Lingering injury may explain Orlando Magic starter's down season

Wendell Carter suffered an early season hand injury that forced him to miss 20 games this season and was the start of a career-worst season. It looks like it stayed with him as Carter is set for another surgery this offseason to repair it.
An early season injury for Wendell Carter followed him throughout the season. he will need a second surgery to repair his injured left hand.
An early season injury for Wendell Carter followed him throughout the season. he will need a second surgery to repair his injured left hand. / Rob Gray-USA TODAY Sports

In the final seconds of the Orlando Magic's early season game against the Utah Jazz, Wendell Carter skied for a critical rebound to help the Magic preserve a one-point lead in the final seconds of the game.

It was still early in the season. Nobody yet knew what kind of year the Magic were in store for.

They had just lost two games in Los Angeles to fall to 2-2, and the team was just hoping to survive and split this early season West Coast road trip. Paolo Banchero seemingly saved them from an embarrassing defeat and a late blown lead with his go-ahead basket.

The team would not have won that game without Carter's massive rebound.

But that came at a cost. Carter got the rebound and immediately came out of the game, clutching his left hand. He would miss the next 20 games, requiring surgery to stabilize the fracture to his third metacarpal in his left hand from that game.

Carter would eventually return but turned in his worst season since arriving in Orlando in the memorable 2021 trade involving Nikola Vucevic.

There might be a good reason for the frustration everyone felt about his season.

The Magic announced Saturday that Carter will undergo a second surgery to stabilize the third metacarpal in his left hand. The preventive procedure will include placing a plate at the fracture site. He will be re-evaluated in four weeks and is expected to make a full recovery before training camp in September for the 2025 season.

Wendell Carter was battling through an injury that hurt his confidence the entire season

That just shows how much Wendell Carter was fighting through this season. He spoke at exit interviews of the mental toll his injury took on him.

It might have been a minor injury that he was able to return from and then play through. But it still took a lot out of him this season.

"It affected me in a lot of ways," Carter said at the team's exit interviews last Monday. "Of course, physically. My hand hurting. But mentally being out of the rotation for a while, watching from the sidelines, us doing a fantastic job and then the pressure of coming back and picking up where Goga [Bitadze] and Moe [Wagner] had left off. It was tough."

Carter was out of the lineup during the team's breakthrough nine-game win streak in November. There were at least calls from fans on the outside frustrated with Carter's play to switch back to Bitadze at various points in the season.

The Magic always understood Carter's versatility on both ends and his ability to stretch the floor as a shooter was valuable to the team. Carter still showed hints of why the Magic are so invested in him throughout the season.

Still, the early season injury took more out of Carter than probably anybody realized. And it is clear now that it never went away.

"It got to the point I was doubting myself a little bit," Carter said at the team's exit interviews on Monday. "It was tough. I think a lot of people outside of the facility were able to help me and encourage me and keep me going. It got to a point where I felt like I wasn't good enough. On the flip side of that, the fact that I was able to come back from that and help our team get to the playoffs and do what we did in the playoffs. I was happy I was able to do that for this team."

Carter was able to bounce back in a significant way. He still made positive contributions to the team in its playoff push and was a consequential force for the team in reaching Game 7.

But undoubtedly too, Carter is happy to put the season behind him.

While the Orlando Magic packed for Boston before their Game 7 loss to the Cleveland Cavaliers. Carter said his body is very happy to get some rest and recovery—not just for his hand. Everyone feels the relief of the end of the season and the chance to slow down.

Carter certainly seemed to need it with this decision to have surgery.

Wendell Carter had his worst season in an Orlando Magic uniform this year

It was undoubtedly a frustrating season for Wendell Carter.

He averaged only 11.0 points per game and 6.9 rebounds per game. That was the fewest points he has scored since his rookie year and the fewest rebounds he has averaged in his career.

He still shot 52.5 percent from the floor and a career-best 37.4 percent from three. But it was clear that something was off about him. Carter was not the dominant player in the paint that he was in the 2023 season.

According to data from Basketball Index, the Magic scored -0.07 points per 75 possessions fewer than average with Carter as the roll man in pick and rolls. Indeed, the Magic scored 1.03 points per possession on pick and rolls with Carter as the roll man, placing him in the 38th percentile.

Carter is not a pick and roll big — the Magic as a team are not a pick-and-roll-heavy team. But the Magic were not always able to count on Carter offensively.

In the end, Carter seemed to defer more for his 3-point shot than ever before—whether by design or by Carter's comfort is unclear. He took only 3.1 attempts per game, but 40.2 percent of his shots were 3-pointers, compared to 36.7 percent last year when he first started taking threes more regularly.

His hand injury appears to be a direct product of that. It might explain why Carter struggled so much.

He still found ways to contribute. He has always been an excellent screener, even if he is not a heavy pick-and-roll player. Carter accounted for 2.6 screen assists per game (down from 3.8 per game last year).

Carter still made a positive defensive impact. Opponents shot 58.4 percent against him at the rim according to data from Second Spectrum after shooting 64.0 percent in the 2023 season. But even this was a mixed bag.

Still, it was clear something was off with Carter all season long. The hope has to be that whatever issue was giving him any discomfort or slowing him down (even if it did not prevent him from playing) will help him bounce back next year.

Carter was off in the Playoffs too.

He averaged only 7.6 points per game and 6.3 rebounds per game in the playoff series. His return to the starting lineup in Game 3 helped flip the series back into the Magic's favor. But it was also clear he struggled to deal with Evan Mobley's size, especially offensively.

This season Carter remained a reliable defender, but his offense was wildly inconsistent, and his ability to finish around the basket took a major hit.

The Orlando Magic will have to weigh Wendell Carter's future and viability as the team's starting center

Whether the team should stick with Wendell Carter as their center may quietly be one of the bigger decisions for the Orlando Magic this offseason. As the team looks for ways to improve the roster, a lot of options will be on the table.

Fans are already expecting the Magic to put their focus on acquiring a guard and shooting in free agency.

But it is at least possible that the Magic use Carter and the final two years of his contract—at the bargain price of $22.8 million total—to swing a major trade to add to the roster. The Magic could pursue free agents like Isaiah Hartenstein or Nic Claxton if they feel that would be a more significant upgrade on defense.

It is among the many things the Magic will have to weigh this offseason.

Even in a season that saw so many successes, Carter's season was certainly a setback. It hints at how good this team can still be if players who did not live up to expectations bounce back next season.

If the Magic believe Carter can do that and his struggles were simply a bad-luck injury that slowed him down this year, then the team already has the versatile, floor-spacing big this team may need eventually.

Next. 3 trade targets big splash 05.12.24. 3 trade targets if the Orlando magic want to make a big splash. dark

It is not entirely clear how much Carter's hand injury affected him this season. But it obviously played a role in the Magic's season and the way Carter ultimately played.