Wendell Carter's return has been slow for Orlando Magic

The Orlando Magic are treading water and treading water since Wendell Carter's return last week. No doubt, his return to the court has been slow for the Orlando Magic and a restless fan base.
Wendell Carter has had a slow return to the court that has contrasted to the high-flying style of the Orlando Magic's early season run without him.
Wendell Carter has had a slow return to the court that has contrasted to the high-flying style of the Orlando Magic's early season run without him. / Benny Sieu-USA TODAY Sports

There was a lot of excitement when Wendell Carter returned to the lineup last Wednesday against the Miami Heat.

Carter struggled to start the season offensively but everyone knew from his strong 2022 season what he is capable of. Players consistently talked during the win streak about how much Wendell Carter -- and Markelle Fultz, still OUT with left knee tendinitis -- would help lift this team even further.

As good as the Magic's defense was with Goga Bitadze anchoring the starting unit, everyone recognized the versatility and potential Wendell Carter would bring.

It has been a week and five games since Carter returned though. And the returns have been mixed at best, and frustrating at worst.

There have been signs of that player who can be a dynamic shot blocker and even sometimes a perimeter defender. The offense has not developed though and the Magic are still seemingly cautious with his minutes.

There are some great blocks like this one where he slides over and meets Tobias Harris at the rim to swat the shot away -- one of two blocks in Wednesday's loss to the Philadelphia 76ers:

And then there are plays like this one where he struggles to handle the ball and still looks uncomfortable with the massive tape on his surgically repaired left hand.

There has been more hesitancy than aggressiveness. And that is holding the team back.

Carter has admitted the biggest hurdle for him to overcome is to take on the trauma of a basketball game -- the kind you do not think of when recovering from a bone fracture in a hand like catching a hard pass, rebounding or throwing down a big dunk.

Carter told Jason Beede of the Orlando Sentinel after their loss last week to the Milwaukee Bucks that he felt a step or two behind where he was. Carter is working to get back up to speed as quickly as he can.

Plays like that dunk attempt from the first quarter of Wednesday's game show just how far Carter still has to go.

His return has been undoubtedly a slow one. And with the Magic during a playoff chase, every game matters. It certainly is not a great look that the Magic are 2-3 since Carter's return and there have been plenty of concerning moments offensively.

It has not looked like a seamless fit by any means for Carter.

His counting numbers are not particularly strong. Since returning last week, Carter is averaging 5.2 points per game and 5.2 rebounds per game in 21.0 minutes per game. He is shooting 10 for 23 (43.5 percent) overall and 2 for 9 from deep.

Those numbers are not exactly encouraging that he is regaining his form from the 2023 season when he averaged 15.2 points per game and 8.7 rebounds per game on 52.5-percent shooting and 35.6 percent from deep. Carter has struggled to find his fit -- even finding it difficult to score before his injury.

Carter's season is a disappointment even including the injury. He has not scored at the rate the Magic would hope.

The Magic have struggled a lot in the last five games and the minutes with Carter have not been strong.

In the past five games, the Magic have a net rating of -15.8 points per 100 possessions with Carter on the floor. That includes a frustrating 100.4 points per 100 possessions with Carter on the floor. There is a lot of drain because his offense simply has not been there. And so far, he has not made a big defensive impact.

However, it is worth pointing out, that the Magic's starting lineup with Jalen Suggs and Wendell Carter together has a net rating of +16.2 points per 100 possessions (a 109.4 offensive rating and 93.2 defensive rating) in 39 minutes. The starting group with Gary Harris and Wendell Carter has a net rating of -51.2 points per 100 possessions (80.4 points per 100 possessions on offense!) in 27 minutes.

There are positive signs there. The Magic's starting group is still defending at a high level. And it is important to remember how the team's overall offensive struggles in this period are playing with everything.

Carter is part of a bigger problem offensively and the defense has slipped with Jonathan Isaac in and out of the lineup.

Right now, it is still about getting Carter up to speed. And the sample sizes are simply too small to make any sweeping conclusions. What the Magic need to see is steady improvement.

Carter just has to keep getting better and more comfortable. If there is frustration from watching Carter from the outside over the last week, it is that it does not look clear he is getting better.

His defense has been OK, but not great and the Magic are struggling to tread water during this difficult phase of their schedule.

Carter started the year giving up 13 of 30 shooting at the rim in the first five games of the season according to data from Second Spectrum. But in the five games since his return, opponents are shooting 14 for 19 at the rim against him.

Further, according to tracking data from NBA.com, opponents are shooting 54.0 percent against Carter when he is the closest defender, two percentage points better than expected.

There is no bigger sign that Carter is a step slow than this. He is usually an excellent paint and rim defender even if he is not a big shot blocker. There are individual plays that look good, but the overall picture still looks like a player who is a bit uncomfortable.

If Carter is not making a defensive impact, then his value decreases greatly. And if this trend continues, the Magic may need to consider a more drastic rotation change.

The Magic have been careful with Carter since his return. And some of that is simply balancing playing a more up-to-speed and equally reliable defensive player in Goga Bitadze. The Magic's depth is a blessing for that reason but also a curse because Bitadze has earned minutes with his energy.

In this same time period, the Magic have a +0.6 net rating with Bitadze on the floor including a 115.9 defensive rating (0.6 points per 100 possessions worse than the team's average in the last five games). This is coming with Bitadze largely playing the end of halfs and only the end of halfs. That is a tough ask for any player to find a rhythm.

The Magic are trying to play everybody right now. And that is extremely difficult to do. And everyone's sample sizes are far too small to draw conclusions.

What is happening though is the Magic are feeling the pressure to win and keep up in the East. They have fallen to a tie for fourth with the Miami Heat at 18-12. They lead the Cleveland Cavaliers for fifth in the East by a half-game and the New York Knicks for sixth, and avoiding the Play-In by one game (setting up a "six-pointer" in Friday's game at Kia Center).

The Magic have crashed back to earth since the winning streak ended. Everyone expected that to happen. But the pressure to win is very real in a way that it has not been with this franchise in some time.

The Magic are still banking on what they know Carter can be and they are continuing to be patient letting him recover from injury. Five games and one week is not enough time to make any conclusions.

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But undoubtedly, this recovery has been slower than everyone expected. Carter is not helping the team right now. And with the Magic's other injuries that has highlighted what the team is missing overall as they try to get themselves right for this upcoming road trip and a tough schedule ahead.