The strong play of Wendell Carter Jr. this season has been warmly welcomed by the success hungry Bulls fanbase. His physical-minded play and Joakim Noah-esque leadership has seemingly made him one of the most loved Bulls overnight, however, his role of the line back this season had been cut short (once again) after he suffered a sprained ankle in last week’s loss to the Mavericks.
Carter landed awkwardly after a collision with Mavericks forward Dwight Powell. The Bulls reported that an MRI on Wendell revealed a high right ankle sprain, which will likely keep him out five to seven weeks. While this injury may only be a minor setback for Carter, this is undoubtedly a major setback for the team, as they rely on Carter to anchor the defense while being a strong presence in the locker room. And anchor the defense Carter did, as the Bulls touted the 11th best defense in the month of November and the second-best defense in the month of December.
However, this isn’t the first time that Wendell has suffered a relatively serious injury. The second-year big out of Duke missed 44 games last season for Chicago after being sidelined with a chronic thumb sprain back in January of 2019, giving the Bulls no choice but to shut him down for multiple months. During this stretch, the Bulls went 12-25 and relied heavily on Robin Lopez, Cristiano Felicio, and Lauri Markkanen to play extended minutes at the center position. Injuries have been a problem for Wendell so far in his NBA career, as he is yet to play a full 82-game schedule. He appeared in 44 contest last season and 37 so far this season.
Here we are in January 2020, Carter is down and the Bulls are searching for answers. Rookie Daniel Gafford has done an impressive job starting in Carter’s place, however, no rookie (or most big men) will be able to live up to the standard set by Wendell throughout his second season. Prior to his injury, Carter ranked inside the top ten in rebounds per game, top five in offensive rebounds, top 20 in blocks, and top 30 in defensive rating.
One thing coach Jim Boylen values from his Bulls is getting stops. It seems to be on repeat from him during almost every postgame presser — his team either gave up too many points or wasn’t getting the required stops in order to win. Since Carter’s injury, the Bulls are giving up an extra 9.6 points per game, and their defensive rating has rocketed from inside the top nine to 28th in the league in the last week, barely in front of the Hawks and the Wizards. Quite simply, the Bulls defense has sucked without Wendell.
A valid reason for the extra points given up and the rapidly increased defensive rating could, in fact, be due to the Bulls playing elite teams such as the Celtics, Mavericks, and Pacers. However, there is no excuse to allow 123 points against a New Orleans Pelicans team without their best players in Jrue Holiday and Zion Williamson. Following this game, Jim Boylen seemingly had to answer to the poor defensive play from the Bulls. He answered K.C. Johnson’s question on why the defense managed to crumble by saying: “Our best defensive player didn’t play, so that makes it hard on us.”
One important aspect of Wendell Carter’s game which the Bulls have missed severely is his ability to rebound the ball. As mentioned earlier, he was inside the top ten in rebounds per game and top five in offensive rebounds while averaging 9.9 a game. Since his injury, the Bulls have ranked 30th in rebounds per game with 37.7. This is inexcusable, especially when the Miami Heat, who have ranked 29th over the last week, are still pulling down over 40 per game. While this stretch has only been four games and is a very small sample size, no team in the last 20 years has ever averaged under 40 rebounds per game.
Wendell’s effort to crash the glass on both ends has been clearly missed by the Bulls, who are now struggling even with a bigger lineup featuring 7-foot Lauri Markkanen, 7-foot-2 Luke Kornet, and 6-foot-11 Daniel Gafford playing regular rotational minutes. This just goes to show that, as Nate Robinson once said, heart over height matters most.
Carter’s value on the defensive end is so important to getting this Bulls team to run. The Bulls big men look to be in shambles without him. They struggle to defend the paint and have been terrible at playing Boylen’s defensive schemes of blitzing opponents’ ball screens (meaning running a hard double team at opposing point guards). If done correctly, a blitz can result in a turnover or a missed shot. If done incorrectly, it often will result in a wide-open corner three or a player wide open under the basket, generally resulting in a dunk. While it did take some time for the Bulls to play this defense at a respectable rate, by mid-December they seemed to have had it mastered.
From the 10th to the 17th of December, they ranked first in the league in turnovers forced and first in the league in defensive rating, headlined by Wendell Carter. His ability to switch out on the perimeter while being able to lock down the paint made him so valuable for the Bulls when playing this style of defense. He was top-ten in steals among centers during the stretch of December and his quick hands resulted in a lot of fastbreak points for the Bulls.
While the Bulls will heavily miss Carter defensively, the time he is set to miss will certainly hurt his development on the offensive end. Over the last month, his involvement on offense had been rapidly increasing, whether that be from a growing two-man game with Zach LaVine to taking at least two three-pointers a game. His offensive game was improving and we even saw him play one of his best games of the season against reigning Defensive Player of the Year, Rudy Gobert.
Carter took him to town, posting 18 points, 13 rebounds, a season-high four assists, one three-pointer, and a team-high plus-nine. He looked confident, aggressive, and under control. Maybe the best part of that game — only three fouls in 35 minutes logged. This is impressive coming from a player who was toward the top of the league in fouls per night, limiting him to about 25 minutes per game before having to sit with foul trouble. His growth on offense as well as an increased role as a playmaker was something Bulls fans had been demanding to see throughout the course of this season. Prior to his injury, he was showing promise and proving himself as one of the best young big men in the league.
The Bulls are going to miss Carter’s absence, whether it be for two weeks or two months, and with the playoffs still lurking around the corner, other bigs such as Daniel Gafford and Luke Kornet must play with the same level of intensity as Wendell has if the Bulls want any chance of cracking that eight seed.
The soft-toned 20-year-old who speaks like a 13-year vet may not have the most complete game in the league. He may not yet have the crafty offensive game of Zach LaVine or the versatile skill set of Lauri Markkanen, but his play on the defensive end and his growing role on offense make him by far the most valuable player on the Chicago Bulls. And let’s not forget, for a second-year player, his leadership abilities are through the roof. Maybe the Joakim Noah with a jump shot comparisons aren’t so crazy after all?