Jim Boylen created a lot of noise. Which is to say he hollered quite a bit, and very little of it made sense, but what I mean is it’s hard to tell which of the Bulls’ young talents are worth a damn, because they were toiling under a coach who flailed like a gym teacher arguing before the Supreme Court. No one has ever been so pleased to see Billy Donovan’s widow’s peaked visage as Lauri Markkanen, Coby White, and Wendell Carter Jr. are. Billy D’s a pro who speaks in complete sentences rather than Chris Farley freakouts, and his players typically like him. For the Bulls, a patient demeanor and baseline level of competence on the sidelines is a big step up.
Separating dysfunction from a simple lack of ability is tough with Chicago’s recent bunch of lottery picks. It’s possible that none of them are very good, but Wendell Carter in particular was so thoroughly screwed up by Boylen’s year-and-a-half in charge that it would be surprising if he didn’t improve under Donovan. The idea of Carter—who is still, entering his third season, more theoretical than actual—is intriguing. He’s maybe a smidgen undersized at the five, if you’re trying to lock down a goliath like Joel Embiid, but he’s got long arms and moves well. He’s got decent touch on his jumper, though he’s hardly had a chance to show it. If you catch him on one of his better nights, he has a certain lucidity about him, anticipation and instinct, an attunement to the rhythms of the game. He doesn’t stand out, but he is where he’s supposed to be, when you need him.
This is a quality that tends to stand out more on good teams, which the Bulls haven’t been. When only one guy in the orchestra pit is really jibing with the material, all you hear are dying cats. Carter was the understaffed clean-up crew on a chaotic Chicago defense last year. Boylen launched the now-departed Kris Dunn and Shaq Harrison at opposing guards, trapping and blitzing relentlessly along the perimeter, and though it created a fair number of turnovers, it also required everyone behind those actions to scramble whenever the offense managed to elide the Bulls’ pressure. Carter was regularly manning the controls of a nuclear reactor a few seconds away from melting down, trying to halt free slashers, sprinting out to the three-point line to close down naked corners. It was all very frantic and reactive. Donovan says the Bulls are going to sink more this season, turn down the temperature of their press and try to keep the offense in front of them. This should give Carter a half-second more to think, which is perhaps his greatest strength. Plus he can stay closer to the paint, where his length is a problem for driving guards.
On offense, he’s capable of quite a bit more than he’s been asked to do. For some reason, he’s never taken many threes, despite the fact he shot over 40 percent from (slightly less than) deep in college. Whether his long-range reluctance was a personal choice or something the coaching staff drilled into him, it was disheartening to see Carter catch the ball at the three-point line with nobody around him and quickly dump it off without even looking at the rim. Not every center needs to be a floor-spacer, but if you’ve got the potential to knock down some open catch-and-shoots, it doesn’t make any sense not to try to at least a couple triples per game, especially on a team that isn’t winning games anyway.
And Carter can pass. He knows this, even if Boylen didn’t. At the All-Star break last season: “I definitely do want to showcase more of my passing ability, just my IQ for the game. Just allowing coach to allow me to make the right decisions, just putting the ball in my hand and stuff like that.” This would seem to be especially useful considering that the Bulls have below average distributors at the guard position. Zach LaVine is a gunner, Coby White is hardly a floor general. There’s room in the offense to get the ball to Carter in the high post and let him feed cutters and find shooters, not unlike what the Bulls did with Joakim Noah back in his heyday, or stuff that the Hawks and Grizz ran with Al Horford and Marc Gasol. Part of the reason the Nuggets are so hard to play against is because opponents aren’t used to having to defend Magic Johnson in a massive Serbian ox’s body. Carter ain’t Nikola Jokić, but there’s no reason to use him like a stone-handed pile of meat either.
All of this probably makes Wendell Carter sound like a star spoiled entirely by a lousy coach. It’s a perverse kind of benefit for a gifted young player to ply his trade for a bozo, because everybody blames the clipboard jockey while deemphasizing the player’s shortcomings. Carter has a ton of work to do and he’s not without his faults. (Like many inexperienced big men, he’s a foul machine. And he’s struggled to stay healthy.) But the Boylen Era Bulls had no clue what to do with him, and he should benefit noticeably from Billy Donovan steady hand. We’ve only seen the beginning of what Wendell Carter can become. It’s now on him to deliver on his promise. He won’t have Boylen holding him back anymore, which is both a blessing and a challenge.
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