Every member of the Chicago Bulls starting five was on the floor in the final minutes of Monday night’s close loss to the Denver Nuggets. Except for third-year big Wendell Carter Jr.
The 21-year old was getting absolutely smoked by MVP-candidate Nikola Jokic all night long. Per NBA.com’s Matchups tracker, the Serbian big went 9-15 and scored 20 points when guarded by Carter Jr. on Monday night.
Head coach Billy Donovan opted to roll out veteran forward Thaddeus Young in his place down the stretch. Carter didn’t sound too concerned with the trend when speaking with reporters (via NBC Sports Chicago) on Tuesday afternoon:
I’m in my third year. I’ve had three different coaches, three different systems. It’s all about building trust with your coach.
There’s some truth to that, but also some truth in the results Chicago’s seeing with Carter on the floor. So much so, that Donovan’s been urging the center to get more comfortable with his three-point shot. Being able to stretch the floor should allow Carter more free reign positionally on the defensive end.
But when asked about his position, the 21-year old simply responded with “I’m a center.”
It’s Possible Both Carter and Donovan Are Right
Carter isn’t wrong. At 6-10 and 270 pounds, with a 7-5 wingspan, he does qualify as a center. But he’s also played just 109 games in the NBA. It wouldn’t hurt to listen to some folks who’ve been around (a lot) longer like his new head coach, admittedly in his first season at the helm.
Still, Carter thinks that with continued practice and concentration, he can be better in these matchups:
There are a lot of centers in this league 7-foot or over. I mean, it’s just physics. I’m shorter. I don’t necessarily think I’m not as strong but I’m just shorter. Whenever they can get a hook shot in, they’re usually shooting over me. What I have to do a better job of is using my strength, pushing catches out to make it more difficult for them to get to those areas around the rim.
He had some good moments against Jokic, largely by way of exercising brute strength, so he’s not completely off the mark. But when he’s matched up against guys that are comfortable firing away from the three-point line, he’s got to be able to match that energy on both ends of the ball.
Donovan cited those specific kinds of situations when discussing his prioritizing Young over Carter late in games:
One of the things that has happened a lot for us closing games is Zach (LaVine) gets trapped a lot to get the ball out of his hands. And having shooting around, space around him and then probably the best guy on our team playing in that pocket and in that middle of the lane has been Thad.
That said, Young has knocked down just five of his 22 attempts from deep this season (22 percent), compared to Carter Jr, who’s hit on six of his 19 shots from behind-the-arc (31 percent). If not for shooting, trust that the Bulls head coach is opting for experience over lack of when choosing his late-game lineups:
But to be honest with you, because he’s 14 years into his career, Thad is just right now probably a bit more skilled and advanced than he is in that spot. And I think Wendell will get there, because he works hard at it.
Maybe there is a method to what some are calling madness.
Carter Can, and Will, Put in the Work
Despite an apparent lack of trust between Donovan and Carter in closing moments, there’s plenty of reason to be optimistic that this trend may be a thing of the past come the end of this season, or the start of the next.
As the center will tell you, building that trust with yourself is as important as having it with the shot-caller:
It’s all about building that trust with your coach so he’s able to trust you — me taking 3s, me putting the ball on the floor. He has great trust in me. But I also have to have trust in myself to be able to space the floor. Take the shot. Miss or make. Let people know that I will take the shots. It’s more of an internal thing more than getting reps or being in the practice gym.
He’s off to a good start in his third campaign, despite the situation he’s found himself in today. Last year, and the year prior, he made just six threes total. Carter’s hit that mark already with 39 games to go.
It doesn’t help that the Bulls lost against the Nuggets. Because more than anything, Carter wants to help his team:
It’s tough. I’m a competitor, I want to be out there. I want to help my team win. But at the same time I’m also a team player. I know coach (Donovan) has the best in mind for all of us. He has no motive. He has no hidden agenda. I don’t think he has. You know he wants to win. I’ve got to build that trust with him so he can rely on me in those late-game situations.
It’s more likely than not that Wendell Carter Jr will get the opportunities he’s asking for to help the Chicago Bulls out in late-game situations. But when Billy Donovan does call upon him, he’s got to be ready to answer.