While it's hard to argue that this season has started the way Bulls fans had hoped, one constant positive has been the impact that Wendell Carter Jr, in just his second year in the league, has made. After missing half of his rookie season with a thumb injury, Wendell is currently leading the Bulls in plus/minus and is 7th in the NBA for double/doubles, with 8 already, which is 1 more than he had for all of last season.]
It's a third year for the Bulls trying to find a way out of their desert of defeat. So if not quite yet, at 4-9, on a path to success, the play of Wendell Carter Jr. is proving to be an oasis in the journey.
The second year center has been the model of consistency and commitment in the torturous first month of the season. Carter coming off his 18 points and 14 rebounds in Saturday's loss to Brooklyn is averaging 13.6 points and 9.8 rebounds. Which tells just part of the story as the powerful 20-year-old leads the Bulls in rebounding, blocks, shooting and plus/minus. He's third in scoring and free throw attempts and, unfortunately, still the overall NBA leader in fouls committed.
Which really is the least of the Bulls concerns as the Bulls Monday host the Milwaukee Bucks in a rematch from the Bucks' win last week.
Because here's also a guy who's letting the opposition know he's there to compete.
Carter has been perhaps the greatest constant for the Bulls this season. And defying the concern that at 6-9 Carter wouldn't be able to compete at his position. His play Saturday with a career high nine offensive rebounds was testament enough playing against more than 14 feet of centers, the Nets' Jarrett Allen and DeAndre Jordan.
Carter doesn't match many opponents in physical as much as conceptual size. Size of the heart and all that.
"Just find ways to beat them," Carter was saying late Saturday night in the locker room. "They are very strong and athletic at seven foot. So I have to find ways to get around them, use my quickness. I was able to do that tonight. None of that matters when you are not coming out with the W."
Highlights from the start of Wendell Carter Jr's 19/20 season
It's always the priority for Carter, of course, though his play continues to give the Bulls hope that success is less mirage than mandate.
"I've got one year under my belt," Carter noted in a recent interview. "I know exactly what to expect when I'm playing. I just find ways to affect the game, whether it's scoring, rebounding or playing good defense. I found my niche for the game, and I'm just going to try to build off of that."
It's been a welcoming part of the disappointments that have mounted with the unsteady start to the season. Next come the talented Bucks, who are one of the biggest teams in the league with the tenacious Giannis Antetokounmpo, who plays as if he's seven feet tall, and the seven-foot Lopez twins. The Bulls last week in Milwaukee were overwhelmed on the boards 58-45 as Antetokounmpo attempted 20 free throws. The game ended in indignation for the Bulls when Eric Bledsoe attempted to dunk the ball at the buzzer despite a large Milwaukee lead. It's considered an unspoken insult, though some Bulls did have their say to Bledsoe afterward.
But the way this season has been progressing with a series of lost double digit leads and late collapses, the Bulls probably needs to concentrate on their own improvement.
That's where Carter can be a model after a truncated rookie season in which he broke a finger last January and missed the rest of the season. Unable to grow anymore, Carter, nevertheless, returned thicker without any loss of quickness. His size as a center was one of the preseason concerns. That, along with the status and mindset of Kris Dunn, were two of the biggest off season questions. Dunn has answered well leading the league in total steals and third in steals per game.
Carter has negated his shortcomings with a long reach to the history of the game. He boxes out on rebounds. He takes advantage of those who don't, which is most, by working his way inside for better position. He's relentless going after missed shots while most retreat. His calendar reads 2019, but his attitude reflects 1965.
Carter often has been likened to Al Horford, the 6-9 All-Star center now with the Philadelphia 76ers. But because Carter hasn't yet expanded his shooting range, he's perhaps more reminiscent of the likes of Wayne Embry and Wes Unseld. Maybe not bound for the Hall of Fame, but energetic and effective.
"That's something I would put in my scouting report (if I were another team)," said Carter. "‘Very aggressive player.'"
Carter is tied for seventh in the NBA in points and rebounds double/doubles with eight, more than he had in 44 games last season when he averaged 10.3 points and seven rebounds. He's had double/doubles in six of the last eight games and doesn't get many breaks. There aren't many centers smaller. Yet, the Bulls do best with Carter playing. His plus/minus is almost two per game, which isn't exceptional. Except that the team's is negative more than three. Otto Porter Jr., who remains out with a foot injury, is second best on the team in scoring differential when on the court.
Carter is hardly the team's best athlete or most skilled player. But he reflects the attitude any team encourages.
When the Bulls had their most sustained play Saturday in that 37-20 second quarter, it was Carter repeatedly ripping away offensive rebounds for an 11-0 advantage in Bulls second chance points in the quarter. Carter had as many rebounds that quarter as the entire Nets team. His 14 for the game were six fewer than 33 feet of Nets starters.
"One thing about me, I don't like people to score whether it's my man or someone else's man," Carter says. "I've had to learn that everybody is in this league because they know how to put the ball in the basket. They're going to score sometimes. I've just got to move on."
Though if he adjusts, Carter still doesn't accept. His untroubled exterior belies a Jack-like tenacity to take on giants. Carter drew eight free throws Saturday, more than Allen and Jordan combined and more than everyone among the Bulls but high scoring Zach LaVine. Carter made all eight and has a career free throw percentage of 76 percent, which suggests he can make those shots away from the basket.
Though for now he's centered on the centers.
"As I get more comfortable with my jump shot I'll be taking them more," Carter said. "But right now I want to spread the offense and make the right play. I feel like we're definitely one of the most talented young teams in this league. We just have to play for 48 minutes. I feel like we have great spurts where we're playing beautiful basketball and sometimes we lose focus and we show our immaturity. We don't have a lot of time, but it's just the beginning of the season and I feel like everybody has bought into this team. As we keep working we'll eventually get there."
The youngster from Duke supplies a working model.