Wendell Carter Jr.: Turning up his game and 'turning up Orlando'

Wendell Carter Jr.: Turning up his game and 'turning up Orlando'

Whether Orlando Magic big man Wendell Carter Jr. is retweeting praise for Duke basketball's March Madness run or hyping up his girlfriend, Olivia Nelson-Ododa, during her own tourney run as a senior at UConn, one thing is a constant part of Carter's social media presence: the hashtag #ABC. 

Accept, believe and confess.

"Accept that whatever happens happens, believe that it happens for a reason," Carter said. "If you did something good, confess that. If you did something bad, confess that too. It's allowing yourself to think on certain things that happened in your life, but not allow them to dictate what's going to happen next."

It's his life mantra, instilled in him by his mother, Kylia. He credits Duke head coach Mike Krzyzewski for continuing to build those qualities in him, reinforcing the importance of enjoying the moment and remaining present.

Carter is a spiritual person, having grown up in the church. As such, confession as a concept is essential to him, and it comes through in his honesty as a speaker and openness about his development. The work speaks for itself, but he's transparent in the time and energy that's gone into a career-year, crediting those who have been key in finding his game in Orlando.

Acceptance was a key element for Carter at the 2021 trade deadline, when he was traded from Chicago to Orlando in the deal for Nikola Vucevic. He thought Chicago was going to be his home as a professional and couldn't fathom being traded.

"I thought I was going to be there forever," Carter said.

The move took him by surprise and hurt in the moment, but he was quick to shift and reframe his mindset.

"I felt what happened," he said. "I believed that one person didn't want me, but the next person does."

Carter says that the confession aspect of things didn't really factor in, but anyone who has watched him this season knows he's confessed every night on the court with his play.

He's averaging career-highs across the board both in per-game and per-minute queries. It's not just the production but also how he is producing that's been the difference. His aggression is staggering compared to his first three seasons, which has resulted in his creating more shots for himself.

Time Frame 2 point % 2 point assisted % Pull-up 2s taken and % True-shooting %
First 3 seasons 53.4% 74.7% 61 (26.2%) 56.6%
2021-22 61.5% 60.9% 60 (55%) 60.1%

(Scroll right for full table on mobile)

To put into perspective how remarkable that two-point percentage is, Carter is on the verge of breaking Orlando's single-season record previously held by Dwight Howard (who shot 61.7% from two in 2009-10).

Carter is launching more from three, and while the percentages have dipped as the season has gone on, he's no longer hesitating from behind the arc like in past season. According to Dunks and Threes, Carter has a career-high in Offensive Estimated Plus-Minus (+1.2) after not posting a neutral mark any of the prior three seasons.

Carter's handle is also noticeably tighter. He's more fluid off the bounce and has real verve in face-ups and isolation. He's flashed these skills throughout his career, but he has emboldened and exacerbated them this season.

He's finishing better through contact and has more control and counters near the basket, shooting 75% at the rim this season, per Cleaning the Glass. That's a near 10% uptick compared to his career rate from 0-4 feet (65.9%).

Furthemore, he's played more at the four this season than he has his entire career, and his skill growth has made that much more viable and realistic than in prior years. 

Carter gives a great deal of credit to Orlando's coaching staff for their belief in him, but also for empowering him to be this player every day. He had three different head coaches in Chicago, and it was difficult to find a consistent footing with so much in flux. That changed in Orlando, where he has found stability.

"They've kind of instilled in me like, 'Man, you're a great player. We've seen plenty of flashes. We know what Wendell can really be. Can we see you do this for a whole 48-minute game? Can we see you play like those little spurts we'll see every now and then? Can you do that more often?'"

He says they didn't put pressure on him but rather enabled his upside and fostered his development. He credits head coach Jamahl Mosley, associate head coach Nate Tibbets and assistant coach Dale Osbourne with helping him start to realize his potential.

"Coach Mos, Nate, Os, they all really helped me, and they all believe that there's something special in the kind of player I am," Carter said.

Carter also works out with video coordinator Randy Gregory every night.

