Bulls' Carter still learning how to survive as undersized center
An argument can be made that Wendell Carter Jr. will have a hard time surviving as an undersized NBA center.
But in the fourth quarter of Monday's loss to Denver, while Nuggets 6-11 center Nikola Jokic was having a monster night, Bulls coach Billy Donovan took out the 6-10 Carter and replaced him with a smaller player, 6-8 Thad Young.
Height isn't everything, obviously. Experience is also important and Young is in his 14th NBA season, while Carter is in his third. Last year, Carter talked about being better suited to play power forward, but he changed his tune on a Zoom call following Tuesday's practice.
"I'm a center," Carter said. "There are a lot of centers in this league 7-foot or over. I mean, it's just physics. I'm 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. But that's just physics. I'm shorter than them. That's the end of the statement right there."
Donovan had an interesting take after Monday's game about the idea of Carter playing power forward. It also goes along with the thought that while Carter might struggle to guard taller centers, the bigger guys might have trouble with the current NBA trend of smaller lineups and spreading the floor.
"He's probably an undersized center," Donovan said of Carter. "That's why I thought one of the things that was important for his development is to shoot some 3s, to be a little bit of a playmaker. That then puts him in position that you can slide him in the four.
"But if he's just going to be a straight roller and diver, it's probably hard for him to play the four. If you had the luxury of being able to slide him to the four, that would be great."
That was the plan heading into the season, for Carter to step out and shoot some 3-pointers. Then he made just 1 of 16 attempts from long range during preseason and 3 of 14 to open the regular season. Now he's not looking to launch very often, although he is 2-for-4 since returning from a quad injury.
"I know I want to be able to space the floor, but at the same time I don't want that to become my motive," Carter said. "I'm just trying to find that balance right now and make sure I'm not just drifting off or finding myself on the 3-point line too much. At the same time, I want to work that into my game to where I'm shooting two or three of them a game."
Jokic finished with 39 points, 14 rebounds and 9 assists against the Bulls. It was the third huge game by an opposing center against the Bulls in the last month. Philadelphia's Joel Embiid scored a career-high 50 points on Feb. 19 and Orlando's Nikola Vucevic poured in 43 points on Feb. 5 while Carter was sidelined with the quad bruise.
Jokic has posted huge numbers against several teams this season. He has four games of 40 or more points, and six with at least 14 rebounds. Jokic and Embiid are both on the shortlist of leading MVP candidates right now.
So there's probably no point in making any long-term determinations about the Bulls' future at center. One thing that already seemed clear is the Bulls could use a more experienced backup center. They haven't gotten great results from Daniel Gafford and Luke Kornet.
The Bulls also had a chance to beat Denver, holding a 2-point lead with just over two minutes remaining. Jokic hit some big shots down the stretch, but guard Jamal Murray buried the backbreaker, a pullup 3-pointer that gave the Nuggets a 4-point lead with 1:39 left.
It's been common for Donovan to lean on veterans down the stretch of close games. Young and Garrett Temple have played close to 100 percent of the crunchtime minutes, so Carter sitting in the fourth quarter was nothing new.
"I want to be out there, I want to help my team win, but at the same time I'm also a team player," Carter said. "I know coach has the best in mind for all of us. He has no motive, he has no hidden agenda -- I don't think he has. But you know he wants to win, and I've got to build that trust with him so he can rely on me in those late-game situations.'"
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