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The Rookie Curve: Wendell Carter Jr. Could See History Repeat Itself

Despite an eye-opening performance in Las Vegas, the Duke standout faces a tough situation in his first year due to the competing agendas on a young Bulls team

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

The summer is a time to dream big with newly drafted rookies. But paths to stardom in the NBA are never linear, and every rookie has a unique set of roadblocks to overcome before they can capitalize on their potential. Over the next few weeks, Jonathan Tjarks will examine some of the 2018 draft’s top talents and how the reality of their team’s situation will affect their freshman season. Welcome to the Rookie Curve.

Wendell Carter Jr. might be the most well-rounded big man in the 2018 draft class, but he didn’t always get a chance to show it at Duke. The no. 7 overall pick was the fourth option behind three other future NBA players (Marvin Bagley III, Grayson Allen, and Gary Trent Jr.) as a freshman. The Bulls made him more of a priority at summer league, and he thrived with the extra responsibility, averaging 14.6 points on 55 percent shooting, 9.4 rebounds, 1.6 assists, and 2.6 blocks a game. Chicago saw what its offense could look like with Carter as the focal point, which would require his teammates to get him the ball inside. They were more focused on looking for their own shot in college. The same thing could happen in the NBA.

Carter was a victim of his own versatility last season. Duke was built around Bagley, who would go on to be the no. 2 overall pick in this year’s draft. The Blue Devils used Carter as a complementary piece to fill the gaps. Bagley, a bad interior defender and inconsistent outside shooter, couldn’t be effective in a smaller role. Carter, on the other hand, found ways to make himself useful without getting many plays run for him. He facilitated out of the high post, spaced the floor out to the 3-point line, and did the heavy lifting in the middle of their 2-3 zone. And because he didn’t venture outside of the paint on defense, NBA scouts questioned whether he had the speed to guard on the 3-point line at the next level.

He showcased his entire skill set in five games in Las Vegas. He’s capable of being a primary option: He can score with his back to the basket, face up and shoot over defenders, and find the open man when he’s doubled. Carter also answered some of the questions about his defense. He was slimmer and lighter on his feet, and he held his own when switched out onto Collin Sexton, a speedy point guard taken one pick after him by the Cavs.

Just how good Carter can become defensively is still unclear. He’s a smart player who uses his length (7-foot-4 wingspan) to wall off the paint, but he’s also the least athletic of the top big men in this year’s draft. His success against Sexton doesn’t necessarily mean he can be a switch-everything center in the mold of Clint Capela or Tristan Thompson. The Bulls won’t get answers until they get back into the playoffs, when teams would repeatedly run pick-and-rolls against Carter to isolate him against the best perimeter players in the league.

Pick-and-roll defense is more important than ever, but Chicago also needs Carter to develop into an elite rim protector. The other members of the team’s young core don’t have much potential on that end of the floor. The Bulls matched a four-year, $78 million contract offer to Zach LaVine this offseason, and signed Jabari Parker to a two-year, $40 million contract. LaVine and Parker, both of whom were coming off of ACL surgeries, were two of the worst defenders in the NBA last season. Of course, neither has shown much interest in playing defense even when healthy. Parker said it best in an interview with a Chicago radio station: NBA players aren’t paid to defend.

Featuring LaVine and Parker on offense will push the Bulls’ other starters into smaller roles. The guy who will have to sacrifice the most is Kris Dunn, their starting point guard. After a disappointing rookie season in Minnesota, Dunn resurrected his career in Chicago at the beginning of last season by dominating the ball next to two spot-up shooters (Justin Holiday and Denzel Valentine). Dunn wasn’t as effective when LaVine returned from injury because he’s not a good enough shooter to threaten the defense without the ball. Bulls head coach Fred Hoiberg will have to stagger the minutes of his top three perimeter players to make sure they all get some time with the ball in their hands.

Hoiberg also has to figure out how to create more opportunities for Lauri Markkanen, the no. 7 overall pick in last year’s draft. Markkanen, a sweet-shooting 7-footer who can score from all over the floor, looked like a future star as a rookie. However, because he’s a relatively unselfish player who plays within the flow of the offense, his usage rate (22.1) wasn’t nearly as high as that of LaVine (29.6) or Dunn (24.7). The Bulls need Markkanen to space the floor, but they can’t forget about him when he’s spotting up at the 3-point line, either.

Carter will be way down the pecking order in Chicago as a rookie. He will probably begin the season backing up Robin Lopez, one of the only established veterans on the team. Lopez is in the final season of his contract, so this will be a bridge season, during which Carter will learn from the 10-year NBA veteran before taking over at center full time in Year 2. Even on the second unit, though, there will be competition for shots. Carter’s frontcourt parter is Bobby Portis, a fourth-year big man who had the second-highest usage rate (26.0) among players on the team who logged at least 500 minutes last season. Portis is eligible for an extension on his rookie deal, and he won’t be interested in deferring to a rookie.

The Bulls will likely use Carter mainly as a screener in the pick-and-roll and on dribble handoffs. It’s an unglamorous role, especially if defenses bait the team’s guards into shooting off the dribble on those plays. His best chance to get the ball could be tracking down missed jumpers on the offensive glass. While Carter isn’t much of a leaper, he’s a wide body who knows how to position himself under the rim. He had a higher offensive rebounding percentage (12.8) in college than either Mohamed Bamba (12.2) or Jaren Jackson Jr. (8.8), despite having to compete for boards with Bagley (13.8).

He’s walking into a potentially difficult situation because there will be a lot of competing agendas in Chicago. LaVine and Parker will be looking to prove that they are worthy of their new deals, while Dunn and Portis are playing for contracts of their own. Hoiberg will need a strong voice in the locker room to keep everyone on the same page, something he hasn’t been known for in his time as an NBA head coach. It will be hard for him to sell sacrifice when the front office just paid players who didn’t. LaVine combined the highest usage rate on the team with one of the lowest true shooting percentages (49.9) in the league last season. Parker didn’t fit in Milwaukee because he wasn’t comfortable in a smaller role behind Giannis Antetokounmpo, Khris Middleton, and Eric Bledsoe.

If Chicago keeps its young core together, Carter may never be a featured player on offense. Just like at Duke, he can excel in areas of the game where his teammates can’t. He can be valuable concentrating on defense and playing off of Dunn, LaVine, Parker, and Markkanen. The latter three, on the other hand, probably top out as average defenders. They need high usage rates to be effective players. Carter may have to space the floor and facilitate like he did in college, which would mean once again sacrificing his own stats for the good of the team.

So much of a big man’s success depends on the skill set and mentality of the players around him. Carter learned that lesson last season. In an interview with Vincent Goodwill of NBC Sports Chicago, his mother said Coach K lied during the recruitment process. Bagley wasn’t originally supposed to be in Durham. He re-classified in August and skipped his senior year of high school. Trent even told the media before the draft that he thought Carter would have been in the conversation for the no. 1 overall pick were it not for Bagley.

Carter’s versatile game has drawn comparisons to Al Horford. The similarities don’t end there. Horford played in the shadow of another big man (Joakim Noah) in college, and he was drafted onto a young NBA team with a lot of talent. He started his career with the Hawks, deferring to Joe Johnson and Josh Smith, and didn’t have a usage rate above 20 until his sixth season in the league. One reason big men take longer to develop than guards is they have to establish themselves before their perimeter players trust them enough to give them the ball. Carter has a high floor. How close he gets to his ceiling depends on his teammates.