The proposition of spending a lottery pick on a big man grows riskier by the year. The slow-footed behemoths and unskilled bruisers that dominated prior decades have rapidly been phased out of a league predicated on speed, shooting and versatility. And yet, five of the first seven picks in last week’s NBA draft were centers, setting up a fascinating test case of the value in building around size. To succeed in the modern NBA, nearly all big men must be multifaceted unicorn types or versatile defensive freaks.
Somewhere between the freaks and the unicorns is Wendell Carter Jr., the Bulls’ refined rookie big man. Carter does not profile as a lockdown five-position defender like Jaren Jackson Jr., nor is he an explosive quick-twitch athlete like his college teammate Marvin Bagley III. His physical measurements -– 6-foot-10, 250 pounds with a 7-foot-4.5 wingspan – don’t quite stack up to the freakish Mo Bamba (7-foot, 225 pounds, 7-foot-10 wingspan) and Deandre Ayton (7-foot-1, 260 pounds, 7-foot-6 wingspan).
In the absence of overwhelming physical capabilities, it’s Carter’s combination of skill, polish, and intelligence that makes him one of the most valuable bigs in his draft class. Watch him play for long enough, and his innate feel for the game shines brilliantly through the often chaotic and disorderly muddle around him. Carter’s decision-making, discipline and skill level was simply a cut above what college opponents were equipped to handle. He enters the NBA with an understanding of the game that often takes multiple seasons to develop.
Carter might be the safest big man in his draft class. With so few holes in his game and playing for a team with little at stake, he’ll be equipped to contribute right away in Chicago. He can function within the context of an offense without his value diminishing, and while he’ll spend the bulk of his time as a nominal center, Carter can play a variety of offensive roles depending on surrounding personnel, affording Chicago some modicum of lineup flexibility despite a cast of non-shooters soaking up rotation minutes. He packages a smooth stroke with a passing acumen sharp enough to work high-low connections with traditional bigs:
In lineups featuring four other perimeter threats, he can reverse roles and duck in for post-ups of his own:
Carter only shot the ball 25 times out of the pick-and-roll, according to Synergy Sports, but displayed an intuitive sense of how to function in that context. With a soft touch at and away from the rim, he could develop into a playmaking threat in the two-man game. He’ll never be a terrorizing lob threat, but he can finish in cluttered lanes, and his shooting ability makes him a threat to pick-and-pop. Rotate too far toward him, and Carter reacts promptly and appropriately:
He can also slip passes to teammates in tight quarters:
Those reads will be more difficult in the NBA, where openings are smaller and close quicker. Carter isn’t yet the sort of offensive fulcrum that Al Horford, Nikola Jokić and Blake Griffin are, but he has the makings of a similar pivot point in the future, allowing Chicago to get creative in how it deploys Lauri Markkanen, who derives most of his value from his shooting ability. Carter and Markkanen are 19 and 21 years old, respectively, and figure to help lead the Bulls for the foreseeable future. “We’re going to be unstoppable,” Carter said of the young frontcourt tandem. “He’s a great player [and] someone I can learn from… I think we’ll definitely complement one another on both ends of the court.”
Carter’s size and versatility will undoubtedly pair well with Markkanen’s pure shooting ability. Defensively, the fit isn’t quite as clear. Neither player currently has the lateral quickness to defend more than two positions, and Markkanen rarely imposed on that end of the floor as a rookie. The sample of Carter playing conventional NBA defensive principles against NBA-caliber competition is limited. He seldom had to stray from the paint to contest shots or stay in front of quicker players in Duke’s zone, acting primarily as an anchor in the paint.
In that role, he was more than capable. Carter gobbled up 13.5 rebounds and 3.1 blocks per 40 minutes despite playing next to Bagley. His size and build mask a powerful vertical explosiveness, and every bit of the discipline and awareness he wields on offense is evident as a help defender. He rarely sells out for blocks, but rather keeps his arms vertical, tracks the ball and forces shooters to finish around or through him. Few college challengers could manage that. Opponents shot less than 29 percent at the rim against Carter, per Synergy, because of his strong sense of timing and trust in his physical attributes:
He’ll be met with more guile and aggression in the NBA and will have more ground to cover on defensive rotations. Offenses with more capable shooters and dynamic ball-handlers will pull him away from the paint more often, testing his defensive mobility. Carter will need to improve his foot speed and technique on the perimeter to avoid being exploited in pick-and-roll, something opponents did consistently before Duke scrapped its man-to-man base for a zone:
To his credit, Carter sees the direction in which the NBA is headed and knows what skills he needs to improve in order to succeed in that environment. “For a big, just being able to shoot, guard guards, being able to switch on pick-and-rolls,” he said. “Pretty much everything, honestly. Being able to bring the ball up the court, bust out off of rebounds, and being in phenomenal shape.”
One of the pitfalls of playing on a supremely talented college team is a player’s lack of opportunity to display the full range of his abilities. Boxed into a specific role on a team that also featured Bagley, Grayson Allen, Gary Trent and Trevon Duval, Carter rarely operated – or even experimented – outside the confines of his assigned part. He rocketed up draft boards all the same, but he may have even more in his game than he showed in college.
“I didn’t really have to be as versatile at Duke because we had so many players at so many positions,” Carter said. “But I know at the next level you’ve got to be able to do it all. Ever since I got out of Duke that’s something I’ve been working on since day one. And I think I’ve gained the confidence and I think my skill set is very polished… With my work ethic as I come in, I’m going to do all I have to do to help my team win.”
The intangibles Carter brings to the table — smart positioning, unfailing effort and sound decision-making, to name a few — generally translate into wins, but it could take time for it to happen consistently. Neither he nor Markkanen projects as a superstar and Chicago remains thin on surrounding talent. Still, Carter likely won’t be anything less than a high-level support player – the kind who elevates those around him and fortifies his team into something greater than its raw talent. There’s immense value in that sort of player and the security he offers. The Bulls will find out if, in this day and age, that player is still worth building around.