 25, remembers what it was like six years ago, when he was the one absorbing the lessons. His rookie year got dinged 22 games due to a stress fracture in his back, an injury that compounded the basketball education.
“I learned my lessons the hard way,” Drummond told NBA.com. “Physically. I started out being hurt. I had to just play and figure it out game by game. Watched films. Learned the guys that I played against. And figured it out.”
Drummond wound up averaging 7.9 points, 7.8 rebounds and 1.6 blocks. He had nine double-doubles and earned all-rookie status. But he’s glad to be wiser now in the NBA’s ways, given how few the shortcuts were.
“It was more of a sponge season for me,” he said. “Learning the NBA. I mean, I was a young kid. Just tried to have fun with it. It was the game I loved and I was playing it at the highest level, so I just tried to enjoy every moment and take it in.”
That’s Carter today, way at the front end of his career. He’s got a notebook, he said, that he scribbles in bullet points, tips and lessons from each game after he’s left the arena, his mind clear. Portis said he’ll share more with Carter as the season goes on – there hasn’t been much time and the Bulls haven’t really hit the road yet – but most of this stuff will be hands-on.
“It’s as important a thing as you’re going to face in this league,” Hoiberg said. “When you’ve got a 19-year-old kid out there, it’s human nature I think when you’re playing against an opponent like Wendell has gone against, to hang your head a little bit.”
The coach added: “It’s something every player goes through in this league. It’s understanding who you’re playing against. We’re showing him a lot of personnel, film on who he’s going to be going up against.”
Until the day, and it will come, when young guys are studying film of Carter, going through gauntlets of their own.
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