2022 Orlando Magic Time To Step Up: Wendell Carter passing as the mini-Jokic

Wendell Carter is a fantastic all-around player who could become an even better player with improved passing. (Photo by Steph Chambers/Getty Images)
Wendell Carter is a fantastic all-around player who could become an even better player with improved passing. (Photo by Steph Chambers/Getty Images) /

There was very little excitement when the Orlando Magic acquired Wendell Carter in the trade for Nikola Vucevic. He was a reclamation project — a player who seemingly lived up to his jack-of-all-trades, master-of-none label from the Draft who got buried with inconsistent coaching and changing roles.

Carter was seen as a solid player. But ultimately a player who needed a fresh start. The Magic had no clue what kind of player they were getting. It was not even particularly clear who or what he could be beyond a solid defender during his short run after the trade.

During the course of his 2022 season, Carter began completely changing the narrative. He was an excellent screener. His scoring increased as the Magic empowered him to make more decisions and be a key part of the offense. He added a nominal 3-point shot, one he can still greatly improve on.

Suddenly, Carter is a player that is key to a lot of the things the Magic do.

It is not merely that he is coming off a career season and was a base of consistency on both ends of the floor, it is that he became a major fulcrum in the Magic’s read-based offense. Carter was a player the Magic trusted to make good decisions everywhere on the floor.

The Orlando Magic have a strong group of young players and Wendell Carter may be the steadiest of them all. Adding passing could take him up a completely different level.

Nobody should expect Carter to wrack up triple-doubles. But if the Magic are planning to run a similar offense, beyond his screening, Carter needs to improve his passing and playmaking to unlock the next part of his game.

Last year, was a big step in that process.

Carter averaged 15.0 points per game, 10.5 rebounds per game and 2.8 assists per game. All were career highs for the young big man. After the All-Star Break, he averaged 19.6 points per game, 11.6 rebounds and 2.9 assists per game in 11 appearances.

It certainly felt like Carter had taken a major leap as the season came to a close.

Orlando is working to build a versatile and diverse roster that seemingly drops traditional offensive roles on its head. Carter is a part of that. While Carter is a capable post player and does all the traditional center roles, it seems like the biggest area for him to grow is with his passing.

Nikola Jokic after all has won MVP in back-to-back seasons as a do-everything center, running the offense from the high post (and really everywhere) as much as he posts up and rebounds.

Carter does not have to be that. In all likelihood, he is not that. But the Magic last year used him in sets that leveraged many of those same skills.

He worked from the high post a lot on dribble handoffs and as a passer down to the lane. He could freeze bigger defenders with a pump fake with his improved 3-point shot and drive past them.

His passing was something that was extremely valuable. His 2.8 assists per game last year ranked 12th among centers, tied with Kelly Olynyk, Jusuf Nurkic and Jakob Poeltl.

There are plenty of signs Carter can increase his passing output. Especially as a center.

According to data from Basketball-Index, the Magic scored 8.15 points per 75 possessions off Carter assists, placing Carter in the 65th percentile. Compared to players in a similar role, Carter ranked in the 73rd percentile. In other words, Carter was an above-average passer for a player in his role.

Carter also created a fair share of high-value assists — assists leading to 3-pointers, free throws and rim points — with 2.76 high-value assists per 75 possessions, placing him in the 63rd percentile.

Overall, Basketball-Index rates Carter’s overall playmaking talent in the 65th percentile in the league.

All this passing is simply above average. But because he is a solid screener, post player and scorer already, he already has a ton of attention on him. According to data from Basketball-Index, Carter’s gravity score is in the 84th percentile in the league.

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Teams put their attention on Carter and do not leave him no matter where he is on the floor. That will inevitably open up passing lanes and enable him to get others open. He showed plenty of hints last year of making fantastic passes to get players open and keep the offense moving.

This is an area where Carter can clearly take some steps forward. Carter last year averaged only 5.1 potential assists per game, an oddly low number.

The other parts of his game — including his rebounding — are already pretty strong. Adding more consistent playmaking elements to his game will grease the wheels of this team’s offense and help get it moving.

Carter was heavily involved in the Magic’s offense last year.

According to data from Second Spectrum, he led the Magic in front-court touches with 36.5 per game. He had 4.7 touches per game at the elbow. Carter had just 0.4 assists per game off his elbow touches. He had a 16.0-percent assist rate at the elbow.

Compare that to Nikola Jokic who had 8.0 elbow touches per game and a 21.5-percent assist rate off those elbow touches. Joel Embiid had 4.8 elbow touches per game with a 21.4-percent assist rate.

Carter may not get the leap to that MVP level of his contemporaries like Embiid and Jokic. Nobody should expect that.

But there is still another level he can get to with his playmaking. The other parts of his game are already pretty strong.

He still got plenty of paint touches, but the Magic used him a lot as a pivot for dribble handoffs and screen and rolls.

As the roll man in pick and rolls, the Magic scored 1.06 points per possession with Carter involved. That was only in the 44th percentile in the league. Carter averaged 3.7 screen assists per game and 8.3 screen assist points per game.

It all adds up to a player who is very good at a lot of things and helps the Magic’s offense go — Orlando had a 105.1 offensive rating with Carter on the floor compared to a 101.2 offensive rating when he was off the floor.

Finding areas for Carter to improve is not that hard to do. He has to match last year’s breakout season and generally improve everywhere. That is the task for any 23-year-old. And the Magic are expecting sizable leaps throughout his game.

If he can greatly expand his passing ability though, Carter could well launch himself into an All-Star-capable player.

Like so many players on the Magic, the team is likely to use this season to experiment and try a bunch of different things to figure out how players fit together and what kind of team they want to evolve into. They have already clearly put an emphasis on versatility and trying to let players explore unconventional skills.

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Carter has that passing spark in him. He is not the natural passer or playmaker as the other MVP centers in the league are. But the Magic certainly could use him in similar sets. They largely have. And Carter becoming a better passer, where he is already above average, would take his game to a completely new level.