Earlier today, I found myself watching some of Wendell Carter Jr.’s college film. And not even two minutes into the video, I remembered why he was such a coveted prospect.
Take a look for yourself:
Off the board with the No. 7 pick in the 2018 NBA Draft, Wendell Carter Jr. wasn’t just the right pick, he was a good pick – most NBA analysts agreed. He may have been 19-years-old, but Carter Jr. possessed natural defensive chops and an efficient offensive game. And while the former has certainly held up, we’re still largely waiting to see the latter on the court with the Bulls.
During the 2019-20 season, Carter Jr. averaged 11.3 points and 9.4 rebounds per game, appearing in only 43 games due to an ankle injury and a suddenly suspended season. Yet, the big man found his way onto the Rising Stars’ roster at All-Star Weekend, proving that the consensus around the league is still “this kid’s got game.”
If you ask Carter Jr., I think it’s safe to say he’d agree with that assessment. After all, it’s basically what he told Sam Smith via Bulls.com ahead of this year’s All-Star Weekend festivities:
“It does suck not being able to play in Chicago this weekend. But I look at myself as a player who will be in this league for a long time. So I feel I will have opportunities to make the All-Star game and all the other festivities. I was nominated this year and even though I was hurt, I look later down the road two or three year from now when I will be one of those All-Stars.”
I agree Carter Jr. is special, the league agrees Carter Jr. is special, and Carter Jr. agrees Carter Jr. is special … so why don’t the Bulls? Or rather, do the Bulls?
I’m not sure we know yet how new front office leaders Arturas Karnisovas and Marc Eversley view the soon to be third-year player, so let’s rephrase the question: Why haven’t the Bulls used Carter Jr. like a cornerstone piece?
Of course, an easy answer is his injury trouble. Carter Jr. missed the remaining 38 games of the 2018-19 season due to a thumb injury, and he proceeded to miss 22-straight games this season with a bummed-up ankle. Another easy answer is that he’s in a starting lineup with several other similarly drafted pieces. A hierarchy of some kind needs to fall into place, and I guess Carter Jr. is simply closer to bottom.
However, when you consider how poorly this team has played and the fact that he was a double-double machine at the beginning of this season (8 in his first 13 games … overall, 17 in his first 36), it feels like the Bulls should try to call Carter Jr.’s name a bit more.
In his first season with the team, Carter Jr.’s usage rating could be found in the 66th percentile of the NBA, per Cleaning the Glass. Not great, but he was a rookie. Then, this season Carter Jr.’s usage rating dropped to the 44th percentile. In other words, the Bulls offense used Carter Jr. even less.
We can now say we’ve seen his usage rating decrease each year since his college days, though that isn’t necessarily surprising considering most players will see a dip in this category upon joining the pros. After all, players often go from being “the guy” to just “one of the guys.” But Carter Jr.’s usage rating has seen a relatively bigger decrease than most of his fellow lottery picks, especially those who found themselves in a similar starting role this season.
Check it out:
• DeAndre Ayton: 26.6% in college vs. 24.3% in 2019-20 (-2.3)
• Marvin Bagley III: 26.3% in college vs. 25.9% in 2019-20 (-.4)
• Jaren Jackson Jr.: 23.5% in college vs. 23.9% in 2019-20 (+.4)
• Trae Young: 37.1% in college vs. 34.9% in 2019-20 (-2.2)
• Mo Bamba: 21.3% in college vs. 17.2% in 2019-20 (-4.1)
• Wendell Carter Jr.: 22.8% in college vs. 16.8% in 2019-20 (-6.0)
• Collin Sexton: 32.9% in college vs. 27.2% in 2019-20 -(5.7)
• Kevin Knox: 24.6% in college vs. 17.8% in 2019-20 (-6.8)
• Mikal Bridges: 23.2% in college vs. 12.4% in 2019-20 (-10.8)
• Shai Gilgeous-Alexander: 21.9% in college vs. 23.7% in 2019-20 (+1.8)
Carter Jr. has seen the third-largest decrease in his college usage versus his recent NBA usage, and the two players he’s in front are basically considered non-starters and non-impact players on their current teams. Yeah, that’s rough.
Now, I should stress there are a lot of factors that go into a player’s usage rating, and the stat itself isn’t as simple as “high is good and low is bad.” For example, I’d never want Carter Jr. to lead the Bulls in usage rating; I probably wouldn’t even want him in the top 3. Players with the highest usage rating are the offensive focal points; for the Bulls, that means Zach LaVine, Lauri Markkanen, and (now) Coby White. Naturally, this calculation just favors “scorers.”
The point I’m stressing here is just how much of an afterthought Carter Jr. has become to the Bulls on the offensive end. Most of the people in his draft class have carried a similar offensive load on their respective NBA team as they did in college, Carter Jr. can’t really say the same.
I mean, it’s not like this guy didn’t come into the league with zero offensive upside either. He was one of only four players in the NCAA that season to shoot at least 56.1 percent from the field and 41.3 percent from downtown. And while he may be considered a bit undersized at six-foot-nine, he ranked in the 94th percentile in putbacks during his one season at Duke.
Also, he’s shown he can “get his” multiple times already in the NBA. Just earlier this year, he scored 20 on the New York Knicks and Mitchell Robinson, as well as 18 points on the Utah Jazz and Rudy Gobert. But we’re not just talking about scoring the basketball. Trust me, I’ll always think this team needs to encourage Carter Jr. to shoot the ball more (don’t get me started on how many open jumpers he passed up this season), but the big man also averaged 2.0 assists in college. Last season with the Bulls he came close to that mark with 1.8 assists per game, but it dropped down to 1.2 this season.
Simply put, Carter Jr. doesn’t get the ball enough on the offensive end of the court. He reportedly brought it up earlier this season to Boylen, and I’m sure he’ll bring it up to Karnisovas and Eversley this offseason. Chances are, this is exactly why he wants to clock more minutes at power forward, and I certainly wouldn’t be against seeing this happen in some alternative lineups.
At the end of the day, usage rating isn’t the most important stat and you shouldn’t put too much weight on it, but it gives us an idea of how often a player (mostly relative to himself in the past and teammates) is used to create offense. In my opinion, it helps show that Carter Jr. isn’t used enough, and I really hope that changes.