Woes Without Wendell
By: Fawzan Amer
Being an NBA player presents a roller coaster of emotions. Wendell Carter Jr can attest to this; a few years prior, celebrating the joyous moment of being a lottery pick selected by one of the most storied franchises in the NBA. When the Chicago Bulls selected Carter Jr with the seventh overall pick, they were banking on the idea of a core surrounding him and Lauri Markkanen manning the frontcourt. Many teams’ hopes and balances hang on these top draft picks, developing into superstars. More often than not, they have to lead their respective teams out of the gutter at young ages. With the pressure of the fanbase and with front-office careers at stake, it can be a daunting task.
Wendell Carter Jr walked into a potentially difficult situation as there were a lot of competing agendas in Chicago. He portrayed flashes in Chicago with his rim protection and physical abilities on the low block. The Bulls mainly used him as a screener in the pick-and-roll and on dribble handoffs to create leverage actions for Zach Lavine and other primary ball handlers. He had an unglamorous role followed by a pedestrian stat line, ending his stint in Chicago averaging 10.8 points, 8.1 rebounds, and 1.7 assists in 119 games wearing red and white. It ended an up-and-down tenure for Carter in Chicago, miraged by injuries in his three seasons. Although his inability to remain on the floor hindered his development, Carter fell victim to continuous fragmented schemes transcending in each of his three seasons as he had gone through a new head coach in each of his seasons in Chicago. Fred Hoiberg, Jim Boylen, and Billy Donovan all had various ideas on how to utilize Carter; his lack of stability played a vital role in his stint in Chicago coming to a halt.
On March 25, 2021, the Orlando Magic found themselves falling into the deep end of a pool of quicksand, drowning in an endless cycle of mediocrity , once again second-to-last in the division, sitting idly with a record of 15-29. President of Basketball Operations Jeff Weltman elected to detonate the lineup and send Orlando’s coveted players elsewhere in exchange for young assets in hopes of a reset to a roster that failed to make it out of the first round since 2009-10, making the playoffs only twice in the last decade.
Ninety-nine games into his new stint, and it has been a complete 180 for Carter Jr. The new atmosphere allowed a breath of fresh air followed by a much-needed reset for both him and his new team, as it hasn't taken long for him to become acclimated to finding Magic in Orlando.
He possesses three major skills that have become a staple for big men in the current era; he can screen, roll and defend alongside the best of them. As the screener, he almost always gets a body on perimeter defenders, whether they are on the ball, chasing an off-ball mover, or forcing opposing defenders to reroute themselves. These nuances that are not conveyed on the box score but create micro advantages to attack defensive schemes... Turning two-on-two plays into two-on-ones or forcing switches allows daylight for playmakers to attack mismatches. Wendell's screening prowess has been showcased at an elite mark this season and played imperative to the Magic’s five wins alongside him. In his 15 games played this season, he’s averaged 11.7 screen assists points per game (4th most) and ranks 2nd most in screens assisted, tacking on 5.4 of them per game.
Setting good screens and reading the defenders' reactions are important offensive fundamentals, but it has also allowed Wendell Carter Jr’s second ability to come into fruition.. his ability to roll. After landing screens, he does a phenomenal job of getting downhill quickly while still positioning himself for easy passing angles, and he absolutely abuses mismatches by using quick post pins where he can create an advantage demonstrating his physicality. His interior finishing has surpassed anything conveyed in Chicago, and he’s been efficient, almost always going up with power; his touch and versatility add to his inside presence around the rim.
Carter Jr’s efficiency as a roller and potential to create for himself make him an intriguing player the Magic have revolted around. In 62 games in the 21-22 season, he averaged 3.6 points per game as the roll man on a 50.3% field goal clip. The Magic also spammed him in those roll actions as frequently as possible. Only eleven other players in the NBA had more possessions per game (3.4 POSS), where they accounted for the responsibility of the roll man on screens. Carter Jr connected on a 49.5% scoring frequency of his 3.4 POSS per game, portraying that soft touch around the glass.
Wendell’s ball-handling skills for someone of his size have aided him in adding a short roll to his arsenal where he can put the ball down and attack opposing defenders as a slasher, wearing them out inside. He has developed strong footwork and great use of spins which have helped carve out angles to go to when rim protectors stand in his path to the bucket. His quick decision-making in these spots allows him to punish extra help defenders who sink blitz him on the interior. He excels at finding cutters on backdoor passes constantly. His vision on the court is constantly on display, whether he's connecting with teammates on dump-offs, laydowns, pin downs, bounce passes, or shovel passes, creating easier lanes for his teammates to score go-ahead baskets at the rim.
