With 30 games this season, Wendell Carter Jr. still hasn't played 82 games in his NBA career. Yet the brawny 6-9 center is brimming with offensive potential and closing in on his personal goal of averaging a double/double this season.
There was so much to celebrate and marvel about in Wednesday's Bulls overtime seismic victory against the Washington Wizards that perhaps the most significant milestone was overlooked. Wendell Carter Jr. made his first game-winning shot since high school.
"After the game I was just happy we were able to come back and get a victory," Carter was saying following Bulls practice Friday in Washington. "I really wasn't paying attention to myself so much. I know why we won. We got stops down the stretch when it mattered. I feel like that was the most important thing.
"But I was thinking on that play," Carter said with a laugh about his reverse layup with 9.1 seconds left. "‘I better make this or I'm about to get hell for it.'"
Wendell Carter Jr.'s game-winner against the Wizards
It would have been another hellish loss even with the thrilling fourth quarter comeback, perhaps even worse because the Bulls would have been so close again. Though as the Bulls continue their road trip in Detroit Saturday, Carter insists the team not only remains hopeful but optimistic that its watershed finally is a chance to ride a current rather than getting swamped.
"It's not wins, but I feel like in those games we didn't win but should have won, last year we weren't even in those games. We've competed with the top teams in the league," said Carter. "I feel it shows we are definitely a good team and have to stick with it and not go rogue or anything like that. That next step is always the toughest part. In any aspect of life the toughest part is where you are reaching that point where you are about to jump in a positive direction but you can't quite make that jump. I know it's going to come for us. Everybody can feel the train tracks are starting to go in the right direction."
Maybe those lights at the end of this tunnel of despair for the Bulls aren't the oncoming train but the brightness of a 20-year-old still without a full NBA season.
With 30 games this season, Carter still hasn't played 82 games in his NBA career. Yet the brawny 6-9 center is closing in on his personal goal of averaging a double/double this season.
Watch some of Wendell Carter Jr.'s early season highlights
Carter is averaging 11.9 points and 9.7 rebounds with 13 double/doubles, which is 12th in the NBA. He's quietly—which is how he goes about most things other than his inside play—perhaps the most efficient player on the Bulls. He's third in scoring despite being sixth in field goal attempts. He leads in rebounding and blocked shots. He's first in overall efficiency and second in effective field goal percentage.
He's also probably No. 1 in being underutilized.
Which also is nothing new for Carter since he was a high school scoring star in Georgia.
"In high school every time down the stretch, the ball was coming to me," Carter recalled. "Fourth quarters alone I'd probably take 15, 16 shots. It's been different."
Carter is about winning the games, which has made these two seasons with the Bulls difficult. So he doesn't say much. He is the best image of that sports fantasy of the hard hat reporting to work. He was going to be that scoring star at Duke when 2018 No. 1 prospect Marvin Bagley III reclassified in August to attend Duke. Bagley became the scoring star on a team with gunners like Grayson Allen and Gary Trent. So Carter reverted to that cliche dirty work guy, attempting fewer shots than even Trevon Duval.
It wasn't the recruiting pitch Carter heard, but he always wanted to attend Duke. And you couldn't blame Duke for taking in the nation's top prep player at the time. There have been similarities with the Bulls, especially this season.
Eight games into his pro career last season, Carter had 25 points on 21 shots with five assists, three blocks and two of three on three pointers in an excruciating overtime loss in Denver. A month later he had 28 points and 18 field goal attempts against the Pistons. Then as all the injured players began to return and there was a coaching change, Carter was soon lost for the season with a broken finger.
Carter returned this season to find Bagley there again. Or at least a similar obstacle to his offensive participation. There were new players to work in and soon Lauri Markkanen's shooting to figure out.
Carter's top scoring game this season is 20 points and the most shots he's attempted in a game is 16. He's attempted double figure shots in just 10 of the 30 games.
Even with this season's philosophy based around perimeter shooting attempts.
It's not like Carter couldn't do it since he has a nice shooting stroke and shot 41 percent on threes at Duke, though with only about one attempt per game. But Carter seemed uncertain about the strictures, often pausing about attempting a two pointer at a time so many others were racing to the three-point line.
"I think I'm in the middle," Carter said. "I feel I'm just starting to find my shots, my turnaround jumpers, my face up jumpers. I'm taking my pick and roll pocket touches, taking advantage whether I make or miss, taking those shots now. I'm inserting myself now taking my shots. I try to stay in the two-point area while at the same time trying to expand my game a little bit, take the corner three and the top of the key three. I know it's not an overnight process. I just have to get better."
His reluctance has been noticeable in just 17 three-point attempts for the season. Zach LaVine, remember, had 17 in one game. Carter has made just two.
"I'm a competitor," Carter says. "When we are not winning I'm always thinking what could I have done to help the team win. It is something I can do, absolutely."
Carter's strength also is his weakness.
He's an unselfish teammate concerned with the final result.
So he, too, has tried to get Markkanen going, accommodate LaVine's bullishness, help the newcomers like Tomas Satoransky.
"I'm not going to lose what I brought," said Carter, "which is being a competitor on the defensive end, a rebounder, setting great screens for everybody."
But it would be a disservice to ignore Carter's offensive potential for too long.
Mostly this season he's been the reliable banger, dunking those missed shots and engaging in the inside hand to hand combat. He's quick enough to participate in the Bulls aggressive defensive trapping, though it has resulted in foul trouble. He leads the NBA in fouls committed with Kris Dunn also in the top five. Perhaps not the top five category the Bulls hoped to finally have two players. But it has helped make the Bulls a league leader in causing turnovers and creating steals.
But the team's offense has ranked toward the bottom of the NBA. There was much acclaim and relief when LaVine handed off to Carter for the winning score Wednesday, especially because most of the Bulls closing efforts have been a make-or-break LaVine play. He's one of the best in the league at that, but it was typical of Carter. He made that winner so smoothly hardly anyone talked about it afterward.
"When I caught it I was thinking, ‘Let me for sure make this shot,'" Carter reiterated. "I knew I was open when I saw the big help up. I knew whoever would smash into me, he was on the other side of the rim. So I knew I was wide open. I didn't want to be too far under and try to dunk it. But I didn't realize how wide open I was.
"My last couple of games I've taken at least two or three face up jumpers throughout the game; that's definitely coming," said Carter. "Picking and popping and trail threes and things like that; those things will come. I'm not pressing. Coach is even telling me to take those post up shots. One play we run he wants me to attack from the top of the key.
"I know the team believes in me, the coach believes in me," Carter said. "I just want it to be a process so I'm just not throwing myself into the fire. I came into the season wanting to average a double/double as an individual goal. As a team goal, want to make it to the playoffs. Consistent effort, staying in the game, not getting so many fouls so I'm able to be in the game in critical moments so I can make plays for our team.
"With time I'm looking forward to finishing this season and having a full complete healthy offseason where I can work on my game, keep developing that confidence," said Carter. "It's looked good, felt good. I've just got to put them up more to make them."
One winner at a time.