Wendell Carter's aggression proved critical, hopeful for Orlando Magic

For the first time since returning from his hand injury, Wendell Carter looked comfortable and confident. Coming off the bench in Sunday's loss to the Phoenix Suns, he finally found his groove and a chance to grow for the Orlando Magic.
Wendell Carter has needed some time to get his footing under him. But an encouraging game Sunday seemed to set him up to get back up to speed for the Orlando Magic
Wendell Carter has needed some time to get his footing under him. But an encouraging game Sunday seemed to set him up to get back up to speed for the Orlando Magic / Chris Coduto/GettyImages

Wendell Carter's first shot in Sunday's game against the Phoenix Suns did not come until early in the second quarter. Carter came off the bench for the first time this year after missing a game with right knee tendinitis.

His return to the flow of the game since returning from the fracture in his left hand has been slow. He has at times looked tentative and uncomfortable. He has not been aggressive.

That has stood out because Carter has not quite looked like himself. And that goes for either end.

Everyone knew it would take Carter some time to get back into the swing of things. But progress was slow in his five games since his return.

Sunday was a breath of life. Carter knew quickly he was back to being himself.

That first shot early in the second quarter was a 3-pointer off a flare on an inbounds pass. The Suns went with the cutter into the paint and Carter was wide open.

But Carter knew he was back when he hit his fourth shot. He and Franz Wagner ran a pick and roll, the defenders lost contact and Wagner threw a lob to Wendell Carter for a thunderous finish.

Carter was already rolling by this point. He had hit a three and a putback after and was a big part of the Magic erasing an early deficit on the road. He was dominating the interior.

But Carter finally looked like himself. And it was something the Magic desperately needed.

"It was definitely an opportunity for me to get myself going," Carter said after the Magic's late practice Monday in San Francisco. "My teammates found me in good spots on the court and made things easier for me. It was a good game to get my mind right and get my body back feeling right. I'm glad the chips fell where they did."

Carter had his best game perhaps of the season and certainly since returning from his injury Sunday. He scored 17 points, making six of seven shots and all three of his 3-point attempts. He added five rebounds in 23:52 of action.

That put on display everything that has made Carter one of the underrated centers in the league.

More importantly, Carter was playing with more aggressiveness and confidence. For a Magic team that was struggling to get much going offensively aside from stars Paolo Banchero and Franz Wagner, Wendell Carter's play was a big plus.

The team needs to see him continue on that path.

"That was great to see," Banchero said after Sunday's game. "We kept telling him all game to keep going and keep being aggressive. We are a better team when he is scoring the ball and being aggressive. We want him to keep playing like that. He's going to help us a lot."

The Magic know how much he can help. This time around, they seem more determined to bring him back the right way and ensure that he does not have the same fits and starts he had early.

That might mean he continues coming off the bench so as not to disrupt any of the flow the team has established with the group with Goga Bitadze starting. The Orlando Magic certainly looked a bit refreshed and energized with Bitadze in the lineup during Friday's win over the New York Knicks.

It is not clear how long the Magic might go with this lineup. Eventually, Carter will return to the starting lineup and the Magic know what his versatility on both ends can give them. The team is going to get back to the process of bringing him back fully now.

Wendell Carter is no longer listed on the team's injury report -- neither is Gary Harris, although Jonathan Isaac and Joe Ingles have been ruled out and Markelle Fultz is once again listed as questionable previewing his potential return soon.

Carter had his one good game as proof of concept. Now for the big man, it will be about building consistency and getting comfortable. Seeing him have this one strong game is certainly a step in the right direction for him and the team.

"I thought he did a heck of a job stepping back in," coach Jamahl Mosley said after Sunday's game. "Obviously making sure we monitored where he was. I thought he did a great job of communicating with me and communicating with his teammates of how he was feeling throughout the game. To have him back out there and as we continue to find different rhythms with our group, it is great to have him back out there on the floor."

That will still be the challenge. The Magic are still checking in to make sure Carter is feeling physically well as well as confident to perform at the level the Magic ultimately will need him at.

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Sunday was certainly a step in the right direction and showed what he can still do and give this team. He is fighting to get back to that consistent level. One game can be the tipping point and the Magic certainly hope Sunday was a harbinger of things to come.