Wendell Carter Jr. certainly isn't self centered. Though he knows perhaps he should have been more so last season. "After watching some of the film from last year, I saw that I was being very passive (offensively) and even talking to some of the coaching staff they told me, ‘Man, we're better off with you going up and missing instead of you passing out from inside the restricted area to the three.' It was just kind of a conversation that I had to have. Now that I know I need to go up (with the shot), I can definitely do that."
Carter isn't exactly the Bulls centerpiece, though the rugged center from Duke drafted No. 7 overall in 2018 also knows he hasn't produced as expected in his two Bulls seasons. "Staying healthy is probably going to be the biggest thing for me," said Carter, who missed 60 games his first two seasons with peculiar injuries that tended to be more the wrong place than the wrong movement. "Just being available for all 72 I feel like is a skill that I need to develop. I don't want to blame it on injuries, but the injuries that I did have kind of made me feel like I couldn't jump as high, couldn't move as fast. I always relied on making that extra pass. I was always big on going good to great. But sometimes I was going from great to good."
Carter had been good when he'd played, averaging about 10 points and seven rebounds as a rookie and then 11.3 points and 9.4 rebounds last season in that limited play. But Carter's blocks and steals declined last season amidst the injuries and uncertain role. The Bulls have plenty of good. They need much more great. Carter is one of those players who is capable with his rugged physicality and mobility. An NBA rookie's third season often is his crucible, when ample evidence is available to demonstrate whether his career arc bends toward excellence or mediocrity.
The fates of young players like Lauri Markkanen, Zach LaVine, Coby White and top draft pick Patrick Williams are being examined closely for the story that will be the Bulls' possibilities. Carter is a centered young man, but as the player who is expected to start at center for the Bulls despite his modest for the position 6-9 size, Carter could be a special center of attention for the Bulls prospects this season. Can he defend the basket and the interior? Will he expand his game with his shooting while challenging the defense with his aggression? Is he a future NBA big man star in the model of Miami's Bam Adebayo? Or the next Cherokee Parks? It's time for Wendell to take a big step.
"I feel like I'm going to be able to showcase my offensive game a lot more," a healthy Carter told reporters Thursday via video conference from Bulls training camp. "And defensively I'm just going to do what I do. I've been in this league for two years now going on three and I kind of know what to expect. How to take care of my body, how to be more prepared for each and every game. I feel like being more consistent throughout this whole year and just being available for all 72 is going to really be able to show the fans and everybody around the world that I'm here to stay. At the end of the day, I feel like I can bang with any center in the league. I feel (the) coaching staff believes. With me being versatile, with them allowing me to be more versatile on the offensive end, making them have to guard on the perimeter, making them have to move their feet, it will just make it harder for them when they go back down on the offensive end. They'll be a little bit more winded. It kind of just plays hand in hand.
"Being able to shoot at all three levels, being able to handle the ball, being able to make great decisions when under distress," Carter said about what he hopes—and plans—to bring to the team. "I feel like those three things are something that you have to have to be positionless and I feel like I have all three of those things in the right system. I feel like the system that Billy Donovan has in place will be able to showcase it all."
As much as the new coach and management have to figure out Markkanen and how the presumed White/LaVine backcourt will perform, Carter is central to much of the debate and discussion.
The 21-year-old with the seven and a half foot wingspan looked like he'd take off right out of the draft nest. Carter had a brilliant 25-point game in Denver eight games into his career and 28 points a few weeks later, again on the road, in Detroit. But after starting the February road trip with 22 points in Portland, Carter leaned down to balance himself when tripped on a break and broke his thumb and missed the last three months.
Carter's 2019-20 season effectively ended in January with a severe ankle sprain, though it never had much of a chance of being a season as he was curiously relegated to being a decoy on offense. Carter never had a 20-point game last season after the first week of November and only attempted double figure shots three times in his last 23 games. Even before the ankle sprain he attempted more than 10 shots just five times in more than 30 games. And no one was closer to the basket.
That figures finally to change. Carter has a soft touch inside and powerful dunking instincts. He moves well and says he's heartened by Donovan's desire to involve him more in the offense. In addition, basketball operations czar Arturas Karnisovas reportedly has told intimates he's most excited about the growth possibilities for Carter. It's also why Carter said he wasn't worried when rumors circulated around around draft time he might be traded to the Golden State Warriors.
"When I first saw it, I kind of knew it was BS," Carter said. "I didn't pay much attention to it. I had a lot of faith I was going to be here. I knew the coaching staff and the front office believed in me from the talks that we've had. So I knew I was going to be a Bull."
Karnisovas later confirmed he didn't have discussions to move up in the draft.
"First off, Billy's an amazing person," Carter said. "I'm glad he's my head coach. The talks that we've had for my expectations this year are for me to be more reliable on the offensive end, allowing me to make decisions, being a decision maker from the free throw line and other areas of the court. He's putting a lot of trust in me on the offensive end. And on the defensive end, he saw how I played last year. With a couple of more adjustments he's going to make to our defense, he expects me to be the defensive anchor that I've been for this team for the past two years. And even more, be able to rally my teammates to be better on the defensive end.
"He wants me to play a lot from the trail position, catching it at the free-throw line, making my decisions there, possibly attacking the rim from there or going dribble handoffs, picking-and-popping, playing from there, playing out of the dunker (spot), which I'm used to," Carter added. "He's expressed all those different kind of styles of play for myself. I'm definitely excited to see how it's all going to unravel once the season gets underway."
It was last season which unraveled. Donovan hopes to begin the process of tying up all those frayed ends.
"I feel like the style of play that I've been presented with and how we're going to play as a team is going to be amazing," said Carter. "After playing with most of these guys for two years now, I know what they're good at, what they're not good at. I feel like Billy has catered to that. I never want it to be that every year we're saying, 'Yeah, we're going to make the playoffs, we're going to make the playoffs.' The way I would answer that is we're going to be better than we were last year. If that includes us making it to the playoffs, then that's what we're going to do. It's all about just being better than you were last year."
Carter hopes to be the epicenter of that parade.