Wendell Carter Jr ranked fourteenth amongst all centers with 7.0 assisted points created in 2021-22. His 45.5 passes throughout the 62 games he appeared in ranked the seventh most among big men. He was joined by Jonas Valucianas as the only center to never make an all-star game appearance ranked that high.
Orlando made it clear they wanted to unlock his passing skill set as much as possible, creating a movement-heavy offense centered around their talented big man. This Wendell Carter Jr centric offense allowed him to create the middle of the floor revolving actions around him. On the season, most of the Magic's offensive scheme generated from Carter Jr’s hands as he received the 11th most passes (35.9), allowing him to average 2.8 assists per game, tying him for eight most for centers in 2022. These constant jarring actions allowed Wendell to have a 17.0 AST Ratio per 36 minutes in 15 games of action this season despite not posing much of a threat as an outside shooter
Those emotions that NBA players face are only amplified when you’re a big man in this modern era, attempting to survive on islands against challenging matchups and dealing with quick, athletic, and faster guards in a half-court setting. Wendell Carter Jr has not only accepted his role as the flagship offensively but remains the ultimate anchor defensively. He presents minimal issues with his minutes fluctuating from series to series, wearing him down on both ends of the floor, posting a 20.8 USG% in his fifteen games this season and 20.6 in 62 games the season prior.
His offensive talent is well complemented by his tireless efforts on defense, as Carter’s interior presence is a large contributor to Orlando’s success and lack thereof when he's not available. One of the most impressive aspects of Wendell's defensive prowess is his ability to switch on to and contain elite players using the “cushion slide.” This defensive technique is when you move backward and laterally simultaneously in an attempt to maintain a cushion on the attacker, sacrificing pressure via blitz packages for containment. Carter Jr prevents blow-byes, staying in front to contest pull-ups and challenge at the rim. His height and wingspan added to his defensive assonance at the rim, swatting away 0.7 blocks per game last season.
There are a lot of teams that rely on rim protection on defense in order to get their offense rolling. It's viewed as a backbone of the modern NBA, with offenses spamming pick-and-rolls. Last year Wendell was at the forefront of rim protection, grading in at the top 90 percentiles in Rim dFG, Adj Rim Points, and a +1.23 in rim protection (92 percentile). Drop bigs are correlated to greater rim deterrence generally, and roaming/helper bigs are typically a bit better at lowering the eFG%, but Wendell Carter Jr has provided both at an elite clip.
The Magic have faced continuous trials and tribulations without Wendell Carter Jr, as he has now missed the past eleven consecutive contests. Throughout that extended duration due to a foot injury, Orlando has won two gut-wrenching games going 2-9 in the process. Carter’s presence has been felt immensely throughout this ongoing duration. Without him, Orlando, who likes to run “five out’’ on the perimeter to space the floor and make heavy use of pick and rolls in attempts to generate offense, has looked out of sync. Wendell Carter is still the ONLY player who has a positive plus-minus (+5) in his 493 minutes this season. Orlando is (-122) when he is off the court. The gap between Wendell and his backups defensively is amongst the widest in the entire NBA. The Magic have been gasping for air nightly without him defensively, with a 26th-ranked defensive rating (117.2). For perspective, with Carter Jr on the floor this season, the Magic posses a remarkable 107.3 defensive rating, which would rank third best behind only Milwaukee and Cleveland.
To add salt to Orlando's ailing wounds, despite displaying one of the tallest rosters in the league, they are 23rd in blocks (3.9 per game) and more noticeably have flatlined to 23rd in the league's defensive rebound rate (70.3%), portraying no deterrent inside presence without him. Prior to Carter Jr’s injury, he had them solely in ninth in the same category (73.0%)
The role big man Wendell Carter Jr plays for the Magic is similar to that of the Celtics, Kings, Nuggets, and Warriors. All those teams surround their big men facilitators with shooters in constant motion and cutting actions. Perimeter shooting from the frontcourt still comes at a premium, but this new center-centric approach to offense is proof in the pudding that it is no longer necessary to have frontcourt spacing as much as it’s vital to have a big man who can make quick decisions and find teammates making good cuts if the primary goal is to have a team executed an offensive game plan that prioritizes off-ball movement on the wings.
This is where the center position is heading; it’s much more advantageous to have a big who can facilitate the offense and have reliable skills offensively and defensively to keep things flowing on both ends of the floor. The Orlando Magic (8-20) are currently in a three-way tie for the 2nd fewest wins (8) in the NBA. On December 1st, a report surfaced that his foot injury is feeling better, and he hopes to return to the court in 1-to-2 weeks. No additional reports have been made since, as the Orlando Magic are missing their anchor, whose return from a foot injury remains in the air.
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