Why Wendell Carter Jr.'s passing is key in Bulls' offense originally appeared on NBC Sports Chicago
At a glance, Wendell Carter Jr.’s first three games back from a nearly one-month long injury absence were as strong as could be. Carter entered the Bulls’ Saturday night matchup with the Kings averaging 14.7 points and shooting 62.1 percent since returning, with over ⅓ of his points coming in first quarters.
But in the subtleties, head coach Billy Donovan saw where Carter’s spell on the sidelines was seeping into his play.
“Wendell, in the position and role that he was in for us, being a handler and a facilitator, and then being away from that for several weeks with the injury and not really being able to do much basketball stuff and being thrown back into it, it's probably gonna take him a little bit of time,” Donovan said before tipoff. “I know his timing may be a little bit off in terms of making those kinds of decisions. But he I think will continue to get better, he'll continue to improve as he gets more and more playing time.”
How right he was. After slinging just 4 assists (against 6 turnovers) in those first three games back, Carter matched a season-high with 5 assists in the Bulls’ 122-114 win over the Kings.
“He’s been a little bit tentative at times since he's been back, catching it and not sure, 'Do I drive it? Do I shoot it? Do I pass it?'” Donovan said postgame. "He was a lot more fluid tonight. He made a lot of really good passes and he generated a lot of really good shots for us.”
There’s a reason Donovan has spent so much time belaboring the importance of Carter’s playmaking, starting during training camp and extending to now: The Bulls’ offense is prone to short-circuits without a slick-passing/ballhandling big on the floor. In 658 non-garbage time possessions this season with Carter or Thad Young riding pine, according to Cleaning the Glass, the Bulls own just a 105.5 offensive rating, a number that would rank 28th in the NBA.
“It's very important for our team,” Carter said of his playmaking. “Just because having Zach (LaVine) and Coby (White), them getting blitzed a lot, or (opposing) bigs are up (in pick-and-roll coverage) a lot. Me getting into that pocket or Thad or any of our bigs getting into the pocket, that's where most of our bigs are going to have to feel comfortable.”
Indeed, with two guards that can command tremendous defensive attention -- especially LaVine, who draws double- and triple-teams on a nightly basis -- being able to dump off to a Carter or Young and have them decision-make between driving, shooting and passing with a 4-on-3 advantage is a handy release valve, and a strain on opposing defenses.
Take these two plays by Carter down the stretch of the Kings win, one of which shows up in the stat sheet, the other of which doesn’t.
The first comes straight out of a Donovan timeout after the Kings cut a 12-point first-half deficit to two in the first four minutes of the fourth quarter. As LaVine and Carter set up a pick-and-roll, LaVine reads Marvin Bagley III jumping over the top of a Carter screen and flicks a pass to White on the opposite wing before the blitz can take hold. White then pings a pass to a rolling Carter at the free throw line -- in the "pocket" of the defense -- where Carter catches and fires to an open Garrett Temple in the corner for a wide open 3.
Bagley is so far behind the play this is effectively a 3-on-2 by the time Carter catches the ball, with him in the center of the floor and Temple and Patrick Williams filling the corners. Tyrese Haliburton is forced to help off Temple to block Carter's path to the rim and Carter doesn't hesitate picking out the open man.
The second comes two game minutes later, with the Bulls ahead five. De'Aaron Fox and Bagley again crowd LaVine off a pick-and-roll with Carter; this time LaVine dumps it straight to Carter on the roll. Carter again catches around the free-throw line area, takes a beat to assess, then fires to Temple in the corner after recognizing Temple's man, Buddy Hield, helping off of him. Cory Joseph sprints out to contest Temple, leading to the vet passing to a wide open Coby White 3.
Carter doesn't get the assist, but he helped make it happen (as did LaVine, whose prolificity provides the gravitational pull to create these advantages at all).
These types of reads, which need to manifest in a matter of split seconds, can’t truly be simulated sitting on the bench. So Donovan is right to show grace with Carter as he reacclimates.
“What the defense wants you to do is to speed up,” Carter said. “It isn't necessarily something that you have to put a lot of emphasis on (in film), it's just something that you really have to slow yourself down. Because the reads are very simple, but bigs tend to get sped up a lot in their position, so it's all about just slowing down and then just letting your talent go from there. Making the pass or taking the shot.”
If those words sound straight from the mouth of Young, you’re not off-base.
"Some of the guys on our team as bigs, they tend to get rushed when they get in the pocket. And that's when turnovers start to occur. I'm not really rushed, I kind of take my time," Young said of his facilitating after a Jan. 17 win over the Dallas Mavericks.
When asked his message to Carter in that regard, he added: "Patience and poise. Just staying confident in that pocket. Understanding that you're going to see a crowd, but with you being the biggest guy out there on the court, once you see a crowd, just look at your reads and look at where guys are coming from.
"They come off the corner, make the corner pass. If they step up on the roll, which is you, then you make the bounce pass to the other big on the baseline. If you roll down the middle of the lane from making a side screen-and-roll and guys come off the corner, then the opposite corner is open. So just getting him to understand where his reads are and how he needs to analyze the court."
Think the vet is rubbing off on him? Both Carter (2.3) and Young (4.3) are posting career-best assist averages by healthy margins as the season nears its halfway point. Carter is also averaging 6.2 "elbow touches" per game after registering 4.4 per game last season, while Young's elbow touch average has jumped from 1.5 to 6.5 in roughly equivalent minutes.
Elbow Touches, Bulls bigs
Elbow Touches per game (2019-20)
Elbow Touches per game (2020-21)
Elbow Touch Assist % (2019-20)
Elbow Touch Assist % (2020-21)
Wendell Carter Jr.
That’s no coincidence.
And while Carter's shooting has come and gone and fouling remains an improvement area, it’s no coincidence that the Bulls are 3-1 since his return. From his screen-setting, to defensive impact, to table-setting, the devil is in the details when measuring his impact.