LAS VEGAS — Duke product Wendell Carter Jr. was the last of the five big men taken in the first seven picks of this year’s NBA draft. So far during the NBA summer league in Las Vegas, however, Carter perhaps has been the best of the group. His game looks to translate well to the modern NBA.
Nearly the full complement of Carter’s skills was on display Wednesday during the Chicago Bulls‘ 95-83 win over the Dallas Mavericks in the opening round of summer tournament play. Carter finished with 19 points on 9-of-11 shooting, pulling down nine rebounds and handing out two assists as the Bulls outscored Dallas by 22 points in his 30 minutes of action.
Let’s start at the defensive end, the strength of Carter’s game right now. Chicago is comfortable switching Carter on anyone, even point guards, and he has more than held his own on those plays. On one sequence during the second half Wednesday, he stayed with Dallas guard Josh Adams and forced a double dribble.
The downside of using Carter to switch pick-and-rolls is that it takes him away from the basket, where he’s proved to be an excellent rim protector. Though Carter had no blocks on Wednesday, he’s still averaging 2.8 blocks per game in four summer appearances, putting him among the leaders in Las Vegas and tops among this year’s lottery picks — ahead of more heralded shot blocker Mohamed Bamba, the sixth pick.
Rather than just accumulating blocks by chasing after every shot, Carter has racked them up while remaining disciplined defensively. He already shows a grasp of verticality as a defensive tool and strong instincts for whether to stay home defensively or help. And when opponents do try to challenge him, Carter can swallow them up. On one highlight play on Saturday, he blocked Cleveland Cavaliers center Ante Zizic with two hands, essentially ripping the ball away.
Wendell Carter Jr. rejects Ante Zizic’s layup attempt in the first quarter by just grabbing the ball.
At 6-foot-10, Carter doesn’t have the size of No. 1 overall pick Deandre Ayton or the shooting ability of No. 4 pick Jaren Jackson Jr., who made eight 3-pointers in his summer debut. He wasn’t as high-scoring at Duke as his teammate Marvin Bagley III, drafted second by the Sacramento Kings. Yet Carter’s 16.8 points per game so far this summer also lead this year’s lottery bigs.
Carter has displayed atypical polish for a 19-year-old big man with one year of college experience. His most impressive move Tuesday saw Carter patiently post up smaller defender Ray Spalding, get him up in the air using a pump fake and then step through for a smooth left-handed finish in the paint.
In addition to posting up smaller defenders, Carter also has shown the ability to use a face-up game. During the fourth quarter Wednesday, he did so against Mavericks second-round pick Kostas Antetokounmpo, hitting a jumper while being fouled by Antetokounmpo and making the free throw to complete the three-point play.
As a screener in the pick-and-roll, Carter has good feel for where to go with or without the ball. His passing out of the pick-and-roll to open shooters on the weak side is far beyond his years, and Carter can put the ball on the ground if necessary or finish above the rim. And while it’s not yet a big part of his game, Carter shows potential as a pick-and-pop option. He’s made half of the six 3-pointers he’s attempted thus far.
Bulls rookie Wendell Carter Jr. forces up a floater for an and-1 bucket.
Reading too much into performance during summer league is dangerous given the small samples involved. From a subjective perspective, however, the skills and instincts Carter has flashed at both ends of the court have been as impressive as we’ve seen from any rookie big man. Given where he was drafted, that has to be exciting for a Bulls franchise in need of talent.