Coming into the start of last season, there were still questions as to what exactly Wendell Carter could be for this rebuilding Orlando Magic squad.
He came over from the Chicago Bulls last year in the Nikola Vucevic trade along with Otto Porter Jr. and two future first-round draft picks.
Otto Porter Jr. only ended up playing three games for the Orlando Magic before he left for the Golden State Warriors in free agency, leaving Wendell Carter as the only active player from the trade (outside of the number eight overall pick who would become Franz Wagner).
That is a lot of pressure left for Carter to replace an All-Star. To that point, Carter had largely been a disappointment, unable to grow his jack-of-all-trades offense into anything consistent. Injuries kept him from letting his defense flourish and the carousel of coaches through Chicago further destabilized him.
Carter needed a fresh start. And while Orlando would have its own bit of instability as the team shifted from playoff fringe team to a rebuilding one. This would give Carter the opportunity find himself again.
He did more than find himself though. Carter made himself indispensable to the team, acting as a fulcrum on offense and a backstop on defense. By the midpoint of the season, it was clear Carter was a whole lot more than what the Magic originally thought.
He shined with the expanded opportunities and became a core piece of the Magic’s budding rebuild.
In 2022, Wendell Carter came into the year with a lot of questions and came away with resounding answers to each one of them as he posted a career year.
For the season, Carter put up career-highs across the board averaging 15.0 points per game, 10.5 boards a game, and 2.8 assists per game. He saw an uptick in minutes at 29.9 and shot 11 times per game (both also career-highs).
Carter also shined in the advanced analytics department. He had a team-leading 18.4 PER (which would put him ahead of Vucevic who posted a 17.9 PER for the Bulls), and set another career high with a 60-percent true shooting mark.
The analytics highlighted his rebounding as well last year as he led the team in defensive rebounding percentage at 29.3-percent and total rebounding percentage at 18.7-percent.
Carter was able to show his full offensive arsenal too. He was highly effective in the pick and roll and built chemistry with the playmakers for the Magic. Using his smarts, Carter was able to slice through the defense for easy buckets in the paint to help out the younger guards.
He also was elite from the midrange this year, shooting better than 50-percent from 10-19 feet. And he was a good enough 3-point shooter to freeze defenses with a pump fake to create driving lanes to the basket.
The stats clearly show he took a step forward offensively. It is especially impressive when you take into consideration that he was trying to find his rhythm at the center position half of the time.
It was quite a stunning turnaround even from where he was to close last season with the Magic.
Carter averaged 11.7 points per game, while also grabbing 9 boards per game in 22 games for the Magic in 2021. That was about the same as what he averaged in his time with the Bulls. So the expectations for this season were not exactly high.
There was never any certainty he could make it all work or that the starting spot would be his. The team was invested enough in Mo Bamba and certainly getting more minutes under a new coach.
Carter never blinked when he moved to power forward to play alongside Bamba. And that versatility is also what makes him so intriguing.
The biggest question the Magic needed Carter to answer was whether he could play both the power forward and center positions. In today’s NBA, if you are not versatile then you can quickly find yourself fazed out.
In Chicago, the Bulls had a young, clogged front court and asked Carter to play like a traditional big man which is not his game. This past year with the Magic, he was allowed to play more to his strengths.
He was able to adjust and complement Bamba. He plays well off the ball and can even put the ball on the floor against bigger defenders. Getting to the basket though face-ups helped him take advantage of slower centers and increase his scoring output.
Defensively, he was able to hold his own against centers that were bigger. Carter consistently stayed out of foul trouble and only committed 2.7 fouls per game which ties for the lowest in his career.
And certainly his aforementioned rebounding numbers did not seem to be affected by playing the five more often.
Carter became about as consistent as anything the Magic had.
They were better with him on the floor. Orlando had a team-best -3.7 net rating with Carter on the floor, including a 108.8 defensive rating. The Magic were -12.3 net rating and a 113.5 defensive rating with Carter off the floor.
He never blinked too as he dealt with various injuries throughout the season.
After going down with what looked like a season ending leg injury against the Miami Heat on December 17, something changed. He suffered a lower right leg contusion and surprisingly returned just six days later on Dec. 23 against the New Orleans Pelicans.
After the injury, it looked like something clicked. In the first 30 games of the season before the injury, Carter averaged 12.6 points per game, 9.9 rebounds per game and 2.5 assists per game.
In the next 31 games after the injury, he averaged 17.3 points per game, 10.9 rebounds per game and 2.9 assists per game.
One of the other main concerns coming into the season for Carter was durability. Prior to this season, he had never played more than 54 games in a season and had only played a total of 87 games in his first two seasons.
The injury concerns were not exactly wiped away completely as he was only able to play in 62 games this year. But it was still an improvement on the previous year and considering that an injury is what turned his season around, then there isn’t a concern that he is timid or can’t play hurt.
In the future though, he will have to get up to at least the 70 game mark for a bigger deal.
So what concerns are left for Wendell Carter Jr.? Is it just questions about his durability?
Not exactly. For starters, he will need to show everybody that last year was not a fluke and that he will be able to continue to improve with this young core. As the team grows, he must also show that he can play winning basketball along with every player in Orlando.
He will again be in a spot where his role will not be so clearly defined entering the season. The magic’s front court is crowded and Carter may have to play center without the shot-blocking support from Bamba next season.
Entering the 2023 season, Jonathan Isaac will be returning for the first time since the 2020 bubble. That will be an adjustment for the entire team but specifically for the bigs on the team. Depending on if Bamba comes back next year, there could be three players competing for time.
But Carter is in a much better standing with the organization than he was at the beginning of last year so he will be afforded more leeway. He may well be the core player the team is trying to build around and support. That is a position he has never been in before.
And if he can improve on last year’s performance, then that could vault him into becoming on of the cornerstones of the Magic — if he is not already there.
FInal Grade: A
A midseason injury acted as a wake up call for Carter. He had career highs in numerous categories en route to what was a career year for the forward.
His versatility was his calling card and he tapped into his potential as the season went on. Being able to show that he could play with the young core the Magic are building is his most promising sign going forward.
He is also already signed a four-year extension with the Magic. That deal looks to be a bargain if his production continues to improve.
Carter looks to build off of his successful 2022 campaign and should be able to fit in with whoever the Magic decide to draft.
He was the best, and most consistent player for the Magic last year, and could be the steal of the Vucevic trade.