Bulls Can't Let Dysfunction Stall Wendell Carter Jr.'s Development

Will Gottlieb@@wontgottliebFeatured Columnist IDecember 23, 2018

Chicago Bulls' Wendell Carter Jr. (34) works for position as Houston Rockets' Danuel House Jr. defends during the first half of an NBA basketball game Saturday, Dec. 1, 2018, in Houston. (AP Photo/David J. Phillip)
David J. Phillip/Associated Press

CHICAGO — There's pretty much nothing good to say about the Chicago Bulls this season—or the past few seasons, for that matter.

From the Jimmy Butler "coach harder" comments in Fred Hoiberg's first season in Chicago or the Rajon Rondo versus Dwyane Wade and Butler "my vets" Instagram chaos to Bobby Portis bashing Nikola Mirotic's face into oblivion, the everlasting dysfunction of the Bulls organization has finally boiled over. When the players reportedly nearly organized a mutiny three games into their new coach's tenure, the Bulls were at rock bottom.

But if there's anything preventing this season from being labeled a complete disaster, it's rookie center Wendell Carter Jr. showing he's the best piece the Bulls have.

Only averaging 10.5 points and 6.7 rebounds a game, Carter isn't stamping his name onto the Rookie of the Year standings by fooling defenders with his step-back like Luka Doncic or putting up 16 points and 10 boards a night like Deandre Ayton. Instead, his impact comes from a rounded two-way game that every organization pines for at the center position.

The Bulls like to make the most of Carter's passing, one of his best skills, utilizing him both from the elbow (where he's third in the league in touches and fifth in assists) and as a roll man, where he can make reads to find open shooters or cutters.

"He's a really good roller," fellow rookie center Mo Bamba said ahead of their matchup Friday night. "Try your best to keep him off the glass. He's been playing really well in his rookie season, so I'm just trying to match his energy or one-up it."

And that sense for the game is hardwired in his basketball DNA.  

"[Reading the game] is just something I've always been able to do," Carter told Bleacher Report. "My dad taught me that. My mom, too. My mom is more the mental side of the game, my dad is more the physical side. My mom just taught me how to think things through but not overthink them. Let your mind wonder, but when you make those split-second decisions, go with them. If you succeed you succeed, if you fail you fail, but now you know what works and what doesn't."

Having former pro basketball players for parents helps ingrain that wisdom. His vision, passing and selflessness combine for a tantalizing package for such a young player.

"As soon as I catch it, I read the defense," he explained of his decision-making process as a playmaker from the elbow. "It's a split-second decision. Nine times out of 10, I usually shoot it. It's probably the highest-percentage shot, being that close."

"But if Lauri's [Markkanen] man is helping a lot, it's an easy swing," he continued. "I don't want it to be a selfish thing. I don't want them to think that I shoot it every time I catch it. I want to keep the defense off guard."

With a core of score-first players like Zach LaVine and Markkanen, Carter's willingness to make the extra pass is welcomed. But in recent weeks, that selflessness has turned into a hesitance that's taking away from his development.

"He's very selfless," teammate Justin Holiday said. "In a situation where he has a post-up, for example, sometimes he'll come and hand the ball off to me to get me a shot, so he's a very team-first guy, and that's what we need. We trust his judgment with what he wants to do when he gets the ball and making the best play at the time."

Since Jim Boylen took over as head coach, those elbow touches are coming less and less frequently. Carter is down to tied for 18th in the league in elbow touches in his last eight games. Fewer touches means fewer shots, and for a player that's already so willing to give up the ball, that can stagnate his development. Combine that with some of his recent struggles staying on the floor because of foul trouble, and his growth may stall. 

Skill-wise, there's nothing to worry about. His ability to contest shots at the rim and move his feet on the perimeter make him a gold mine in the modern NBA. But the self-doubt is giving him some problems putting it all together. 

"It's definitely tough," Carter confessed. "Being the center, being in the middle of everything on the defensive end, you see everything from behind, so you have to be able to talk to your teammates and be up in pick-and-rolls and rebound and defend without fouling, which is hard sometimes. Speaking for myself, I don't like it when people score. I just do whatever I can. Sometimes I play a little too hard and it doesn't go in my favor."

Like for many young players, there are ups and downs. And it's a learned skill to figure out how to play when the self-doubt creeps in.

"It hits you hard," Bamba corroborated. "That's why you have good teammates who have been through it before. They're here to talk you through it and tell you what to expect and share some of their experience."

"He's going to be fine," Holiday added. "It's an adjustment still for everyone. The more comfortable he gets...he's still a rookie. He's going to be able to find his spots, know where he needs to be to get what he needs to get. It is what it is."

For Carter, the biggest problem on defense has been his foul trouble that has hampered his ability to stay on the floor and shaken his confidence on offense. Among players who have logged at least 700 minutes, Carter is tied for second in fouls per 48 minutes, at 6.9.

"I allow the refs to make the calls; that's what they're supposed to do," he said after committing five fouls in 25 minutes against the Magic. "I put myself in bad positions a lot. I feel myself doing it every time—it's part of me being a competitor. I just don't like it when people score. I need to learn to let stuff go sometimes and just let them have two points sometimes. Sometimes I over-help or I'm reaching in too much. It's a habit that I'm going to have to break."

The bigger issue is how that uncertainty seeped into the offensive side of his game and hurt his development, something the Bulls can't let continue.

"It definitely gets me out of rhythm," he said. "It bothers me. It's on my mind for most of the game. Just worrying about picking up the next one or the next one after that and then I'm out of the game."

Since the Boylen regime began, Carter has looked hesitant to shoot at times, and if that's a product of the new system, it could be an unforgivable problem.  

"I just try to make sure it's an in-rhythm shot. I don't ever want to force a shot. I want to make sure it's a shot that all my teammates are looking at me and telling me I need to shoot those shots. I don't want it to be an out-of-whack shot. It kind of is [a system thing]. I just don't want it to be 'I'm catching, now I have to shoot.' I want it to be 'I'm catching and going right into my shot, not even thinking about it; it's an unconscious shot.'"

For now, Carter is mostly used in short-roll and post-up situations, but he's shown flashes of shooting the three-pointer. Only 5-of-26 on the year, he has good form when in rhythm, and he will continue to extend his range as he gets more comfortable. Rather than shy away from those looks, he should be encouraged to expand his game and find places on the floor where he feels comfortable. 

"I feel like eventually I'll get there," he said with a smile on his face. "I'm gaining trust from our coaches, but it's not anything that's bothering me in any way. I know I'm capable of doing it. Just being a rookie, coming into a new system, I need to be able to prove myself; that's just how it goes."

Feeling out a new situation with a new team is tough. Being thrust into a starting role as a rookie center is tough. But Carter has shown enough for the front office to know he's the real deal. The Bulls have one job this year, and that's to identify and develop the pieces that will be around for the long haul. Carter is A1. They can't afford to mess this up.

"People know what I'm capable of doing. I'm not overlooked," Carter said. "I just want to make sure I'm learning my teammates still, learning what they really like to do. It's a learning process. My time is definitely coming sooner rather than later."

    

Stats up to date through games on Friday, Dec. 21, and via NBA.com

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