Wendell Carter Jr: Making The Intangibles Matter

It was a brilliant early summer day Sunday in Chicago, America’s best summer city, the lake shimmering in welcome, the cyclist whizzing along, strollers who’ve lived here for decades still gaping at the magnificent skyline. Michigan Avenue beckoned with energy and variety, from the newest Nikes to the deepest pizza. Wendell Carter Jr., the Bulls first selection in last week’s NBA draft, no doubt exulted in its grandeur. Perhaps he thought about a casual evening against the setting sun enjoying his favorite deep dish pizza, which wasn’t available in Atlanta and unheard of in Durham. Maybe a browse to window shop the new Air Jordans or maybe clout his way into Hamilton at Broadway in Chicago in the Loop, Carter Jr. a junior thespian who was in drama and appeared in plays in high school.

It all could wait. Carter Jr. called Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg, his new chorus director. Could he come over to the Advocate Center practice facility? He wanted to get up some shots.

“These guys are willing to work,” Hoiberg said Monday when Carter Jr. and No. 22 draft pick Chandler Hutchison were introduced to the community in their maiden media conference. “Talking to their coaches, they’re part of great programs. I know that work ethic will carry over.

Wendell Carter Jr. at the Advocate Center

“In my opinion, you’ve got a modern day big with Wendell, a guy that’s very skilled,” said Hoiberg. "I’ve talked a lot to Coach K (Mike Krzyzewski) in the last week just about the different ways that he utilized Wendell’s skill set. They ran a lot of high/low with he and (Marvin) Bagley with Wendell out on the floor being able to make the high/low pass. The other thing I was very impressed with as the year went on was his ability to stretch the floor with his three-point shot. He shot over 41 percent from the three-point line. I think he’s a guy that can play make, put the ball on the floor. I think the big area that he’ll help us is defensively at the rim. He’s an excellent rim protector. In watching film on Wendell, the more we watched, just his ability to go up and the art of verticality (stood out). He blocks a lot of shots with two hands, and as important, keeps it in play. So you have a very versatile big that will fit very well with our other young bigs on our roster.”

It was a big day in a lot of ways last week when the Bulls used the No. 7 overall selection in the draft to pick Carter Jr., the 6-10 Duke center who, in some respects, was overshadowed by forward Bagley, who was the No. 2 overall pick in the draft. Though it’s not that Carter Jr. was unknown or unimpressive.

He averaged 13.5 points and 9.1 rebounds, but mostly was the coach’s Swiss Army knife, the leader in plus/minus, first in blocks, second in three-point shooting, third in assists and fourth in steals and scoring.

Scoring merits the spotlight; Carter Jr. was comfortable with being part of the band. When it all comes together its beautiful music. Though the NBA promotes individual stardom, the ultimate reward is team success.

Which is some of the debate around a player like Carter Jr. Critics ask if he can be the kind of star to help a team win a championship. Probably not, but he certainly can be the kind of player who can.

What often gets lost in the simplified debate about personnel is the impact any individual has on the whole. Carter Jr’s has been sizable, from the requisite high school championship—he scored 30 in the championship game, 10 more than his season average because his team needed it—to gold with the USA U-17 national team and all-tournament recognition to being named the national scholar-athlete winner and then recruited by Harvard. But it was off to Duke to be the star. Until, anyway, mega-athlete Bagley reclassified and became the center of attention. So Carter Jr. willingly stepped aside, though not for opponents, to allow what was best for his team and teammates.

While also carving out his territory.

“If I had to say one thing, I think I’m an excellent rebounder,” Carter Jr. said when asked what he thought was his principal strength. “I think I have a really good knack for the ball.

Wendell Carter Jr. goes for a rebound whilst playing for Duke

“I take a lot of pride in rebounding,” Carter Jr. had said earlier in Chicago after his predraft workout with the Bulls. “I don’t like for people to outrebound me. I just fight. I’m a great teammate, and that comes to being a great cheerleader on the bench or setting a great pick for one of my teammates to get open. I think I’m good at all the intangibles, the little things that a lot of fans might not recognize but a lot of coaches do.”

No one thinks they come to the games to see intangibles, but they do.

Because its Dennis Rodman sneaking in between behemoths for a rebound or Joakim Noah outrunning someone for a layup or loose ball or Draymond Green firing out of the backcourt with the ball, passing it ahead.

It may not always make highlight shows, but it does well with final scores.

“We think Wendell at the five position is going to be unique,” said Vice-president of Basketball Operations John Paxson. “We do think they (with Lauri Markkanen) are going to complement each other well. You draft young players that are not finished products by any means. But we feel they have potential that will help us become a better basketball team and certainly we feel they fit players like Kris Dunn and Zach LaVine and Lauri Markkanen and Denzel Valentine, Bobby Portis. That’s a part of this process as well.”

Carter Jr. with his parents in attendance was more reserved in the 25-minute question-and-answer with media than in previous sessions with Chicago reporters. Perhaps because mom and dad were looking on. He then politely did interviews with local TV stations. He’ll wear No. 34 for the Bulls. He wore a three-piece dark suit with a brown checked shirt and tie and had an easy smile that leaked out at times.

One shouldn’t be misled by his comforting manner.

Former longtime Division I college coach and current ESPN broadcaster Fran Fraschilla said before the draft Carter Jr. was the most prepared to play in the NBA of the big men in this draft. Fraschilla said the often made comparison to Horford was fair and he could see Carter averaging a double/double in the NBA for a decade.

“Very few red flags,” Fraschilla said before the draft. “He’s got what we call plus-length. Not only is he 6-10, but I think he measures out at 7-3 (7-4 1/2 wingspan). The average big guy in the NBA is at least a plus-5 when you compare his height versus his wingspan. He fits the bill. He plays with a high motor, plays cerebral, excellent passer. He was the reason why Bagley had such a good year inside.”

Wendell Carter Jr. at the 2018 NBA Draft

And now can do more. Carter Jr. says the NBA is more made for him than college.

“Simply that there is a lot more room on the court,” Carter Jr. said. “There’s a lot of one-on-one play in the NBA. That’s something I am looking forward to. I can showcase my offensive abilities.”

Not that it matters that much to Carter Jr. Score, pass, rebound; it’s about the result more than the process, really. He said it’s always been who he is.

“Even little things,” said Carter Jr., who appears to own a dictionary missing the word ‘ego.’ “I was an only child, I was spoiled. So I would share a lot of my stuff with my cousins and like that and also growing up, I was a winner. I won at everything, even the littlest things. Monopoly, I always found a way to win. Sometimes I just had to sacrifice things and it just kind of translated to the basketball court. I sacrificed, I sacrificed minutes. As long we are winning, that’s all I really care about. I come in and do whatever I have to do to help the team win. So I think that I’ll (make) an immediate impact.

“I was around a lot of great players, a lot of offensive minded players who were great scorers (at Duke),” Carter Jr. noted. “I wouldn’t say I wasn’t able to show everything that I’m able to do. It was just that I was willing to share the pot. For me to play with so many great players at Duke, it shows I’m able to play alongside some of the greatest players in college basketball and still hold my own, which I think spoke volumes. I didn’t go out and have 30- or 40-point games. But I did all the things that are necessary to win. I thought that was very important.”

Still is.