Wendell Carter Jr. has been pretty familiar with that most likely to succeed designation. After all, he earned a 3.6 GPA as a high school student, was invited to attend Harvard and was named the Morgan Wooten National Player of the Year which honors the top scholar athlete.
Though after falling to No. 7 in last June’s NBA draft, it perhaps was a bit of a surprise that when NBA.com surveyed rookies this summer, it was Carter who was the choice for the rookie most likely to have the best NBA career.
“I try not to pay attention to those things,” Carter deferred in training camp this week. “Of course, I’m human; I saw those things. I definitely appreciate them. But that’s not what’s going to make me a good player, what other people think. I’ve got to prove to them that I belong in this league and I’m going to be the most successful in this draft. Of course, it felt great, just to feel that other people think I’m going to have a really good career."
Something he can live up to?
In that response, Carter wasn’t quite as modest.
“Yeah, for sure,” he said.
The Bulls likely were pleased to hear that, though it’s not likely they expected any other response.
It’s looking very much like No. 7 is proving the lucky number for the Bulls again after Lauri Markkanen was drafted No. 7 in 2017 with the pick acquired in the Jimmy Butler trade. And then Carter was taken No. 7 last June following considerable community angst that the Bulls didn’t try hard enough to lose more games. And thus get a higher draft pick.
It’s still depressing to even have to relate that sentiment.
Of course, Carter hasn’t achieved anything yet with the first preseason game not until 6 p.m. Sunday against New Orleans in the United Center.
Carter isn’t even expected to start, at least early this season.
But he’s certainly starting to impress observers wherever he’s been.
“Wendell is not backing down at all,” Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg said after the first day of workouts. “He’s going out there and playing physical; he made some unbelievable plays at the rim defensively. I thought Wendell was as good as anyone we had as far as moving his feet, great anticipation when the guard got by him. He pursued the play and had a lot of unbelievable blocks from behind, so he certainly is a guy we will feel comfortable with. I feel really good at that position going into the season.”
That position is center, where veteran Robin Lopez likely will be the starter.
The opening introduction and choreographed handshake probably is favoring Lopez for a combination of enhancing potential trade value, employing a veteran with a young nucleus and not choosing to rush the 19-year-old Carter.
But if Carter has a young body, he plays with a wise, old head, possessing impressive fundamentals in the way he defends, finds space for his shot, passes out of double teams and maneuvers around the court. He checks most of the boxes of what the modern NBA center should be, able to step outside and make a shot and protect the rim while also defending multiple positions in the common switching defenses.
“That’s going to be a weapon for us with Wendell if and when we do go to that (switching) defense,” said Hoiberg. “Obviously, that was our primary defense this summer in Vegas.”
This summer was when Carter began opening some eyes that were not as discerning last season at Duke when Carter was overshadowed by athletic teammate Marvin Bagley III.
That, in part, is what dropped Carter out of the discussion for top five in the 2018 draft among the centers and big men like Bagley, DeAndre Ayton, Jaren Jackson and Mohamed Bamba.
It may prove a heck of a catch for the Bulls.
After a modest 13.5 points and 9.1 rebounds at Duke, where he also led the league in plus/minus ratings and was among the lead in advanced statistic measurements, the long armed 6-10 Carter came to Las Vegas slimmer and quicker than expected and earned a first team summer league designation, averaging 14.6 points, 9.4 rebounds and almost three blocks while shooting more than 40 percent on threes. Opponents noticed, which always is most impressive.
Carter finished ahead of New York’s Kevin Knox in the voting for top career. Previous selections for the category in the annual survey started in 2013 were Anthony Davis, Victor Oladipo, Jabari Parker, Jahlil Okafor, Brandon Ingram and Jason Tatum. Pretty good company among career prospects.
Lopez is in the final season of his Bulls contract after being acquired in the 2016 Derrick Rose trade.
It’s no secret that Carter is being tutored to take Lopez’ job. Though that’s also what makes Lopez such a good teammate and why Carter’s advancement could be limited this season. Lopez is willingly tutoring Carter to replace him.
“Robin Lopez is a phenomenal player,” Carter said. “We’re both competitors and we’re just both competing for that spot. Coach said that spot is open, so I’m coming into training camp thinking there are no defined starters. Just coming in and trying to prove myself every day. Just playing against him. Learning how he plays defense, how he scores in the pick-and-roll, how he scores in the post without using too much effort, and how smart he is just all around."
Though Hoiberg likes to say it’s an open competition for starting spots to intensity the competition, there probably aren’t any vacant starting jobs.
It’s almost certain without any injuries that the opening night starters Oct. 18 in Philadelphia will be Kris Dunn, Zach LaVine, Jabari Parker, Lauri Markkanen and Lopez.
By the end of the season it could be the first four and Carter.
It may be difficult to hold Carter out of the starting lineup — or finishing lineup — too long because of his star potential in this era. He’s been likened to Boston’s Al Horford, but at more than 250 pounds already and deceptively quick, he seems capable of matchup up with veterans even as a teenager. He’s smart, swift, savvy and skilled, an unusual combination for someone his size and age.
In many respects, he had to defer at Duke because of the offensive emphasis toward Bagley. So, in a sense, he’ll again have to retreat early to accommodate the team’s commitment to Lopez and his dignity.
Like Carter suggested, the players know, and Carter’s peers weren’t negatively influenced by his role in college or his draft status. They see a star.
“Everybody is good,” Carter said about his initial pro impressions. “The players you think won’t be playing as much or won’t get a lot of minutes are just as good as the starters. Guys play hard every single play. Those are the differences I’ve seen. This league is (now a lot of defensive) switching. There’s no more true big man just standing in the paint. The ability to switch and guard guards is going to keep me out on the court longer and allow me to play late in games.
“There’s so much more space on this court (than in college),” Carter noticed. “There’s a lot of one-on-one play, and just to find my spots on the floor and get to the place where I don’t miss those type of shots is what’s going to allow me to showcase what I’m able to do more than I did in college."
It’s an exciting prospect to watch and consider for the Bulls.