Bulls coach Jim Boylen appears off to an enthusiastic start in his first full training camp as head coach. The competition at practice is said to be fierce with the instruction frequent. Wendell Carter Jr. and rookie Daniel Gafford Wednesday returned to full practice after ankle and elbow ouchies Tuesday. Though Boylen admitted sophomore Chandler Hutchison with a hamstring strain could be out several more weeks and miss the season opener. Still, it's been an upbeat first two days.
"He reminds me a little bit of European-passion coaches, so I like that," said guard Tomas Satorasky. "I was here just for two weeks (in September), but I'm liking it so far. It's a lot of energy there (with Boylen). He runs up and down talking to each player. I love this type of communication when the coach is with you. I feel also that you can talk to him at anytime. And that's the most important for the player when he has that kind of confidence and there's this open relationship."
Boylen, as we witnessed last season in his provisional presentation, might be in a defensive stance or outracing the guard on a fast break even from his coaching spot on the sideline. Though there's one teaching issue in which Boylen has stumbled this fall. The larger question for the Bulls is whether it will become a big problem.
Boylen can't seem to coach height.
It is one of those elephant-in-the-room questions that could have mammoth implications.
Carter is strong enough and perhaps powerful enough to play center in the NBA. But is he tall enough?
"I didn't have a chance to coach Hakeem (Olajuwon) at 19 and 20, but I think his instincts, his physical presence, the combination of his intelligence, his feet, I think gave him, with experience, the ability to do some of those things, the ability to impact the game at both ends," Boylen said after Wednesday's practice. "He's (Carter) our best pocket (in the lane) extra guy. He can catch the ball in the pocket and make a decision. That's usually not a skill for a young guy. He can rim protect. He can do the straight up at the rim. He'll adapt and he'll grow. I think people underestimate how smart he is. I think that's a really big thing. He knows what we're doing. He never asks ‘What are we doing there?' Or ‘How's that work?' He's an intelligent young guy. And I've said this before, he embraces contact and collision. If you can do that, man, you can do anything in this world.
"We think he's one of our better DHO guys, SHO guys, dribble-handoff guys, stationary-handoff guys," Boylen added. "‘Get,' which is a toss action. He has a feel for those actions where he can get people involved. But remember now, he only played 44 games. So he's still a work in progress. We don't really talk about him being a center. I talk about him being a dominant player at the defensive end and an evolving player at the offensive end. That's kind of how we talk about it."
Carter for a 19-year-old actually had an impressive rookie season, averaging 10.3 points and seven rebounds in 44 games before a broken thumb in January ended his season. He had some of his best games, 28 points against Detroit and 25 against Denver, against top centers like Andre Drummond and Nikola Jokic. Though it still was difficult for Carter against many of the taller centers that he faced so often. He was frequently in foul trouble against the likes of Drummond, Joel Embiid, Jarrett Allen, Hassan Whiteside and many of the East's starting centers. At 6-10–6'8 3/4 without shoes from the combine measurements—Carter stacks up a bit less in size if not substance against most for the conference centers.
Boylen coached in Houston for a decade and knew Olajuwon as one of the smaller centers in the conference. Though his quickness and length, the latter which also favors Carter, enabled Olajuwon to be one of the game's great big men.
It's certainly premature to make any such comparisons with Carter. But with his strength at about 270 pounds, his potential shooting and ability to move, Carter will be in position to offset some of his size disadvantages.
When Carter suffered that mild sprained ankle Tuesday, the Bulls played seven-foot Lauri Markkanen at center in a versatile, skills based lineup. Though taller, Markkanen clearly is a perimeter player who isn't going to defend the physical big men. Carter is slated to be the starting center.
Carter should be able to do so with his bulk. Though Boylen will be challenged to come up with innovations to put pressure on less mobile centers to counter options for Carter. And Carter, who shrugged off his Tuesday ankle twist as lint on his game tuxedo, says he's ready for the combat even as others may have some doubts.
"(Doing) little things," Carter said. "Hitting them early, using my body more. Outthinking them in all aspects of the game. The smallest things are what are going to beat the bigger players. I know I am not going to be able to just go toe to toe and just hit em, hit em, hit em. I'm able to wear some players down. I think my endurance is pretty good when it comes to hitting and things like that, so I love it.
"Start of the game usually I am going to be rolling a lot, try to get my easy points at first," Carter said. "But later once it gets into the game to where I feel the defender is setting a lot of picks, picking and popping, DHOs to the corner and things like that, moving all around the court; that's another way I can wear out my opponents."
Perhaps for Carter and the Bulls it will be a little bit of that turtle and hare thing. Not so much who looks the best, but who is the smartest and takes advantage of the opportunities.