2021 Orlando Magic Player Evaluations: Wendell Carter gets a fresh start

Wendell Carter arrived in Orlando and gave the team a huge defensive presence as he reclaimed his career. Mandatory Credit: David Richard-USA TODAY Sports
Wendell Carter arrived in Orlando and gave the team a huge defensive presence as he reclaimed his career. Mandatory Credit: David Richard-USA TODAY Sports /

A lot can happen in the midst of the four years of a rookie contract.

Players arrive with all the pomp and circumstance and excitement and hope that first-round picks — especially those in the top 10 — will deliver the team to a new era. They will become the base for a new era of basketball. Or at least big contributors to a team on the way up.

Patience with picks runs short. There is always a new crop of players coming in. Franchises can change quickly too. And expectations for a player and how they fit in the new group as they try to advance change too.

Sometimes a player needs a reset and that can completely refresh and change their trajectory and careers.

It is safe to say Wendell Carter hit a roadblock in his first three years with the Chicago Bulls.

Wendell Carter struggled to progress in his first seasons with the Chicago Bulls. His arrival with the Orlando Magic gave him a needed reset.

In his rookie season, he showed potential as a defender and even as a mid-range jump shooter. Injuries slowed him some but Carter had a strong rookie year.

But then he stagnated. He never meshed with coach Jim Boylen and a lot of his confidence was sapped as he struggled to find his place. His time with Billy Donovan did not change much.

Statistically, nothing much changed with his scoring — 10.3 points per game his rookie year to 11.3 points per game last season to 10.9 with the Bulls this year — or his rebounding — 7.0 to 9.4 to 7.8 with the Bulls.

The Bulls were fighting for the playoffs and just needed more. The story that Carter became hesitant to shoot because of poor coaching seemed to play out. Carter was not living up to expectations.

His arrival in Orlando as part of the Nikola Vucevic trade gave him a needed reset. The Orlando Magic were rebuilding and had plenty of time to let a young player like Carter grow. More than that, coach Steve Clifford seemed to empower Wendell Carter to play freely.

More than anything, Carter had something to prove. And he largely proved it.

Confidence and energy

With the Magic, Carter averaged 11.7 points and 8.8 rebounds per game. He shot 51.0-percent from the floor and at least showed a willingness to shoot from the outside. This was all a huge step up after his inconsistent run with the Bulls.

More than that, Carter displayed the intensity and versatility defensively the Magic have wanted out of a center. Orlando could clearly start doing a whole lot more defensively with Carter able to jump out on switches and protect the rim a bit better.

Opponents shot just 45.7-percent at the rim against Carter this season while he was with the Magic, according to data from Second Spectrum. He was one of two players to allow less than 50-percent at the rim (Michael Carter-Williams was the other).

Orlando played some of its most inspired defense of the season in the immediate aftermath of the trade and when the group was fully healthy had a lot more spunk and fight than anticipated.

Carter’s energy and embracing of this second chance was a big part of why. The idea of pairing Wendell Carter with Jonathan Isaac or Chuma Okeke and a full offseason for Steve Clifford to plan and dream up defensive schemes is part of why the Magic are so excited coming out of the season.

With a contract year ahead, the Magic should be eager to use Carter more fully next season with this time to plan. And Carter should be more motivated than ever to make his mark.

Areas for improvement

Wendell Carter took advantage of this refresh in a major way and played with more energy and confidence than he had in Chicago.

Still, the issues that plagued his time with the Bulls were all still there.

Carter is still an inconsistent jump shooter. He made only 35.4-percent of his catch-and-shoot jumpers with the Magic. The Magic were sort of forced to use him similarly to Nikola Vucevic just because of the lack of practice time. But they eventually want him to be a player who can hit from the perimeter, even if it is just mid-range jumpers.

Orlando Magic
Orlando Magic /

Orlando Magic

While Carter has good defensive sense and positioning to go along with his ability to challenge shots at the rim, he still can get pushed off his spot. His lack of size — he measured at  6-foot-10 with shoes at the NBA Draft Combine in 2018 — makes it harder for him to reposition himself after the initial challenge.

There were several occasions where he would make the initial challenge well only to get knocked off his spot and give up the rebound.

The biggest area where Carter has to improve is with his rebounding.

The Magic likely took Vucevic’s rebounding for granted. He was one of the best defensive rebounders in the league by defensive rebound rate.

Dropping from Vucevic’s near 30-percent defensive rebound rate to Carter’s 21.9-percent defensive rebound rate was a big reason why the Magic struggled to rebound so much after the trades — losing Aaron Gordon and his 17.3-percent defensive rebound rate and replacing it with Chuma Okeke’s 11.7-percent rate was another big reason for it.

Carter might be a better defender than Vucevic and might have a ton more defensive potential to turn the Magic into an elite defensive outfit, but he is still a bit unrefined in some key areas. And this is the biggest thing holding him back.

Whether Carter sticks as the Magic’s starting center beyond this year — or whether the team decides to draft Evan Mobley in the upcoming NBA Draft — likely comes down to Carter’s ability to become a better rebounder or for the Magic to rebound better with him on the court.

That will lead to the other specter hanging over him — his injury history. Carter’s lack of size and strength has at times led to him picking up little injuries that keep him out for extended periods of time. he has never missed significant enough time to be concerned, but he has missed little pockets here and there that knock his play back.

That occurred in his short stint with the Magic too. In his first 13 games with the Magic, he averaged 14.5 points and 8.8 rebounds per game while shooting 57.8-percent.

But after missing a game with a sprained ankle in late April, he averaged only 7.8 points and 8.7 rebounds per game with a 35.1-percent field goal percentage. Maybe some of this was the nature of the season — the Magic needed bodies with all their injuries and the rushed nature of the schedule gave the team zero time to relax and breathe.

This will be something to watch with Carter’s first full season with the Magic and could be something the team considers as they ponder his future.

. C. Orlando Magic. WENDELL CARTER. B+

All in all, though, Wendell Carter delivered in every way the Orlando Magic could have imagined.

He was clearly re-energized by the change of scenery and the new opportunity. He delivered defensively for a team that hopes to build a strong defensive reputation. The Magic are hoping that adding him to a full season of Chuma Okeke in his second year and Jonathan Isaac’s return can keep the Magic as one of the best defensive groups in the league.

At the very least, Carter’s defensive versatility will allow the Magic to be more expansive and aggressive with their defensive schemes.

But so many questions still remain about Carter and how he ultimately fits with this team and in the league. With just one more year left on his rookie contract, next season is a big one to determine the direction his career goes.

The ultimate conclusion might be that he is better coming off the bench. But he clearly still has starter potential.

If Carter can improve his rebounding and jump shooting, then he would be a strong foundation at the center spot moving forward.

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At least for this first audition with the team, Carter did well to reclaim his confidence and take advantage of the new scenery. That opens the door for new pathways in his career as his rookie contract expires.