With the FIBA World Cup's conclusion, Magic fans had an excellent opportunity to see their players represent their countries: Paolo Banchero for the USA, Goga Bitadze for Georgia, Joe Ingles for Australia and, of course, the world champions Franz and Moe Wagner for Germany. Many are likely disappointed by a premature exit from the USA, and the Olympics are peeking around the corner. The Americans struggled with size, and the Magic have another player on their roster capable of filling this hole. His name: Wendell Carter Jr.
Carter has successfully succeeded Nikola Vucevic as the starting center for the Orlando Magic for a few reasons. Chief among them is his ability to be a jack of all trades. Need a traditional center who can set up a nice pick and roll and alter shots at the rim? You’ve got him. What about a big who can pass out of the post and dish it off to a cutter streaking towards the basket? He’s your guy. And how many centers can you ask to knock down the long ball? Not many, but Carter is one of them. Best of all, he’s proven to be an unselfish player who wouldn’t get in the way of USA’s biggest stars who could join a 2024 Paris Olympics roster.
Since at least the 2019 FIBA World Cup, USA Basketball has lacked many truly versatile bigs to man the middle and keep up with the bruising competition.
The 2019 World Cup team finished a dreadful seventh place, only qualifying for the Olympics because they were one of the top-two teams from the Americas. Their big man rotation featured Brook Lopez, Myles Turner and Mason Plumlee. Pause, y’all. This was the best America could do? I know Lopez was coming off a career renaissance season in Milwaukee and Turner is a premier shot blocker, but Plumlee? You can make an argument to say Carter isn’t better than Lopez and Turner if you want, I’m not going to fight you (not that I’d fight you anyway... I’d lose). But there’s no way you can say he isn’t at least their equal.
The 2020 Olympic team won the gold medal because we’re ‘Murica! Of course we did! American exceptionalism rocks! This team featured just two centers, Bam Adebayo (cool!) and Javale McGee (huh?). The general consensus is Adebayo is probably better than Carter, and that’s ok, even if he plays for the team down south. However… no disrespect to three-time champion McGee, but in what world did it ever make sense to include him on the Olympic team?
This current iteration of Team USA features three traditional bigs: Jaren Jackson Jr. who only managed to grab one rebound across six quarters in one stretch of play; Bobby Portis who comes off the bench for Milwaukee; and Rookie of the Year runner up Walker Kessler who is being underutilized. Coach Steve Kerr has also been using Orlando’s very own Paolo Banchero as a center to mixed results (but he did average more boards per game than Jackson). Clearly the American talent at the center position is lacking.
From these most recent examples, it’s clear at the very least Carter would make an excellent addition. His main competition for a spot next year is likely the aforementioned Turner, Adebayo, Jackson and Kessler, and Cavs big men Jarrett Allen and Evan Mobley. All this is fine and dandy. With the notable absences of the NBA’s biggest American stars from competition, I’ve chosen to exclude Anthony Davis from this conversation (there’s a solid chance he’ll be hurt if we’re being honest). So how does Orlando’s center matchup with international bigs other countries might throw out? Glad you asked.
Joel Embiid: The story behind which team Embiid represents internationally will be an interesting one. He’s unlikely to play for his native Cameroon because their basketball team has never made it to the Olympics before, and he also holds citizenship in France and the US. Playing alongside Victor Wembanyama, Rudy Gobert and FIBA Fournier is intriguing. Would he be welcome though? In the past French players such as the Hall of Fame guard Tony Parker and the aforementioned Fournier have expressed displeasure at the notion of Embiid playing for France, a place he's only a naturalized citizen of. Tones have changed in recent years, but we'll see how it all pans out. Embiid’s American citizenship could allow him to suit up for the US if he wants. In our scenario though, he joins France and is a potential WCJ opponent.
Nikola Jokic: The greatest player on the planet? If you ask the Finals MVP trophy, it’ll say he’s the most forgetful. Jokic sat out for FIBA this year but is expected to represent his native Serbia in the Olympics. The Serbians always have a good team, and with Jokic in tow, shape up to be a legitimate gold medal threat. The Joker has repeatedly got the better of Orlando in recent history, but Carter has held his own. In order to get rid of the guys who had minimal minutes matched up with The Joker, I took players who had played at least two games against Jokic and matched up with him at some point. Carter had about 54 minutes guarding Jokic, the second most minutes of any player who fit the criteria (behind only Kelly Olynyk) and held him to 50% shooting from the field, good for 13% below his season average. Incredibly, Carter never sent Jokic to the line either. As we’ve seen though, the international game is quite different from the NBA one, so there’s a chance Jokic continues to demonstrate why he’s the best player on earth.
Victor Wembanyama: There isn’t much to go off of. He dominated France’s second tier league last year and had a mixed Summer League showing (one fan I met at Summer League described Wemby’s debut looking like “a giraffe on ice skates.” His second game was much better). I expect him to be a star right out of the gate, but you never know. And as for Rudy Gobert, his defensive presence is enough to stifle any defender, but Carter’s ability to stretch the floor could cause problems. Aside from being a pick and roll threat as the roll man, Gobert is a bit limited offensively, so the defensive side should be no problem.
One underrated team which is now likely coming to the forefront is Lithuania with Jonas Valanciunas and the possibility of Domantas Sabonis joining him, who played for the country at the 2016 Olympics and 2019 FIBA World Cup. The Lithuanian team was able to get Jackson into foul trouble and use their bigs to punish smaller, less effective defenders down low en route to a 110-104 victory. The same also applies to the newly crowned champion German team with bigs like Daniel Theis, Johannes Voigtmann, Johannes Thiemann and of course Orlando’s very own Moe Wagner. Carter has consistently been one of the NBA’s best rebounders in his career, and his beefy 6-foot-10 270-pound frame should hold up well against the foreign giants. Additionally, Carter should have Banchero who just played and Orlando Magic head coach/USA Select Team head coach Jamahl Mosley in his corner to make a case for his inclusion on the roster.
LeBron James is reportedly recruiting American stars to commit to a 2024 Paris run to protect America's hold on the basketball gold medal. Wendell Carter Jr. may not be the starry, flashy name fans are looking for, but I’d have him on the phone right now trying to convince him to suit up in the red, white and blue. His versatility as a defender, screener, roll threat, three-point shooter and passer is unmatched amongst other American centers. He’s exactly what the USA needs if they want to capture another Olympic gold medal.
Follow David Bernauer on Twitter