Bulls big man Wendell Carter Jr. eyeing early return from ankle injury

The second-year center went down on Jan. 6 and was given a return window of four to six weeks. According to Carter on Saturday, however, bet the under.

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Bulls big man Luke Kornet enjoyed a strong start Saturday.

He came out of the gate with eight quick points against the Cavaliers at the United Center, scoring from inside and outside, and finished with 11 in the Bulls’ 118-116 victory.

Good for the Bulls, and great for Kornet, especially after his poor start to the season.

He might not want to get too comfortable in that starting role, however, because if it’s up to Wendell Carter Jr., he’ll be reclaiming his spot sooner than many first thought.

After Carter went down against the Mavericks on Jan. 6 and an MRI exam was done at the conclusion of the road trip on his injured right ankle, the initial time frame for his return was four to six weeks.

As of Saturday, Carter was insisting to bet the under.

“Definitely closer to the four,’’ Carter said. “My progress has been really good lately, so definitely closer to the four than the six.’’

Carter said he has been working on his upper-body strength the entire rehab, and he feels like he’s closer to testing the ankle.

Other than that, he has been watching film and biding his time.

“It’s still pretty frustrating, but at the same time, I think everything happens for a reason,’’ said Carter, the seventh overall pick from the 2018 draft. “That’s something I strongly believe in, so it’s frustrating because I’m a competitor, but on the back end it’s like, ‘OK, this happened for a reason or it could have been worse.’ Just take it in and try to get it better every day.’’

That would be great for the Bulls. The rebuild could use another pillar for the foundation with Lauri Markkanen seemingly unable — or unwilling — to fill that role.

Zach LaVine and Carter? Maybe.

Before the injury, Carter was the Bulls’ third-leading scorer (11.7 points per game), led the team in rebounding (9.9) and had the third-best player-efficiency rating (16.24). He also is considered the second-best defender on the team and is one of the few players on the roster who fits the description of tough.

Until he can return — possibly in early February — coach Jim Boylen could have some tough decisions to make. Daniel Gafford was having some solid moments in Carter’s absence, but he went out with a thumb injury, and now Kornet has taken that post.

Carter is undoubtedly the starter, but will Boylen lean on Gafford once again in that backup role or give Kornet some minutes because of the scoring and spacing he has provided?

That decision was out of Carter’s pay grade. He just wants to encourage both of his teammates as much as possible.

“My approach is kind of in the middle,’’ Carter said when asked how vocal he has been from the bench during the injury. “Just speak when I feel like it’s absolutely needed, but I feel like there’s no better way to learn than to just go through the things and learn as you go.’’

Ticket to ride

The Bulls and Cavaliers had tough travel days leading into the game as snow closed down O’Hare and forced both teams to stay an extra night on the road.

“This has happened before,’’ Boylen said of the travel issues. “I haven’t talked about the travel, not going to talk to the team about how difficult it was or whatever. I don’t do that. This is the pro part of the professional part.’’

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