Wendell Carter’s future with the Orlando Magic lies at the 5 spot

Wendell Carter continued his inspired play in the Orlando Magic's loss to the Denver Nuggets. Mandatory Credit: Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports
Wendell Carter continued his inspired play in the Orlando Magic's loss to the Denver Nuggets. Mandatory Credit: Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports /

There was a debate heading into the season around what new coach Jamahl Mosley should do at the center spot.

Wendell Carter‘s arrival as part of the Nikola Vucevic trade at last season’s trade deadline saw former coach Steve Clifford opt for the former Chicago Bull at the 5, leaving Mo Bamba, albeit in an increased role than we had seen previously, to come off the bench.

Clifford’s tenure in Orlando saw him coach a team devoid of offensive talent into a postseason spot two years running, but it came at a cost. Developing younger players was not the priority, and Bamba did not get the time on the court he needed to improve.

Orlando was clearly making a turn toward developing young talent after blowing up the roster and parting ways with a veteran coach like Clifford.

Carter was a talented player too who needed a fresh start after constant coaching churn in Chicago and uncertainty about his role and his position. The Chicago Bulls were trying to figure out what to do with their young big man.

It seemed set for the Magic to use the season to figure out which center between Carter and Bamba would get the minutes at the 5 and a central place on the roster. Orlando’s decision to extend Carter’s contract — four years, $50 million — did not really change those thoughts or ideas.

The Magic were still unsure of exactly what they had in Bamba, so seeing him being given plenty of opportunity in a starting role this season has been both enjoyable and sensible. The team is finally getting a sense of what he might be able to do at his peak.

Moving Wendell Carter back to the starting center spot could give the Orlando Magic the best possible chance of a successful rebuild.

But a big decision at center still looms. A lack of available forwards to start the season meant using Carter at the 4-spot made sense, given it is his preferred position and that he had played it a lot prior to entering the NBA.

And both Carter and Bamba earned their playing time. If the Magic were aiming to play their five best players in the starting lineup, it made some sense to start both and they experienced limited success.

But the writing has long been on the wall that this is not a permanent solution for the Magic for the short or long term.

With Jonathan Isaac set to return at some point this season, Chuma Okeke playing better basketball of late and three of the top prospects in this year’s draft class — Paolo Banchero, Jabari Smith and Chet Holmgren — being big men, Orlando could well have plenty of depth at the position heading into next season.

Bamba’s future has never felt more uncertain with the team and Carter has played his way into a key role with the franchise moving forward. It seems the team has to be preparing to play Carter at center far more than they have to this point in the season.

Carter has had a solid season playing mostly at the 4.

He is averaging 12.1 points per game, 10.7 rebounds per game with a 55.9-percent effective field goal percentage even with increased 3-point volume. He has played 66-percent of his minutes at the 4 according to Basketball-Reference.

But with a skillset more suited to the 5 and the team’s other options, as well as potential options in the draft, offering more at the position, moving him to the center position now can help aid the team’s development.

Comparison with Bamba

Both Mo Bamba and Wendell Carter have had decent seasons up until now. But there are some notable statistics that set the two apart.

Bamba’s biggest asset is his ability to block shots. This season he ranks third in the NBA for shots blocked per game at 2.2 and has blocked 60 shots in the 27 games he has played. He also contests 10.6 shots per game, according to NBA.com, which ranks him 15th in the league.

The 23-year-old’s enormous 7-foot-10 wingspan acts as a significant disruptor to opposing offenses. He can cover a considerable area when outstretched and when he reads the game well — something he still needs to improve at — he can have a hugely positive impact on defense.

But there are some notable areas where Carter has the edge over his fellow 2018 first-round pick.

Carter is ahead of Bamba in his understanding of the game. It is still something that, like Bamba, he needs to get better at — especially in defending pick and roll situations — but he is better at predicting what his matchup is going to do and, as a result, gives away fewer cheap fouls.

Carter is a better rebounder than Bamba, as he has demonstrated in his last few games at center in Bamba’s absence due to being in the COVID-19 health and safety protocols.

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Carter has notched double-digit rebounds in each of his last three games — 10 against the Milwaukee Bucks, 14 against the Miami Heat and 12 against the New Orleans Pelicans. He is averaging 10.1 rebounds per game compared to Bamba’s 8.6 and plays more aggressively when it comes to gathering loose balls and appears to have better awareness when it comes to boxing out.

Carter is also a much more effective screener than Bamba.

According to NBA.com, Carter is averaging four screen assists per game this season compared with just 1.7 for Bamba. He sets harder screens which free up more space for his teammates and is more impactful in the pick and roll – something which needs to be utilized more.

Post-up plays are not a big feature of the Magic’s offense with both big men only doing so on an average of one possession per game. But Carter is making a more impressive 48.1 percent of those attempts compared with 45 percent for Bamba. Carter looks more confident in the post and is better at backing people down.

Finally, and perhaps most surprisingly, Carter has shown himself to be a better shooter than Bamba this year — making 34.1 percent of his threes on 4.8 attempts per game compared with 32.4 percent on four attempts for Bamba.

Carter’s shooting leap means he can space the floor effectively and must be respected from beyond the arc, which in turn creates more pump fake and drive opportunities which have resulted in some monster dunks this season.

It is important to note Bamba has shown plenty of promise at center this year and is demonstrating signs of improvement in some key areas.

Moving him out of the starting lineup would be an extremely difficult call to make but Carter’s effectiveness at the position and the return of Isaac means it might well become the most sensible option for Mosley.

Moving Carter to center

Wendell Carter might not want to return to the 5 on a more regular basis, given he had previously openly requested to change from playing center to power forward while with the Chicago Bulls, but it is where he plays his best basketball.

The 22-year-old has the skill set to play either position well but can help the team more by playing center. At the 4, Carter spends more of his time outside of the paint and at the perimeter meaning his talents as an interior defender are largely wasted.

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Moving him back to the starting center position but also having him play some power forward too makes a ton of sense. The team needs his aggressive rebounding and despite being slightly undersized for a center at 6-foot-9, he plays bigger than he is and can defend some of the biggest, toughest matchups like Joel Embiid and Nikola Jokic, as he has shown this season.

The front office was confident enough in what they had seen from Carter that they opted to hand him a four-year, $50-million extension despite him having played just half a season with the team. They did not do the same, however, for Bamba. His future remains unclear.

With Rookie of the Year contender Franz Wagner at the 3, an All-Defensive Team-caliber player in Jonathan Isaac returning, most likely to the 4 spot, Chuma Okeke playing much better recently and the possibility of landing another exciting forward in the draft, the Magic look set at the forward spots barring any more injury problems.

The team, then, must decide if Carter is to form a key part of the rotation at the 4, or if he is to revert back to playing the 5 more regularly.

If it is the latter, playing him at the 4 again when Bamba returns makes little sense in the long run. It would surely be better off to use him at what will become his regular position, even if that means a more reduced role for Bamba?

Carter has shown what he can do at the center spot since Bamba entered the health and safety protocols. He scored 19 points in the 127-110 loss to the Milwaukee Bucks, 17 in the 110-104 loss to the New Orleans Pelicans, and demonstrated his vast skill set at the position.

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The Magic still need more star quality, that much is obvious. But with talented wings and guards around him, Carter is the type of player who can act as the perfect big man to make it all make sense. He can screen, defend, score and, if needed, can still be effective in a more limited starting role.