Opportunity rarely knocks twice and in a very competitive league like the NBA, and one can’t let them it away.
Drafted by the Chicago Bulls with the seventh overall pick in the 2018 NBA Draft, Wendell Carter Jr. was slated to form a solid young core with Zach LaVine and Lauri Markkanen, but injuries and the ensuing inconsistent play left many wanting for more.
The potential was always there and the flashes were evident when Carter Jr. was healthy and on the court, but that did not stop the Bulls from sending him to the Orlando Magic at the trade deadline last season in order to acquire two-time All-Star Nikola Vucevic. Given how things have turned out for Chicago this season, one can’t blame them for making that move.
For his part, the change in environment allowed Carter Jr. to reboot his career and despite facing a frontcourt logjam with the likes of Mo Bamba and Chuma Okeke, the former Duke Blue Devil has been playing the best basketball of his career.
It also shouldn’t be a surprise that he had one of his better games with Orlando when played against his former team.
Carter Jr.’s current averages of 13.3 points, 10.1 rebounds, and 2.6 assists through 42 games this season are all career-highs, but it’s his ability to get rebounds and provide solid rim protection that have provided more value for the Magic. His efforts so far this season have already somewhat validated the four-year, $50-million extension Carter Jr. signed during the offseason, and the fact that Orlando chose to give him an extension over Bamba is telling in itself.
When Carter Jr. is on the court, he grabs more than a fourth of the defensive rebounds (26.5 rebounding percentage) available and in doing so, helps limit the extra possessions opponents can have. It has helped keep the Magic in the middle of the pack in terms of the number of offensive rebounds they allow their opponents to have, and the 10.4 offensive boards they give up is a little over one more than what the top teams concede.
Carter Jr. has been a decent passer even during his time with the Bulls and his current assist numbers continue to point to his greater involvement in Orlando’s offense. He can get the ball on the elbow and take what the defense gives him in terms of looking for his shot or finding open cutters. With the ball in his hands, he can easily locate teammates on the perimeter in order to hand the ball off to and set screens for open jump shots.
All of those attributes were on full display as Carter Jr. had 14 points and a game-high 14 rebounds in an otherwise solid 110-108 win over the Dallas Mavericks, who had won 13 of their last 16 games entering the contest against the Magic. His 20th double-double for the season is also a team-high, and is tied with Julius Randle for the 19th-best mark in the NBA.
It was, however, Orlando’s 3-point shooting in the first half that allowed them to turn a 34-23 first-quarter deficit into a 64-59 halftime lead. Carter Jr., who is making 34.2 percent of his 3-point attempts this season, made two 3-pointers in this game and was one of seven double-figure scorers for the Magic, who have now won three of their last four games.
Durability remains a major concern for Carter Jr. as he has yet to play more than 54 games in a season. He has played in 42 of Orlando’s 51 games this season but it’s hard to trust that he will surpass the 50-game mark until he does so. They don’t play until the calendar turns February, but eight of their next 10 opponents will be in the play-in tournament if the regular season ended today.
Further complicating matters is the fact that the Magic have the worst record in the league at 11-40, with an incoming draft class loaded with frontcourt talent likely to weigh in on the minds of Orlando’s management. Carter Jr.’s extension should provide him some sense of security but the NBA can be a fickle business at times. Performing at a high level on a consistent basis will likely assuage those fears.
Wendell Carter Jr. entered the NBA with promise, but circumstances largely out of his control prevented him from fulfilling that during his stint with the Chicago Bulls. Playing a full season with the Orlando Magic could dispel any apprehensions about his health and role within the roster, more so if he does it while exceeding expectations.