Chicago Bulls, NBA

Wendell Carter Jr. stands out by blending in

Despite his gaze million-miles-away gaze, Wendell Carter Jr. is being peppered with questions. But the rookie isn’t disrespectful. Far from it. Respect is woven into Carter’s fabric.

He’s simply multitasking, reviewing film, eyes fixed on the projector situated in the middle of the locker room. Roughly an hour before the Chicago Bulls and Portland Trail Blazers square off in early January, Carter is both mentor and mentee — providing insight into his brief professional experiences while simultaneously digesting clips of the Blazers’ guard-fueled offense.

Throughout his first season in the NBA, Carter’s performance has often suggested defense is second nature to him. He glides over to alter and swat shots around the rim — averaging 1.3 blocks per game in 25.2 minutes a night —  boxes out to high-point rebounds and, occasionally, hangs with shifty wings or guards on switches. Yet, as he explains, this pre-game homework is the continuation of longstanding ardor for defense. That defensive acumen that looks inherent is actually because of devotion behind the scenes.

“Growing up playing basketball, I’ve always been very aggressive in not wanting people to score on me. It’s just always something I took pride in,” Carter told The Step Back. “It wasn’t something I always knew how to do but I put a lot of effort on the defensive end.”

Carter demands more of himself, though. He is emphasizing lateral quickness to improve his defensive versatility, sharpening quick-twitch muscles and hand-eye coordination to prevent ball-handlers from skating by him.

Along with reducing his foul rate (4.9 fouls per 36 minutes) and adding strength, growing comfortable on the perimeter sits atop Carter’s defensive checklist. The tools are there for future All-Defensive teams, in part because of his penchant for embracing the grimy aspects of the game.

“He embraces collision and contact. He likes to hit people. He don’t mind people getting into him. I think it’s maybe hurt him a little bit on the defensive end in some ways ’cause he wants to grab and hold and hit people,” Bulls head coach Jim Boylen said with a twinkle in his voice. “If you’re not afraid of getting hurt or you’re not afraid of contact, the game’s easy for you at the defensive end. He loves it. [Shaquille] Harrison was a football player, [Kris] Dunn was a football player. I think Wendell would have been a pretty damn good defensive end if he had played football.”

Prior to suffering a left thumb injury in late January, which was supposed to sideline him for 8-12 weeks but could stretch to April, Carter started every Bulls game this season. Chicago shuffled him into the lineup with the belief early growing pains would fast track his development — and it began from the outset. While trying to absorb the foreign atmosphere before his first regular season game, Carter was prepping for a duel against All-Star center Joel Embiid.

Embiid hung 30 points (9-of-14 shooting), 12 rebounds, four blocks, three assists and one steal on the wide-eyed rookie. He came to define it as his “Welcome to the NBA” moment. Just as Carter does after every game, he fired up the tape and took notes, recognizing the gravity of off-court diligence.

“I definitely take all positives away. With that being my first game, I was kinda new to everything, how we warmed up, how the game goes, media timeouts, things like that,” Carter said. “So, it was all a new experience for me. I just tried to soak up everything I could, going up against Joel Embiid first game. I definitely looked at a lot of the moves he was hitting me with after the game, how he attacked the boards, how aggressive he was and how smart he played.”

For other sources of wisdom, Carter leans on in-house experience benefitting from the presence of 11-year veteran Robin Lopez, who started each of the 145 games he was active for with the Bulls prior to the 2018-19 season. Ousted in favor of long-term development, Lopez remains a key figurehead.

“[I’ve noticed] how poised he is when he’s in the post when he’s posting up. He doesn’t rush anything. He takes his time,” Carter said. “That’s the very first thing I learned from him when I played against him in training camp. And then also, just his matureness … He’s always talking, always making sure everybody’s involved and just keeping up everybody’s spirits up.”

Offensively, Carter is still trying to forge an identity. He’s registered a 54.1 percent true shooting mark and is just 6-of-32 (18.8 percent) beyond the arc. Per Synergy, he ranks in the 9th percentile (0.625 points per possession) on post-ups, primarily a byproduct of his under-sculpted frame, often struggling for position and scooted further from the hoop before the catch.

Demetrius Smith, his high school head coach at Pace Academy, said Carter’s mundane offensive numbers stem from a people-pleasing ethos.

“He can score the basketball. He’s not gonna take away from what the team is trying to do,” Smith told The Step Back. “So he’s not gonna go out of his way to score. He’s gonna score within the team concept. He had a 25-point night, I think, this year. He can do that every night.”

