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NBA Draft 2018: Wendell Carter Jr. may be the draft’s most underrated player

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The “other” Duke big man flew under the radar a bit but is as well-rounded as any of the draft’s top center prospects

NCAA Basketball: NCAA Tournament-Midwest Regional-Kansas vs Duke Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

If you’ve read or heard anything about the upcoming 2018 NBA Draft class, it’s probably that there are a number of high-ceiling big men ranked near the top. DeAndre Ayton is expected at this stage to go first overall, and Marvin Bagley, Mo Bamba and Jaren Jackson Jr. will follow in short succession. There’s another big man who has floated a bit under the radar to this point, who could be as good as any of those. Let’s learn a little more about him.

The Basics

Wendell Carter Jr. was an outstanding high school player in one of the country’s basketball bedrocks, Atlanta. Ranked in the top 10 in every major recruiting publication, Carter was also a superb student, earning the Morgan Wooten Player of the Year Award, which goes to the McDonalds’ All-American who is best recognized as a student and community leader. Carter was even recruited by Harvard, though he ultimately chose Duke.

At that time, Carter was expected to be the featured big man for the Blue Devils, but things changed when Marvin Bagley III reclassified to start his college career early. Carter was asked to play more of a set-up role to the supremely athletic Bagley, but this may have been a blessing in disguise, as it forced Carter to develop and demonstrate his secondary skills(high-low passing, spotting up, etc). The result is that while Carter likely won’t be drafted before Bagley, he leaves Duke with as well-rounded a skill set as any freshman big we’ve seen in some in recent memory, and there’s a chance it’s Carter who ends up being the better pro.

Strengths

Maybe Wendell Carter Jr.’s best selling point is that there’s no clear, obvious weakness to his game. He does all of the standard big man stuff fans expect to see, like rebound, protect the rim and score in the post. Carter has nice footwork and can finish with either hand, and likely would have been used a lot more frequently in the low post if Bagley wasn’t there.

Where Carter really impresses, I’d argue, is away from the basket, where he can shoot (41 percent from college three, 74 percent from the line, which gives him the best translated shooting percentage of any big not named Jaren Jackson), pass, and even take his man off the dribble a little. I mentioned his high-low passing before but it bears repeating: Carter was really, really good there. Marvin Bagley put up great numbers and while that’s certainly due partly to his own ability, he owes his teammates some credit too, because Trevon Duvall, Carter, and Grayson Allen are all well above average passers positionally and Bagley might not get that from the bottom-5 NBA team that picks him.

Defensively, Carter compensates for a lack of elite athleticism with length, great awareness, and a high motor. He’s a good enough leaper off two-feet that with his 7’3 wingspan he gets proper verticality to bother drivers. He has a strong base and doesn’t get pushed around in the paint very often, helping him defend the post and box out for rebounds. His ability to read and react in tight spaces is really phenomenal; as the anchor of Duke’s zone, I can’t tell you how many times I saw Carter get stuck in a two-on-one situation and bluff his way into recovering and blocking the shot anyway. There was a stretch in February when Bagley missed four games with a knee sprain and unsurprisingly Duke played some of its best defense of the season then, crushing four conference opponents.

Weaknesses

In the era of “switch everything”, Carter may struggle a little at first defending in space. He is smart and savvy, and plays hard, but he’s not blazing quick laterally, and guards can roast him if they can get him off-balance or catch him not in correct stance. He may also have trouble sticking with more perimeter oriented bigs, though that describes pretty much every NBA rookie.

The downside of Carter’s high motor is that he can sometimes play a bit out of control. He has great touch on his passes and a decent handle for a big, but there were times when he would attack and end up dribbling into trouble or forcing a bad pass. Others have noted this, but Carter plays a kind of “tense” game, and could probably benefit from dialing it back a little (I’m much more comfortable teaching a guy to play down than to play up).

Finally, due to his high skill-level and non-elite athletic traits, there is some concern about what, ultimately, his ceiling is. How much better can he really get? At 5, it’s hard to not expect a potential star, rather than a high-functioning role player, and after years of striking out in their quest to land a big man, the pressure would be on Carter to deliver.

Fit with the Mavericks

Nerlens Noel, for all his talent, never clicked with Rick Carlisle, and is likely on his way out. Well, Wendell Carter Jr. is almost literally the anti-Noel. He’s not a great athlete, but he’s big, strong, hard-working, and skilled. It’s hard to imagine Carlisle not appreciating how versatile and crafty the Duke big man is, and on paper Carter answers a lot of issues for the team in its current form (rebounding and shot-blocking, namely) while also being a fit in the five-out style ball that is all the rage.

NBA Comparison

Al Horford has been the popular comp for Carter, and that is — in my estimation — extremely high praise. Carter also compares favorably to a big man Dallas might end up pursuing this offseason: Derrick Favors, though with less burst and more range.