Wendell Carter Jr. let fly from the left wing, ignoring the North Carolina big man who was closing on him furiously, and held his right-handed release like a natural-born shooter as the defender flew by, the ball spun beautifully and a monstrous three points splashed through the net.
Of all the shots in Duke’s victory over the Tar Heels in the teams’ 2018 regular-season finale, that was the biggest one. It gave the Blue Devils their largest lead of the game, eight points, with only a few minutes left to play.
Oh, and there was this: It was the 6-10 Carter’s 19th made three in 38 attempts on the season.
Let anyone who wants to paint Carter as a role player on his own college team and a likely run-of-the-mill starter in the NBA. Let them claim the Bulls got their boring on with the No. 7 pick in Thursday’s draft. Just remember that Carter, in addition to averaging nearly a points-rebounds double-double as a freshman on a star-laden squad, also happened to shoot .500 from beyond the arc into March.
Just another big body? Just a banger with pedigree, sure, but not a difference maker for the Bulls as they strive for relevance? That seemed to be the knee-jerk reaction around Chicago.
And I get it. Today’s NBA is about spacing the floor with players who can shoot the ball, move the ball, pick-and-pop, create offense, defend multiple positions. This draft had a lot of players with enticing skill and athleticism, and we can argue about whether or not Carter is one of them. To be sure, he doesn’t stand out in that context.
I hoped the Bulls would roll the dice on Missouri freshman Michael Porter Jr., who slipped in the draft amid concerns about his ability to stay healthy. It’s unheard-of that a player with the size-and-shooting combo Porter offers would fall to the 14th pick, yet that’s where the Nuggets got him. Good — no, very good — for them. It’s a value pick for the ages.
The Bulls also missed out on Texas giant Mohamed Bamba by one pick. That stings, too.
But Carter gives the Bulls a lot of what they needed. He’s a physical powerhouse whose rebounding alone will move the Bulls forward. And there isn’t a fair quibble to have with his offense considering he’s only 19. His work in tandem with seven-foot shooter Lauri Markkanen, whom the Bulls selected at No. 7 a year ago, will be more fun to watch than many realize.
Carter was going to be the lead big in Duke’s attack until the late signing of Marvin Bagley III, who went with the second pick to Sacramento. We would’ve seen more of Carter on the perimeter. His numbers would’ve been significantly more impressive. Instead, his unselfishness shone through, making the blue-chip recruit — whose choices of schools came down to Duke or Harvard — perhaps the most well-liked member of his team.
The chances of him punching a teammate in training camp are nonexistent, for what it’s worth.
“He had a sensational freshman year — a double-double guy — and he has so much more potential,” Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski said. “He’s going to keep getting better because he’s talented and he has the best attitude.”
I asked a few national college basketball experts Thursday night if the Bulls had gotten their next Taj Gibson. It was just a stab, a starting point to a conversation. What came back were phrases like “more skilled,” “better shooter” and “more powerful.”
Does that sound at least pretty good to you? It does to me.
The easy thing to do after a draft, especially one involving the John Paxson-Gar Forman regime, is to register skepticism, if not worse. But I like how things turned with last year’s draft-night trade of Jimmy Butler. I view Markkanen as a rising star, and Zach LaVine as having the talent to more than just endure in the rebuild. I wonder if Kris Dunn’s pluses will outweigh the minus that is his shooting, but that’s where we are with the Bulls — still more questions than answers.
Carter will provide some of those answers. He’s far more skilled than Robin Lopez. He’ll soon be far more well-rounded than Bobby Portis, if he isn’t already.
I like what Carter told ESPN, too. On what he’ll bring to the Bulls: “a hard worker, coming in and doing whatever they ask me to do, just being the best rebounder, taking more shots, setting great picks for other players to get open. Just whatever I have to do to win.”
Draft-day promises of selflessness are cheap, but I’m not looking to score points as a skeptic here. I believe him. He did it as a freshman at Duke. It just might be in his DNA.
Good player. Good pick. I’m sure you’ll tell me if I’m wrong.