Scoring From All Three Levels
Wendell Carter Jr. is one of the few bigs in this league who can shoot from anywhere on the floor with at least some degree of consistency. Joel Embiid and Nikola Jokic are the gold standard; Karl-Anthony Towns, Nikola Vucevic, and Kristaps Porzingis each do it on an advanced level; and many think Evan Mobley will develop assorted range as his game evolves.
Carter is just coming into his own offensively. During his time in Chicago, nearly all his looks were within five feet of the basket. Since joining the Orlando Magic, the 6-foot-10, 270-pounder has expanded his range and refined his touch from different areas of the floor.
A quick examination of his percentages from various distances this season shows remarkable improvement.
Within five feet of the basket, he shot 72 percent, 12th best in the league among players who took 275-plus shots from this range. From 15 to 19 feet out, he shot an incredible 57.1 percent on 42 attempts, which ranks No. 1 among starting centers.
Last season with Chicago and Orlando combined, he attempted 51 threes and made just 29.4 percent of them. This season, he took 214 of them and shot 32.7 percent. This is exactly what Vucevic did in the middle of his tenure with the Magic. He went from shooting 75 threes in 2016-17 to 204 of them the very next season.
Unique about Carter is that he’s extremely versatile for someone his size. He made 116 jumpers, 15 floaters, 209 layups, 19 from the post, and had 90 dunks, including 20 off lobs.
One thing the Magic have consistently had the last 15 years or so is at least one excellent screener. Dwight Howard was arguably the league’s best screener during his time in Orlando; both Vucevic and Khem Birch were/are great screeners; and now Carter is amongst the league’s best in this department.
Obviously, their time together this season was limited, but the pick-and-roll connection between Markelle Fultz and Carter has a chance to be special. Fultz, regardless of who the screener is, is a good pick-and-roll player, but his looks at the basket this season were cleanest when Carter set the pick.
Carter’s technique when setting a screen makes it tough for defenders to get back into proper defensive positioning, either to contest the ball handler or Carter when he rolls inside.
Carter’s off-ball screening is very good, too. The Magic made 47.4 percent of their shots this season that were at least partially set up by a Carter off-ball screen, per Second Spectrum tracking data. He averaged 3.7 screen assists, which ranked 12th in the league and is significant considering Orlando had the worst offensive rating in the league.
Bigs are back in style in the NBA, largely because the very best of them have great vision and passing instincts. Jokic is obviously on a level of his own; Embiid has very good feel for the game, even though his scoring prowess is what separates him from others; Bam Adebayo’s No. 1 strength is probably his high-low passing and his ability to find cutters from the elbows; Vucevic is arguably the league’s best kickout passer from the post or off short rolls; Domantas Sabonis is an all-around good passer, but he’s arguably the best in handoff situations.
Carter’s name now must be included in the pack. Among all bigs, Carter delivered the eighth-most passes in the league that led directly to a shot. He averaged a career-best 2.8 assists, but more significant is that his dishes came in a variety of ways.
His teammates made 70 shots when he handed the ball off to them; 32 when he found them attacking the basket; 13 through high-low action; and 46 from kickouts. Playing alongside another big like Mo Bamba who spaces the floor made him even more of a playmaking threat. Several times, particularly while posting up, he found an open Bamba hanging out in the corner for an open 3-pointer.
From the All-Star break until March 25 – 14 games worth – the Magic had the league’s best defensive rating. Carter, and his defensive versatility, was a big reason for that success. It’s truly remarkable how effective Carter was guarding the league’s premier centers – not just during that stretch but all season.
When Carter was the defensive contester, per Second Spectrum, Jokic shot 33.3 percent on 33 attempts; Embiid shot 38.5 percent on 39 attempts; Vucevic shot 37.1 percent on 35 attempts; and Towns shot 40 percent on 15 attempts.
Even defending players at other positions, Carter did a great job. LeBron James, for instance, shot just 33.3 percent on 12 attempts when Carter contested the shot.
One of the reasons Carter was a high draft pick out of Duke was because of his ability to defend in space. On an island, Carter’s lateral quickness makes it tough for opponents to blow past him. Of the 258 times an opponent attempted to drive on Carter, per Second Spectrum, only 70 times did they blow past him off the dribble. That’s a 27 percent blow-by percentage, which is very good for a big man.
Areas to Improve
While a good defender, as detailed above, he’s not much of a shot blocker. That’s not really a surprise since he’s not an explosive athlete and won’t take a ton of risks when protecting the basket. This isn’t necessarily something he needs to improve, but it’s a limitation of his.
Also, Carter doesn’t take charges. He only did it once this season and seven times in his career so far.
Right now, offensively he’s a jack of all trades. But can he become a master at something on that end? Carter was outside the top 10 in all the primary scoring categories for bigs, including rolling, post-ups, cutting, and putbacks. To be taken seriously as a floor spacer, he’s going to have to elevate his 3-point percentage, which was 32.7 percent this season.
Something to keep an eye on is Carter becoming more of a pick-and-roll scoring threat with the ball in his hands. It’s extremely uncommon for bigs to be the ball handler in pick-and-roll action, but Carter showed flashes this season of being able to do it.
Carter was the ball handler in a pick-and-roll 23 times this season, per Second Spectrum, but he only took four shots in these situations.