Chicago Bulls: Management likes Lauri, what about Wendell?

Wendell Carter Jr., Chicago Bulls (Photo by Steven Ryan/Getty Images)
Wendell Carter Jr., Chicago Bulls (Photo by Steven Ryan/Getty Images) /

Chicago Bulls VP Arturas Karnisovas recently spoke highly of one of the starting bigs. Meanwhile, the other has been speaking up for himself.

Most people would have bet on the 2020 Chicago Bulls would likely look a lot like the 2019 version long ago. The only contracts that could potentially come off the books are Kris Dunn, Denzel Valentine, and Shaquille Harrison; all restricted free agents. Otto Porter has a player option but there is absolutely no way he was ever turning down more than $28 million.

None of the RFAs will be highly sought after so qualifying offers should keep them in Chicago. Dunn did garner interest from the Los Angeles Clippers before the trade deadline, though.

That hasn’t stopped speculation about potential moves with the new regime coming in. Much of that has been about the Bulls frontcourt; namely Lauri Markkanen and Wendell Carter; two foundational pieces from the rebuild started in 2017.

Carter was in the news back in late-March. He reiterated his desire to play more power forward saying, “I mean, I’ve been playing the four all of my life. . . . It’s definitely a conversation I’m going to bring up, for sure, but as of right now, I’m just trying to make it work with where I’m at.’’, per Joe Cowley of the Chicago Sun-Times.

Markkanen’s issues began coming to the surface back in February. Appearing on 670 The Score in Chicago, Cowley let it be known Markkanen “doesn’t want to stay here, doesn’t want to play here, doesn’t want to play with this structure that he has right now.”

Well, the Bulls cleaned house and new vice president of basketball operations Arturas Karnisovas vowed to have a bounceback plan for Markannen. New general manager Marc Eversley said he wanted to learn more about why the power forward regressed. If he wants a more versatile role, is Chicago the place to give him one?

First, his desire isn’t unfounded. While he is about as traditional of a big as you might find today, Carter did display his many skills. He shot over 41 percent from deep and 73 percent from the stripe while grabbing 9.1 boards and two blocks per game. He did this, mind you, while playing in the shadow of fellow big Marvin Bagley.

Always a jack of all trades, master of none, has been the most consistent of the Bulls core. But he hasn’t displayed the versatility or even the rim protection that he did in college.

Since entering the NBA in 2018, Carter has shot 19.7 percent from three-point range and blocked 1.1 shots per game. His rebounding numbers have been closer; he’s grabbing 8.2 boards per contest. Over the past two years, Carter is 15th in points per game and 13th in rebounds per game.

Statistically, he’s been mediocre. With on-off splits that suggest he only slightly improves the teams rebounding with his presence (he does raise the assist percentage by a point), the biggest question facing the Bulls could be what to do with Carter. His numbers when paired with Markkanen are also less than stellar.

In two (injury-marred) seasons as teammates, Markkanen and Carter have been outscored by an average of more than seven points. Now, that number is skewed by the 2018-19 season when the got torched by more than 14 points per game as a duo. Now, their 1.3 point deficit isn’t great, but it is much better and comes from a larger sample size.

The only consistent positive has been they get a fair amount of steals. So yeah, there’s that. All of this leads to the logical question of what will happen with Carter? Markkanen’s contract will be up in a year and the Bulls sound like they want to give him every chance to succeed. But does Carter get a similar shot?

He has publicly lamented being put in a box and played out of position. The problem is that Carter’s ideal conflicts with the player that might have the highest ceiling on the roster. Even if the new regime allows Carter to expand his game, while remaining at center, is his offensive game worth the lack of rim protection?

Using Basketball Reference’s Per 36 stats, just to make things even, Wendell checks in at a lowly 33rd in blocks per game. That’s out of 39 qualifiers. And he will always be undersized with limited athleticism.

Again, Carter has been arguably the most consistent player on the Bulls. And, full disclosure, he was in the top-15 last season in per 36 blocks per game. So maybe adding a little range to his offensive bag (and a wholly revamped defensive scheme) will make all the difference. But the alternative is becoming more and more feasible by the day.

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The roster will be largely the same in 2020-21 as it was in 2019-20. But with Daniel Gafford averaging 3.3 blocks per game per 36 as a rookie, Carter could find himself in a different uniform sooner rather than later.