Wendell Carter makes a difference in return, but work remains to get up to speed

Wendell Carter's return was underwhelming on the stat sheet and he showed plenty of rust in the process. But Carter's return was welcomed and made a difference for the team.

Wendell Carter made his return to the court for the Orlando Magic. His game was a struggle, but it was an important step for him and the team.
Wendell Carter made his return to the court for the Orlando Magic. His game was a struggle, but it was an important step for him and the team. / James Gilbert/GettyImages
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Wendell Carter called returning to the lineup after a 20-game absence on Wednesday like getting drafted again. The Orlando Magic's starting center was very excited to be back in the lineup and back on the court for however long he could be.

The Magic were looking forward to it too. They still got strong minutes from Goga Bitadze, but they know what Carter represents. They know what he can bring.

It was seen most clearly in the final three minutes of the game when the Magic cut a 20-point deficit down to as little as seven with about a minute to play. That is when Carter really seemed to let things go. That is when he finally looked more comfortable and confident on the floor.

It has been a long time coming for Carter to be on the floor. Everyone on the Magic can feel how important his return to the floor and his presence can be.

It took a while for the Orlando Magic to see and feel that presence in Wednesday's 115-106 loss to the Miami Heat. Like everyone else on the team, they were a bit staggered by that killer second quarter that put the Magic into a deep hole.

When the game was on the line, Carter looked strong in his first stint and a bit off-kilter in his second stint. Some rust was to be expected.

But Carter can be active and be an imposing force. The Magic know they will need his stalwart defense and the backstop he provides to reach their zenith this season. Having him back on the floor, even for what little time they could displayed an impact and a potential for this team to keep improving.

"It was so dope to have Dell back," Cole Anthony said after Wednesday's loss to the Heat. "We see how hard he always works and how much he wants to get back out there on the court with us. I know he's happy to be back out there. I'm a little upset we lost his first game back. He is definitely going to help us going forward. For sure."

Carter finished the game playing 23 minutes scoring eight points on 3-for-4 shooting and 1-for-2 shooting from deep. He had six rebounds to his measure.

Most of this happened in a five-plus-minute stretch in the fourth quarter. He scored eight points and made all three of his shots in that stretch of the game. He finished the game +3, but again a lot of that coming with a +14 plus-minus in the final quarter when the game was already decided.

The bench group Wendell Carter anchored alongside Moe Wagner, Caleb Houstan, Anthony Black and Chuma Okeke played with a fire and energy the team was lacking for much of their game.

Carter wanted the longer run to get his feet under him in a blowout loss. And that will help him out.

"He wanted to run a little longer which I thought was good just trying to catch his first wind," coach Jamahl Mosley said after Wednesday's game. "Credit to our performance staff for getting him right and keeping him in the right condition throughout this entire time. He was able to run that back stretch. It was great to have him out there to get him a feel and a flow for what we are doing offensively and defensively with different groups."

Carter is going to need some time to get his feet under him and make that bigger impact for this team. There is still a long way back for him to get to his levels from last season. And his arrival into the rotation did disrupt some of the team's rhythm -- Goga Bitadze got 12 minutes of action and Moe Wagner was reduced to 15 in a 12-man rotation that was unsustainable.

Carter is still getting comfortable as he ramps up his minutes. But with every play on defense where he walled off the paint or deflected a lob to the basket, his impact to this team and his versatility defensively were clear.

Every player has recognized how much Carter will help this team in the end. Wednesday was clearly just a first step for him.

Perhaps it was just a baby step in the end. There is still a lot of comfort he needs to get back to and his teammates need to figure out how to play with him again.

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But it was a step nonetheless. And Carter's potential to help this team was clear even in defeat.