An Improved Player Overall, Wendell Carter Jr.’s Greatest Impact Might Be on Defensive End

by Josh Cohen

ORLANDO - Deservedly, much has been made of Wendell Carter Jr.’s improvement on the offensive end. He’s shooting over 50 percent from the field and has already made 32 3-pointers, five more than he did in his first three NBA seasons combined.

But arguably, it’s his defense that has been even more impressive. This isn’t a huge surprise, as the 6-foot-10, 270-pounder was expected to be a quality defender at this level after his one-and-done season at Duke University.

One interesting and telling stat, per Second Spectrum tracking data, is the blow-by rate when opponents attempt to drive on the Magic’s starting power forward. Of the 96 times an opponent has made a move toward the basket with Carter defending, on only 25 instances has the player blown past him (26 percent). Among all players 6’10 or above who have guarded drives at least 50 times this season, that’s the lowest blow-by percentage in the league.

For comparison purposes, Anthony Davis has a defensive blow-by percentage of 31 percent, Giannis Antetokounmpo 33 percent and Evan Mobley 41 percent. They are three of the best defenders in the NBA.

What this suggests is that Carter has quick-moving feet and great balance when an opponent uses a shot fake to try and get their on-ball defender out of position.

Down on the block, he’s been just as effective. Post players have had a hard time backing him down.

That was the case Monday in Philadelphia guarding Joel Embiid, the MVP runner-up last season. Of the seven shots taken by Embiid with Carter as the closest defender, only one was made, and that was just a dribble-up-the-court pull-up jumper late in the third quarter.

Carter bodied Embiid up in the post, denied the four-time NBA All-Star from getting deep position in the lane and forced him into a few tough fading shots.

“He’s just been an anchor down there,” said teammate Mo Bamba, who had a great defensive game himself against the Sixers with a career-high six blocks. “We’ve been asked, myself included, to guard some fours, some fives. Often times, we’re switching and we’re just showing that we are capable of just going out there and being great defenders. He did a great job tonight defending Joel. Stats, they speak for itself. He (Embiid) shot four-for-sixteen. We’re just trying to build off this.”

Throughout this season, the 22-year-old Carter has made things awfully tough in general on his opponents. For example, per Second Spectrum, Nikola Vucevic shot 2-of-6 from the field with Carter as the nearest defender, Blake Griffin 1-of-8, Miles Bridges 4-of-12, and Julius Randle 6-of-16. It is important to note, however, that the data detects shooting outcomes regardless of how the offensive player was defended. So, in certain instances, the defender could have been a few feet away from the shooter and just so happened to be the closest to them.

Something else Carter has generally done a good job doing is defending without fouling. He’s averaging 2.6 fouls per game, a career low. Among all starting big men who have appeared in at least 20 games, only the Lakers’ Davis, the Pacers’ Myles Turner, the Hawks’ Clint Capela, the Clippers’ Ivica Zubac and the Grizzlies’ Steven Adams have committed fewer fouls per game.

The key for the Atlanta native going forward is consistency. He’s tended to follow great games with unexceptional ones in his career. If he can put together a stretch of several great games in a row, that will help him build more confidence and catapult his game to the next level.

“The thing with me still being a young player and being on a young team is consistency,” he said following his recent 26-point, 10-rebound performance against the Chicago Bulls, his former team. “This year I haven’t been the most consistent as I wanted to be. I saw this game (against the Bulls) as an opportunity to get that consistency going. That’s something I’m definitely focused on.”

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