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Can Wendell Carter Jr. Win Rookie Of The Year?



wendell carter jr rookie year

As the rebuilding Bulls make their way through training camp and into the preseason, most eyes will be focused on Jabari Parker, Zach LaVine and Lauri Markkanen. The hometown kid on a prove-it deal, the freshly paid scorer coming off a short and underwhelming season, and the Finnish kid who made the All-Rookie First Team. Others will focus on Kris Dunn, the point guard who’s tasked with making all of them coexist in Fred Hoiberg’s offense. But what of this year’s lottery pick? Will Wendell Carter Jr turn into an afterthought as a rookie with all these other mouths to feed, or can he prove himself worthy of big minutes and fight his way into the starting lineup? Does the Bulls’ second consecutive #7 pick have an outside chance of winning Rookie of the Year?

This is a question that was posed to us in our most recent mailbag episode, and it’s an interesting one. So let’s look at it a little more closely.

Looking Inside

In order for Wendell to have the necessary opportunities to make a case for Rookie of the Year, several things need to fall into place. First, the Duke product needs to shine in his early season minutes off the bench to earn more playing time. Not only that, Hoiberg needs to find times to play him alongside Markkanen to see what that would look like as a potential starting duo at power forward and center. If Wendell does in fact look as good as advertised, the front office needs to aggressively shop Robin Lopez. The veteran center won’t have much value, as the market for traditional centers is at an all-time low in the NBA. Nevertheless, they must try.

If the Bulls front office decides to keep Lopez because he’s such a valued leader for this young team (or they simply get zero offers for him) it will eat into Carter’s chances to shine. It’s possible that the rook proves himself enough to take the starting job away from Lopez, who then gets relegated to a veteran bench player role. Lopez proved that he was a team-first guy during the tank last season, and it’s in his character to make the same sacrifice this season. Even if that happens, Robin is still going to begin the season in the starting lineup and Carter will come off the bench.

If and when Carter does make it into the starting lineup, he will have much more competition for shots and overall usage with the other four guys on the floor than he did when playing a bench role. Newcomer Jabari had a 26.5 usage percentage in his best season (2016-17). That fell only a couple points to 24.4% last season even as the Greek Freak took his game to new heights and Parker was knocking off rust from his second ACL tear. LaVine came in at 29.5% in the handful of games he played for Chicago last season. Markkanen had 21.9% usage after unexpectedly being thrust into the starting lineup on opening night and holding his starting job all season. Combine their field goal attempts per game (using Jabari’s ’17 season) and you’re looking at 43.5 shots.

Add Dunn’s 12.8 attempts per game last season and it jumps to 56.3 shots. And that’s just from the other four starters around Wendell, not even the bench shooters. The Bulls only averaged 88.8 total field goal attempts as a team last season.

Sure, you can point to Justin Holiday’s likely decreased role and the departure of Nikola Mirotic as shots that will be up for grabs for Wendell, but the point remains the same: if the rookie wins the starting job at some point this season, he’ll likely be the fifth option offensively. And that won’t help his case for Rookie of the Year honors from a statistical standpoint.

Looking Outside

If there’s good news for those hoping to see a RoY campaign from Wendell, it’s that he proved to make the most of his limited opportunities at Duke last season. He averaged a near double-double (13.5 points, 9.1 rebounds) in just 26.8 minutes per game. His 8.6 shot attempts ranked fifth behind Marvin Bagley, Grayson Allen, Gary Trent Jr. and Trevon Duval. Of those five players, however, Carter trailed only Bagley (26.3 vs 22.8) in usage percentage.

Wendell’s 5.9 win shares were tied for second on the team, and his .240 win shares per 40 minutes were essentially on par with Bagley’s team-leading .249. Carter’s offensive rating (125.3) also ranked second behind Bagley (127.7) among Duke’s starters and his defensive rating (92.8) led the team.

That all sounds promising, but it won’t necessarily translate to Wendell getting loads of Rookie of the Year votes. Unless he supplants Lopez almost immediately as the starting center, it’s tough to project the rook averaging double figures in points per game. It’s also hard to see him finishing the season with a usage percentage at or above 20%.

Looking at the previous five RoY winners, only one had a usage percentage below 20 and a points per game average around or below 10. That was Milwaukee’s Malcolm Brogdon, who won the award as the 36th overall pick of the 2016 draft. That should tell you just how weak the collective rookie years were from that class (sorry, Denzel). Brodgon averaged 10.2 points (18.5% usage) in 26.4 minutes per game. Of his 75 rookie games, Brogdon started just 28.

Compare those numbers to the other four recent RoY winners, and Wendell’s chances don’t look great. Michael Carter-Williams (yeah, that happened in 2014…),

bulls wendell carter jr rookie year

Andrew Wiggins, Karl-Anthony Towns and Ben Simmons on average scored 16.9 points per game with an average usage percentage of 23.9%. It’s hard to see Wendell hitting either of those numbers. Those four averaged 34.1 minutes per game as rookies. Carter-Williams’ 70 starts were the fewest of the group. Simmons started 81 games. Wiggins and Towns started all 82. Is the Bulls rookie going to see that many minutes and/or that many starts? Seems doubtful coming into camp.

Then there’s the other likely RoY contenders. There doesn’t appear to be as much of a road block for minutes and shots for the likes of Deandre Ayton, Luka Doncic, Jaren Jackson Jr. or Bagley. Jackson’s Grizzlies and Doncic’s Mavericks might try to compete this season, but there isn’t too much talent on either roster to prevent them from becoming focal points. Ayton’s Suns and Bagley’s Kings will be bad again, but Ayton can quickly become Devin Booker’s #2 guy and Bagley might even become the #1 option in Sacramento. Wendell won’t be that lucky.

Reasonable Goal

I’m not saying it’s impossible for Wendell to win Rookie of the Year, just that it’s unlikely. I really like the kid’s potential, and I want to see him win the starting center job at some point this season. The sooner the better. If that happens, there’s a chance we see him earn a spot on either the First or Second All-Rookie squads. In fact, I’d be willing to bet he edges out at least one of the bigs (Ayton, Bagley, Jackson, Mo Bamba) drafted ahead of him to nab a spot for All-Rookie honors. He can be that good his rookie year.

He just needs the chance to prove it.

Have thoughts on WCJ? Comment below or continue the conversation with me on Twitter @Bulls_Peck.

A Chicago native, Matt is an actor-turned-sports guy. Chicagoans may recognize him as Bodhi from the screen to stage hit Point Break LIVE! He studied under ESPN1000's Jonathan Hood as part of his training with the Sportscasters Mentoring Group. In addition to Locked On Bulls, he hosts The 312 on 1590 WCGO, which covers all 5 of Chicago's major teams. His work has been featured on FanRag, Bleacher Report, the Chicago Tribune, WGN & Sports Mockery. He's also a recurring guest on CLTV's Sports Feed. Follow him on Twitter @Bulls_Peck

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