Hidden Gems: The new and improved Wendell Carter Jr.

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Hidden Gems: The new and improved Wendell Carter Jr.
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Sometimes, all a player needs is a change of scenery. 

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Wendell Carter Jr. was one of those players. Coming to Chicago with the seventh pick of the 2018 draft, Carter was supposed to be a well-rounded big man who could shoot from 3, pass a little bit and defend intelligently. He looked like he could fill that modern big-man prototype that every team needs. 

There were some flashes with the Bulls, but the consistency was never there. Carter was traded to Orlando 2 1/2 years later. 

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Something clicked for Carter after that trade. His numbers are up across the board this year, and he’s looking like that player he was supposed to be. That change is being driven primarily by newfound confidence in his 3-pointer. 

Carter hit 41 percent of his 3s at Duke, but he wouldn’t shoot them in Chicago. He’d pass up open corner 3s with the clock winding down instead of letting them rip. Big men sagged 10 feet off him, clogging up the paint whenever he would catch the ball. 

Carter still isn’t shooting a great percentage, hitting 33 percent of his 3s in Orlando this season. But he is letting them fly. He’s already shot twice as many this season as he did in his entire time in Chicago. His shooting is on the scouting report, and teams are closing out hard to him. 

Even though Carter hasn’t hit his 3s at an amazing clip, the mere willingness to shoot has completely opened up his offensive game. He can hit 3s as a trailer on fast breaks, pick-and-pop, facilitate at the top of the arc to pull a rim protector away from the basket and attack hard closeouts for easy buckets. He faked trade partner Nikola Vucevic out of his shoes earlier this season. 

Carter has always had these skills. It was the mental side of the game that lagged behind. He was in maybe the worst situation in the league being developed under Jim Boylen as an old-school center. Boylen would order post-ups and urge Carter to go to work, which didn’t match his skill set at all. To this day, he still struggles to score efficiently out of the post. But he doesn’t need to. 

In Orlando, he’s playing more to his strengths and being used like a modern NBA big man. He can find teammates in tight windows down low, as he did a ton with Marvin Bagley at Duke, hit cutters going to the rim or make passes like a guard in transition. 

Carter is also being given a little more freedom to experiment. The Magic have played around with using him inverted pick-and-rolls. He gets to try being the ball handler, with guards setting the screens for him. To quote a Hidden Gem of the 2000 rap scene, he had a pass to the corner on one of these that made me go “Like Woah.” 

Wendell Carter Jr. creating as a pick-and-roll ball-handler, hell yeah, let’s get funky, baby pic.twitter.com/XLtKM2iNUe

— Jackson Frank (@jackfrank_jjf) February 2, 2022

What made Carter intriguing defensively as a prospect coming out of Duke was that he had a combination of great feel and rim protection. His feet were a bit of a question mark. 

That evaluation has changed during his time with Orlando. He’s playing a lot more in two-big alignments with Mo Bamba. His block numbers have gone down as he’s had to spend more time out on the perimeter occasionally guarding wings. In those situations, his feet have been surprisingly solid. He’s not Evan Mobley out there, but he has shut down speedy guards such as Dennis Schroder and been a little more switchable than anyone ever thought he would be. 

Carter still doesn’t have the best situation possible in Orlando. Outside of Cole Anthony, their guard play isn’t great. He’s also in a frontcourt more overcrowded than the last boat out of Dion Waiters Island. He’s competing for minutes alongside Carter, Bamba, Mo Wagner, Robin Lopez and Jonathan Isaac once he comes back from injury. 

Through all of it, Carter has found a way to thrive. He’s figured out who he is and how he can succeed in the league. 

Carter is a good cautionary tale on why patience is so important with extremely young prospects. He was only 19 when he was drafted. For some of the very youngest players who enter the draft, two years and change of mediocre play is not enough time to make any definitive judgments (I’m looking at you, Patrick Williams). Carter got himself into a better situation where he could get his mind right, and he’s turned into a solid contributor for the Magic.

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