Bulls’ Wendell Carter Jr. Nears Return, but Can He Ever Stay Healthy?

Wendell Carter Jr., Bulls

Getty Wendell Carter Jr., Bulls

The Bulls are off on a three-game road trip and they’re bringing a surprise guest: center Wendell Carter Jr., who returned to full practice on Sunday and is listed as questionable for Monday’s game in Indiana. Carter Jr. suffered a bad quad contusion in practice in late January and, on January 26, the team announced that Carter Jr. would be re-evaluated in four weeks.

The injury was slated to keep him out at least a month and possibly into March’s All-Sar break. Instead, WCJ looks primed to return to the lineup in the coming days.

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That’s the good news. But the question around Carter remains: Is this a player who can stay healthy enough to be a reliable starting center in the NBA?

In his three seasons with the Bulls, Carter has been decidedly injury-prone, though the injuries have mostly been freak incidents. He needed surgery to repair his left thumb as a rookie, and suffered a bad high ankle sprain last year.

He suffered the quad injury when he was kneed in practice by teammate Denzel Valentine.

“I hate the label of being injury prone or always injured and things like that,” Carter told reporters. “That gets tough. At the same time the people who are a part of this business, they understand that all these injuries weren’t because I wasn’t prepared or because I wasn’t doing the necessary things to make sure my body could withstand the 72-game season. There’s people I want to please, like being out there on the court and helping my team win. It’s definitely tough.”

Carter Jr.  Will Be Back in Bulls Lineup Soon

Even if Carter Jr. does not play against the Pacers, the Bulls have a packed slate this week, with a game in Charlotte on Wednesday and Philadelphia on Friday. They play the second part of a back-to-back on Saturday in Chicago against the Kings.

Expect to him soon, in other words.

“Eventually, we’re going to have to throw him in there with the number of games coming and the limited amount of practice time,” coach Billy Donovan told reporters. “It was a good day for the fact we were able to practice and go up and down and do some 5-on-5 and he was able to participate in all of those things. And he looked fine doing it. I don’t think there was any problems at least while that was going on. We’ll see how he responds to the workload.”

Bulls Defense Has Improved Without Carter Jr.

Carter Jr. is the Bulls’ best defensive big man, though in his absence, the team’s overall defense actually improved. In 14 games with Carter starting at center, Chicago’s defense ranked 27th in the NBA, allowing 113.8 points per 100 possessions. In his 11-game absence, the team has allowed 112.2 points per 100 possessions, 15th in the league in that span, according to NBA Stats.

That has more to do with players learning Donovan’s system and the hope has to be that Carter Jr. will help the team take more strides defensively when he returns.

Offensively, Carter has come back with a more well-rounded game here in his third season. He is averaging 12.8 points and 2.4 assists, both career high, and has begun to move his game away from the basket. He’s even begun to develop a 3-point shot, taking 1.1 per game, but has a way to go at 26.7%.

Donovan, recognizing that Carter shot 41.3% from the 3-point line in his sole season at Duke and that he needs to expand his range, has encouraged Carter to shoot from the arc more.  But in eight games before the injury, WCJ had taken only six 3-pointers, making one.

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