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Don’t Hate Wendell Carter Jr. Just Because Bulls Played It Safe

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If you were paying attention leading up to the 2018 NBA Draft, you weren’t surprised by what the Chicago Bulls did. Really, you weren’t surprised if you’ve been paying attention to this front office’s draft picks dating back to 2003 when John Paxson took over and Gar Forman was named Director of Player Personnel a year later. Maybe you were disappointed with Wendell Carter Jr. and Chandler Hutchison, maybe you liked the picks. But if you’re an informed Bulls fan, you weren’t surprised. This is what they do.

With two new players in the fold, the Bulls front office reminded the fanbase last night of their modus operandi: safe over sexy. A large contingent of Bulls Nation was screaming for Michael Porter Jr. That faction of fans clearly didn’t want to see what the Bulls – and a dozen other teams – saw: red flags everywhere. Once thought to be the likely #1 overall pick in this draft class, Porter watched 13 players walk across the Barclays Center stage before his name was finally called by the Denver Nuggets. #FireGarPax-ers rolled their eyes and went to their loyal well of criticisms on Twitter and Reddit, disgusted by what they were certain was the latest showing of gross incompetence by Paxson and Forman.

If you’ve been tuning into Locked On Bulls recently, you know where I stand on the Porter debate. I was relieved when the Bulls passed on him and opted for Carter instead. ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski, among others, reported earlier on Thursday that Porter’s draft stock was falling fast because of the most recent medical reports released to NBA teams. The long-term prognosis for the 19 year old’s surgically repaired back did not look good. That’s the big risk that scared off almost every team in the lottery. There were other risks attached to Porter, like the lack of tape to evaluate his skill outside of high school games, concerns about his ballhandling, shot selection, defense, fit within Fred Hoiberg’s offensive system, rumors about being a bad teammate. Risks and red flags everywhere. This Bulls front office rarely takes risks, and they steered far clear of this one.

In fact, word is the Bulls weren’t even close to considering him. It wasn’t a decision between Porter and Carter, and they just barely decided to play it safe. The Bulls had Alabama’s Collin Sexton higher than Porter on their draft boards, even though they have a starting point guard in Kris Dunn and Porter would’ve filled their desperate need at the wing position. That’s a pretty telling sign right there just how bad those medical reports must have been.

So, to those of you out there hating on Carter already simply because he’s not Porter, read between the lines. And take a good look at the player the Bulls got with the 7th pick.

Those disappointed in Carter tend to claim he’s “just an average player”, “not a difference-maker”, and such. There’s plenty of evidence to argue the opposite. This 19 year old can turn into something really special in the NBA. He nearly averaged a double double (13.5, 9.1) in his lone season at Duke in just 26.8 minutes per game. His frontcourt mate Marvin Bagley III, who went 2nd overall to Sacramento, got the bulk of offensive focus after reclassifying and joining Duke’s squad at the last second. (As a side note, that selflessness from Carter is an example of his high character, which the Bulls front office loves about him. They see him being the same selfless player paired with Lauri Markkanen, who projects to be the focal point of the Bulls offense for years to come.) When Bagley was getting his rest, or during the four games he missed, Carter shined.

Let’s look at some numbers for a minute. Per 40 minutes, Carter averaged 20.2 points, 13.5 rebounds, 3.1 blocks and 3.0 assists. He shot 56.1% from the field, and a very respectable 41.6% on his modest 46 three point attempts. He’s not afraid to go to work on the block and absorb contact with his 6’10, 7’4-wingspan frame, as he averaged 6.8 free throw attempts per 40 minutes. He hit those at 73.8%, which is pretty good for a freshman big. Carter’s offensive versatility – he can already shoot with either hand from the post – inside and out will be an immediate bonus for the Bulls.

His rebounding skills are unquestionably even more impressive than his offense. Those 13.5 rebounds per 40 minutes? Better than Bagley (13.1) and better than Jaren Jackson Jr. (10.6). It’s nearly on par with Deandre Ayton (13.8) and Mohamed Bamba (14.0), who both boast significant height and wingspan edges over Carter. He’s a workhorse on the boards the likes of which Bulls fans have seen before spanning generations: Dennis Rodman and Joakim Noah. Now, imagine if Rodman and Noah could shoot threes? Pretty exciting, eh?

Oh, and while we’re comparing Carter’s numbers to the rest of the top tier bigs in this draft class, let’s look at defense. The biggest concern with Carter is his lateral quickness, which he admits is a work in progress. But his basketball IQ and length will help him make up for that as he develops. In a year or two, when he improves his ability to switch guarding smaller players on the perimeter, he can become one of the most versatile defensive bigs in the league. But for starters, here’s my favorite stat from yesterday:

Carter was the best post-up defender in all of college basketball last season. And as Seth Walder of ESPN points out, that’s an area where the Bulls’ interior defense really needs the help. As for rim protection? Carter’s 3.1 blocks per 40 minutes tripled his teammate Bagley’s 1.0. Better than Deandre Ayton’s 2.3.

Everywhere you look with Carter, there’s upside. And he’s already one of the most NBA-ready players from this class. He’ll likely be mentored by Robin Lopez for the first while, until the Bulls may look to get an asset for Lopez at the deadline. But someday soon, Carter will take over as the team’s center of the future, and his pairing with Markkanen in that frontcourt can blossom into something beautiful for the modern NBA.

Before you jump down my throat about how glowingly positive my thoughts are on another “boring”, “safe”, “typical” Bulls draft, allow me to share some frustrations with you. I’m still upset that the Bulls didn’t execute the tank properly last season. Carter was the smart pick at #7, but the Bulls could’ve had someone better (Jackson, Luka Doncic) had they been picking in the top 3 like they planned.

I’m disappointed that they couldn’t execute a trade last night to move up and grab one of those guys, but the price tag was reportedly too high. What would you be willing to pay to move up three spots? Taking on Chandler Parsons’ $50 million? Gar and Paxson weren’t willing to do that. Give up a future first round pick and your #22 pick? Gar and Paxson didn’t want to mortgage that much when they felt great about Carter. I really don’t know if I would have made either of those deals in their shoes. Remember, part of this rebuilding plan is leaving themselves financially flexible for the loaded free agent class of 2019 when this young core looks more ready to compete. As for relinquishing draft picks while rebuilding? Bulls fans grill the front office daily for doing exactly that. Can’t have it both ways.

There are still plenty of unknowns with this rebuilding core, and this team – despite Paxson’s wishes – will probably be in the lottery again next summer. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. The front office will be judged on how far this rebuild has reached in two or three years, and it might be their last act.

But for today, please allow yourself to look at the positives that came along with the “safe” pick this time around. The Bulls got themselves a very good player in Wendell Carter Jr., and he fits a real need on the roster. Don’t hate him because he’s not Michael Porter Jr. Don’t hate the Bulls for not taking Michael Porter Jr.

I’ve said in once, I’ll say it again. I’ll say it a thousand times if I have to: there are times to judge the Bulls front office for doing something stupid, and there are times when fans do so illogically just because they want to. This Carter pick does not warrant such judgment.

Go watch some tape on Wendell Carter Jr. Look at all of the teams who passed on Michael Porter Jr. because of a serious health risk and terrifying bust potential.

Pay attention. Educate yourself. Then come talk to me.

(PS: I’ll get to my thoughts on Chandler Hutchison sometime in the coming days. Stay tuned.)

Have thoughts on the Bulls draft picks? 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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