Smith has witnessed Carter dominate as a scorer at all three levels — beyond the arc, mid-range and at the rim. He believes as Carter grows more comfortable and assertive in the NBA, his complete range of tricks will shine through.

“You haven’t seen it all yet. I can promise you that. You haven’t seen what he can really, really do. And it’s gonna come out,” Smith said. “I thought it would come out in the second half but it’s gonna come out. When he comes back [from injury], he’s gonna give everybody the full repertoire of what’s in his bag.”

Understanding how Carter reached this point — a place where almost everyone around him speaks in absolutes about his future stardom — requires a trip back to the gothic-style architecture of Pace Academy in Atlanta. There, he starred for the Knights and led Pace to its first two state championships in program history.

Early on, the business-like persona Carter is lauded for wasn’t evident. Opposing players targeted him, attempting to get in his head and throw him off. Oftentimes, it worked. But soon, maturity blossomed. During the state championship his junior year, an opponent elbowed and kicked him in the head. Carter shrugged it off to drop 30 points and 20 rebounds. No jawing. No emotional retaliation. No detour en route to a title. Just production and a trophy.

When Carter first arrived on campus as a sophomore, Smith detailed what it would take to play in college and the pros. Never again was anyone in Carter’s ear whispering the secrets to greatness.

“If I can speak to you once about what it takes to play at the next level and be ready to play when you get there … and you take that and you work it every day, that’s what he did,” Smith said. “If you wanna play at the next level, you gotta be on the court every day getting shots up, gotta hit the weight room every day and you never had to say it [to him] once. You never had to drag him in the weight room. Just one conversation and he did it for three years without being asked to do it.

“You push him but once he understands what it takes, he just took ownership of what he wanted to do. It’s his ownership. He wanted to be the best, so that’s the way he approached it every day.”

As the team’s best player and leader, Carter’s habits infected others. Teammates followed him into the gym to get shots up. They flocked to the weight room because if Carter wasn’t on the court, buried deep in a textbook — he maintained a 3.8 GPA — or at rehearsal for his school’s rendition of the play “You Can’t Take it With You,” he’d be found there.

“You got the best player in the country doing all that stuff,” Smith said. “I mean, you gotta follow in. If he can do it and still get As and Bs and be on the national honor society, so can you.”

Smith described Carter as a “gentle giant” always willing to assist others. He’d open doors, carry textbooks for people or swoop in to help clean up a mess. Never prompted, Carter conducted himself as though he weren’t a 6-foot-10 basketball star whose résumé was stocked with accolades.

Georgia All-Classification Player of the Year. Gatorade Georgia Player of the Year. First-team All-America honors from the Naismith Trophy. Second-team accolades from USA Today. The list rattles on. None of it warped Carter’s selfless persona.

During his senior year, he was named the Morgan Wootten National Player of the Year, awarded to a student-athlete who embodies outstanding character, leadership and academics.

“It’s just little stuff that he recognizes, that he sees, that he seeks the moment to help people,” Smith said.

After games, Carter stayed around to scoop up Gatorade bottles and other trash discarded on the gym floor. When he led the school to its first state title in March 2016 — on the back of his 30-point, 20-rebound game — players arrived back at Pace and leaped off the bus for a pep rally.

Not Carter. The state’s best player was busy cleaning up debris that littered the floor and seats of the bus. While teammates prepared to celebrate, Carter embodied one of Pace’s mottos: leave a place better than you found it.  He was doing the little stuff.

It’s the type of mindset that Smith believes influences his on-court tendencies.

“His basketball IQ, understanding of the game, understanding how to play defense on just about anyone on the court, understanding how to block shots,” Smith said of Carter’s greatest skills. “Picking up trash? He loves to do the dirty work and play defense.

“All the stuff that nobody else wants to do, he’s willing to do it.”

Added Carter: “You’ll see someone playing hard every night. I might not be scoring the most points on my team but you’ll definitely see someone playing hard every night.”

Next: This Utah Jazz season has a lot of the same notes as the last

In Chicago, Carter has developed a hankering for good steak, slipping into the canvas-lined booths of his favorite restaurant, Andiamo’s, once or twice a month. That, along with Giordano’s deep dish pizza — “it’s fire,” he said — are two of Carter’s preferred culinary treats in the Windy City. After each meal, he remembers the words Smith instilled into him, leaving the place better than he found it.

Now, the Bulls are hoping he can do the same for them.

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