Did WCJ's Rookie Season Show Signs Of An Emerging Star?

The rookie season of Wendell Carter Jr. ended this week in disappointment with thumb surgery after 44 games. But it mostly carries with it hope and promise after arguably the best rookie season for a center in franchise history.

“It was fun,” Carter told reporters Tuesday in the Advocate Center in his first comments since his season ending surgery. “I had a lot of ups and downs throughout the season, which I was going to go through at some point in my career. It was fun being able to bond with my teammates, which I plan on doing for the rest of the season (by staying with the team).

“That was something I always worked for ever since I was a kid, to be able to get to the NBA,” Carter said. “Not just get here, but also be a star in this league. Those games show the potential I have in this league.”

Carter’s first season showed averages of 10.3 points, seven rebounds and three blocks, which rank eighth among rookies in points, second in rebounds and second in blocks. It’s an excellent start for a 19-year-old with just one year of college as the No. 7 selection in the 2018 draft.

And while center production is not a high bar in franchise annals, Carter looks like he’s going to scale it easily on the way to being one of the top centers in franchise history. Though a bit on the small side for a center at 6-10, Carter is strong at a listed 255 pounds with excellent reactions.

In franchise history, perhaps only Tom Boerwinkle and Erwin Mueller achieved as much as Carter in a rookie season. Boerwinkle averaged 9.8 points and 11.1 rebounds as a rookie, primarily as a passing, high post center who played four years at Tennessee. Though often unappreciated playing with the rugged Bulls of the early 1970s who played in two conference finals, Boerwinkle was a vital part of the best Bulls team until the Michael Jordan era. Second rounder Mueller in the team's inaugural season averaged 12.7 points, but was quickly traded after trying to defect to the ABA.

The most decorated first round draft pick Bulls center was Joakim Noah, who averaged just 6.8 points and 5.6 rebounds his rookie season. Other centers the Bulls drafted in the first round included Eddy Curry, Will Perdue, Dalibor Bagaric and Travis Knight. Elton Brand, Sidney Green, Orlando Woolridge, Charles Oakley, David Greenwood, Kornel David and Stacey King were considered forwards.

Noah actually had a similar surgery as did Kirk Hinrich, and Carter said he was told both found their hands strengthened afterward. Though Carter isn’t advising anyone to repeat his experience.

He suffered the freak injury in an unusual way against the Lakers Jan. 15.

He was turning to run back on defense and got tangled with Tyson Chandler. Carter put his hand down to brace for a fall, apparently then damaging a ligament. Post game x-rays were inconclusive and then an MRI in Los Angeles indicated it might not be serious. But a visit to the team’s specialist back in Chicago showed the need for surgery and an eight-to-12 week recovery.

“It’s kind of sore, but it’s nothing I can’t get through,” Carter said. “To not be able to finish out the season as a rookie... that’s something I wanted to do. I’m just looking at the long-term now. I take off the cast in like 10 days and start rehabbing with a splint.

“It started off with them saying it didn’t look so good but knowing I needed a second opinion. So I wasn’t that devastated,” Carter related. “Then coming back here and seeing a hand specialist, they told me I needed surgery for sure. I was devastated. I didn’t think (when it happened) it was that bad. It didn’t hurt. I was planning on playing Saturday (back in Chicago). It wasn’t the pain that made me get the surgery. It was more so the structure of the tendons.

“So many people have had this injury and (if you) don’t get it taken care of bones are coming out of their socket very easily,” Carter said. “I wanted to eliminate all that. If I was to get in a cast and come back and (had a setback), then I’d have to wait another eight weeks and (then) get the surgery. So I just went ahead and knocked it out to get it out of the way.”

It’s certainly a disappointment for the Bulls and Carter, but Carter, who turns 20 in April, showed plenty in his half season to maintain team optimism about his future.

Carter was rarely the focus of the offense or featured prominently, used more for screening, defense, basket protection and rebounding. He has a fluid shooting stroke, but barely ventured far outside to shoot threes as many big men do now in the NBA. He had trouble at times with some of the taller, offensive oriented centers, like Joel Embiid and Karl-Anthony Towns. But Carter had his best games against some of the league’s best big men.

Carter’s best game probably was early in the season when the Bulls lost at the overtime buzzer on a Paul Millsap putback. Carter, playing against MVP candidate Nikola Jokic, had 25 points, eight rebounds, five assists, three blocks and three steals. Carter missed the rematch with Jokic last week after his injury. About a month later at the end of November, Carter had 28 points, seven rebounds and three blocks against the Pistons’ Andre Drummond. And in the start of the Western Conference trip in Portland, Carter scored 22 points against developing big man Jusuf Nurkic.

Carter only averaged about eight field goal attempts per game and fewer than one three pointer per game, conservative offensive statistics that likely will change as he is involved more in the offense. The Bulls this season have concentrated offensively more around Zach LaVine, Lauri Markkanen, Bobby Portis and Kris Dunn.

So despite the sudden end of his rookie season, Carter remains confident in the core the team is building.

“I feel like everybody here is bought in,” Carter said. “We just have to get a better feel for one another when we’re on the court. Especially with the draft coming up, depending on who we draft, we’ll be able to mold this team into something very special.”

The Bulls have been starting Robin Lopez since Carter’s injury, but that could change by trading deadline. If Lopez is not with the team, Portis probably will play center and forward. Many teams, like Indiana with Myles Turner, use forwards to play center.

Carmelo Anthony won’t play there.

The Bulls announced Tuesday they completed a trade of the draft rights of Tadija Dragićević to the Houston Rockets in exchange for forward Anthony, the draft rights to Jon Diebler and cash considerations. Dragićević, 6-9 and 247, was the 53rd overall pick by Utah in the 2008 NBA Draft. His rights were acquired by the Bulls in 2014 for Greg Smith. Dragićević has played professionally in several countries during his career, most recently in Spain this season. Diebler was the 51st overall pick by Portland in the 2011 NBA Draft following his senior season at Ohio State. His rights were acquired by Houston in 2012. Diebler is currently playing in the Turkish League. There has to be “value” in the form of a player or draft pick in a trade. The Bulls recently did a similar transaction with Houston involving Michael Carter-Williams. He was waived by the Bulls.

It is regarded as more of a bookkeeping transaction for both teams regarding luxury tax liability and salary cap space. Anthony is not expected to play for the Bulls. He could be traded or perhaps eventually released.

It’s a long way from the summer of 2014 when Anthony opted out of his contract with the Knicks after averaging 27.4 points per game along with 8.1 rebounds and 3.1 assists. He was regarded among the top five players in the NBA. The Bulls pursued an intense recruitment of Anthony as a free agent. He’d eventually agree to resign with the Knicks, though he later said he regretted not taking the Bulls offer.

Anthony’s play declined precipitously with changes under new team president Phil Jackson and in the NBA. Anthony was an All-Star starter as recently as 2016 and All-Star in 2017. He demanded a trade and went to Oklahoma City in 2017-18. After a poor season, he was traded to Atlanta and bought out. He signed a minimum contract with Houston last summer, but was sent home after 10 games for internal issues. At 34, he is regarded as too slow, one dimensional, indifferent and disinclined to play again for a team with a losing record.

Many are speculating if he plays in the NBA again, it will be with his friend LeBron James in Los Angeles. Though he is regarded as a sure so called first ballot hall of famer for an exceptional basketball career.

For the Bulls, they’ll move on and wait for Wendell. They’re resolute in his return, recovery and resilience.