The Subtle Brilliance of Wendell Carter Jr.

The Chicago Bulls aren’t very good.

Per NBA.com, a cursory glance at their offensive rating (100.2, 30th), defensive rating (110.9, 23rd) or record (6-21) are all the indicators you need. If that isn’t enough, their mess of a front office and its questionable decisions should do the trick.

On the bright side, even bad teams have silver linings: For the Bulls, they’ve managed to secure an intriguing young core.

They displayed a glimmer of hope on Friday night against the flaming-hot Oklahoma City Thunder. During a 114-112 nail-biting victory, the Bulls got 49 combined points from Zach LaVine and Lauri Markkanen.

Those two represent the core’s heart: LaVine is the smooth 2.5-level scorer with a Vince Carterian-dunk package, while Markkanen brings a rare stretch element from the 4-spot who can also put the ball on the floor.

The guy flying under the radar is rookie big man Wendell Carter Jr.

While he only finished with six points, two rebounds, two assists and three “stocks” (one steal and two blocks) against the Thunder, his timely production won that game nearly as much as any running mates’ scoring exploits.

This has been a theme.

A defender beyond his years

If a picture is worth 1,000 words, summing up the essence of Carter Jr. with a 12-second clip should be fair game. Though Markkanen’s game-winner against the Thunder got the most praise, this sequence from the Bulls rookie was arguably the most impressive play of the night:

It starts with Paul George “ghosting” a screen for alleged-human Russell Westbrook, who gets to the launching pad thanks to a head start. He is in prime position to assault the rim. Carter Jr, originally keeping tabs on Steven Adams in the dunker spot, rotates over and times his jump right after Westbrook commits to the dunk. Going vertical, Carter Jr. erases the smash attempt with relative ease.

But the play doesn’t stop there.

Adams keeps the ball alive with enough taps to win a game of 21. After finally securing the board, he kicks the ball out to Jerami Grant, another super-jumper with bad intentions. He also tries challenging Carter Jr. at the rim, though the result doesn’t change. The vertical contest forces another miss, and the board from Carter Jr. ends the wild possession for good.

It generally takes longer for big men to get accustomed to the NBA than perimeter players, mostly because of the defensive learning curve.

In addition to the competition being bigger and more skilled, there’s more space to navigate through. You aren’t defending in the phone booths of college hoops anymore. Pick-and-rolls extend out to 28 feet. (35 if you’re facing the Golden State Warriors or Portland Trail Blazers.)

This is part of what makes Carter Jr. so special: He’s already a plus-defender at 19 years old.

Though that side of the ball isn’t glamorous, it’s hard not to come away impressed when watching him operate. Equipped with nimble feet and a 7’4″ wingspan, the young Bull can walk the tightrope between deterring drives and cutting off the roll-man better than most veterans.

As you saw in the second half of the clip above, he’s an insanely smart help defender. He doesn’t just understand what his responsibility is; he has a unique feel for when he’s supposed to rotate and when he’s supposed to commit to the shot while avoiding senseless fouls.

Per Second Spectrum tracking data, 68 players are defending at least four shots at the rim per game (minimum 10 games). Among them, Carter Jr. ranks eighth in field goal percentage allowed (51.8) and sixth in percentage differential (minus-10.6). The only other rookie that comes close to those marks is Grizzlies wunderkind Jaren Jackson Jr. (52.8, minus-9.3). Yet, even that comes with the caveat of being flanked by (super) plus-defenders like Marc Gasol, Mike Conley and Kyle Anderson.

Carter Jr. is cleaning up after Lavine and Jabari freakin’ Parker!

A sneaky-versatile skill set

Defense may be his calling card, but Carter Jr. also has a pretty high offensive ceiling. He’s “only” averaging 10.9 points, but there have been enough flashes to showcase a path to becoming one of the league’s more versatile bigs.

What stands out most is his motor: Carter J. never stops moving, doesn’t mind mixing it up and does his homework early. You won’t see the Bulls calling many plays for him, but he knows how to make himself available.

Below, a solid screen by Carter Jr. forces a switch for his guard, who misses the shot. But the forced switch gives Carter Jr. a mismatch as he attacks the glass:

Here, he generates a can’t-miss passing window with a quick seal:

The clip is a little short, but it begins with Ryan Arcidiacano (what a GREAT name) rejecting a screen from Carter Jr. With Adams stuck in the mud, Carter Jr. darts to the rim while sealing off Adams.

Just look at the angle WCJ creates with the seal! There’s no way for Adams to get back into the play without fouling. With the window that open, Markkanen can’t help but deliver the entry pass for the easy bucket.

Carter Jr. can also create for himself. He has a nice handle for a guy his size and combines that with fluidity and touch:

Clint Capela is one of the league’s better defensive players. In fact, he’s valuable because he has the lateral quickness to stop moves just like the one Carter Jr. pulled off with relative ease.

The one thing currently missing from Carter Jr.’s toolbag is a reliable jumper. He’s only knocking down a fifth of his threes right now, though his form and touch are encouraging. Becoming a reliable pick-and-pop guy isn’t out of the realm of possibility.

The 2018 draft class is already looking like one of the best in recent memory: Luka Doncic is closing out games like a superstar; Jackson Jr. looks like a two-way monster; Trae Young has struggled with his shot, but has a Nashian passing arsenal at his disposal already. Those guys pop off your screen.

And while their hype is warranted, it would behoove you to keep your eye on Carter Jr. as well.

His subtle brilliance is easy to miss.

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