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Bulls fall short vs. ‘The King,’ but Wendell Carter Jr. is finding his way

The Bulls’ defense remains a work in progress, especially for Carter, who keeps having to learn new philosophies. The good news for the big man? He might be figuring things out.

Chicago Bulls v Los Angeles Lakers
LeBron James dribbles past Coby White on Friday night in Los Angeles.
Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images

It hasn’t been the usual path for a big man to learn defense.

Not when the map is ripped from the hands mid-journey, and an all-together new set of directions are inserted as immediate replacements.

Think about Wendell Carter Jr.’s last four seasons.

As a freshman at Duke, the Blue Devils started the 2017-18 season man-to-man, but switched to a zone defense in the middle of the year because of all the breakdowns they were having.

Then Carter was selected No. 7 overall by the Bulls, and is coached by Fred Hoiberg for a few months, before the Jim Boylen coup took over. Hoiberg played a switching-heavy defense – orchestrated by Boylen – but that didn’t last very long, either.

By the start of last season, Boylen wanted his big men blitzing the pick-and-roll, and not just sometimes or depending on the personnel they were playing, either. It was blitz all the time.

With Boylen now long gone and Billy Donovan sitting in that coaching seat, the Bulls lean on a drop defense, where the big man drops into the paint, but it’s also based on the opposition. So there is a studying of personnel that is reminiscent of the Tom Thibodeau years that every Bulls player must embrace.

Confused?

From the looks of it, Carter has been too at times.

That’s why this defense – and Carter – remain a work in progress. One that the group is working through on a nightly basis. Case in point: Friday’s 117-115 loss to the Lakers.

Going into that game, the Bulls (4-6) were struggling with the spacing on their drop defense. They cleaned that up a bit against the Lakers, but were taken apart by Los Angeles playing the drive-and-kick game, with the home team continually finding open three-point shooters and erasing that first-quarter 10-point deficit.

To the Bulls’ credit, they hung in there. When LeBron James missed a 32-foot three-point attempt with 20.2 seconds left, they actually were set up to steal the win, down one with 12.1 seconds left.

Out of the timeout, however, Zach LaVine had a chance to play hero off the pick-and-roll with Thad Young, but his 18-footer missed, and the Lakers were able to escape, improving to 7-3 on the season.

“They were really up high in pick-and-roll coverage, and wanted to give Zach some space,’’ Donovan said of the shot LaVine took. “I think we’ve made some significant strides … we’ve gotten better competing. Now we have to address getting better by not beating ourselves.’’

LaVine ended the night with 38 points, but outscoring James doesn’t mean beating him. The four-time world champion scored 28 points, while adding seven rebounds and seven assists.

That meant back to the drawing board for the Bulls on the defensive end, even with improvements happening.

“Just at the [Friday] shootaround, we had a conversation as a group, you know about what we want to do when guards get all the way downhill or get past the free throw line, having a call for what the guard would do, what the big would do so no one is left wide open,’’ Carter said in a Zoom call from Los Angeles. “I feel like it’s about making adjustments. I feel like Coach is taking the proper steps in making those adjustments, and now it’s just on us to go out there and do what he’s telling us to do.’’

Where it all starts for Carter, however, is making sure he stays aggressive, but also stays on the floor and out of foul trouble. Admittedly, not an easy task for a player that wants to challenge everything and anyone heading to the rim.

That may be the biggest adjustment he’s working on this season.

“One thing I’ve had to come to grips with is that I can’t block every shot or I can’t stop players from scoring every play,’’ Carter said. “I do understand that sometimes that players are going to score. What I did struggle with my rookie year, and even last year, I tried to stop everybody. I feel like with going into my third year, you know I was averaging so many fouls a game and not that many minutes a game, so it’s just something I’ve had to realize.

“Just make it as difficult for them as you can without putting your hands in. Keeping my hands back at all times.’’

And when those hands are back and Carter isn’t in foul trouble some good things happen. In the battle with the Kings on Wednesday, Carter was able to put in 30 minutes of work and grab 17 rebounds for his third double-double of the season.

He had just one foul against Sacramento.

Against the Lakers, Carter had one of his better offensive games, scoring 23 points and grabbing seven rebounds. Again, never really in foul trouble.

“Like I said, players are going to score,’’ Carter said. “That’s just something I’ve had to realize.’’