"That's a guy I definitely trust and have a lot of respect and love for," Carter said.

That in-season work coupled with his offseason training set the table for his career-year. He notes that conditioning was the biggest thing he tackled over the summer, putting in the work to keep up with smaller and quicker players on defense. In order to tighten his handle and hone his shot, he worked on them each day, fine-tuning them with repetition and mental imagery, repeating scenarios in his head and replicating in-game scenarios.

The process has helped him find his "swagger," which oozes on-court with his play and intensity.

"The work shows up at some point," he said. "I'm grateful that I'm able to display that each night."

He laughs that it's a cliche statement, but it resounds in truth, cliche or not. The consistency he's displayed this season shouldn't be taken with a grain of salt, as the reps he put in have instilled that confidence and augmented his game, allowing him to become one of the better up-and-coming players in the NBA.

Carter has always possessed a good feel for the game and playmaking chops, but he's put it all together this season. Orlando has a great deal of ball-handlers and players who can soak up some on-ball usage, including Franz Wagner, Cole Anthony, Jalen Suggs, Markelle Fultz and others. The Magic run an offense predicated on motion and flow, so without a true primary option, they rely on advantage continuation buffering from smaller actions to open up better looks.

Dribble handoffs are a staple of this offense, and Carter is the main vessel for stabilizing the offense through DHOs. At times with the Bulls when he'd run these actions, he could get stuck and hesitate if the offensive player coming to the ball was denied. Not anymore. He's reading, reacting and taking what the defense gives him with gumption.

Another part of his offseason and in-season prep has been a heavy dose of breaking down tape and segmenting the game. He's looked to find new ways to process the game. Slowing things down off the court has allowed him to speed up his on-court activity.

"I've been training my mind and looking at film and doing the little things," Carter said. "Now when I get in those situations, it's not that I'm overthinking, but that's literally just what I see."

If his defender leans one way, he knows he has the crossover and can take it to the rack. If the incoming defender goes under the DHO, he has the throwback to his man outside the arc.

He's a bonecrushing screener, capable of creating separation at a high level to screen open a ball-handler. But it's not just the strength; he's adept at flipping and angling his screens and adjusting for each individual handler on the team.

"Certain guards like for screens to be set at certain angles and come up with their left hand," Carter said. "Some like to come up with the right hand. Some like the pick to be flat so they can come off either way to create their own advantage for themselves."

There's a lot more that goes into setting a screen than meets the eye, and Carter is a master of of it. His amalgamation of strength, playmaking and ferocity as a roller afford him the blend of skills necessary to create offense at a high level with and without the ball.

"I think there's so many ways in which he can go," Jamahl Mosley said when asked about Carter's growth and future development. "He’s shown the ability to finish at the rim and to step out and make the three. The next step is continuing to make his teammates better by making those decisions and getting guys open and good looks.”

Carter has a wide array of passes in his bag. He can make a pocket pass, put good touch on a post-entry, paint the corners or slot on the short roll, hit cutters out of the mid or high post and even throw in some enamoring one-handers off the dribble. The consistency has improved, but as Mosley notes, there's even more for Carter on the table. 

The passing and processing strides this season are notable and play out routinely on the court, but one of Carter's most sizable gains have been as a leader of Orlando's young core.

"His growth is not just on the floor, it’s off the floor as well," Mosley said. "His voice in that locker room, keeping guys up, keeping guys accountable. Our group is a group of that, just tied together, continuing to communicate and working on and off the floor."

While that growth in leadership isn't fully visible to an outside observer, the communication comes through on the court, and not just from Carter. The Magic have struggled offensively like any young team still searching for more consistent and efficient modes of creation, but they're building a rock-solid defensive foundation.

Since the All-Star Break, the Magic are second in the NBA in defensive efficiency (allowing 109.9 points per 100 possessions) behind only the Memphis Grizzlies, per Cleaning the Glass. They're 7-11 in that time frame, including quality wins (over the Golden State Warriors, Minnesota Timberwolves, Toronto Raptors and New Orleans Pelicans) and close games against some top-notch competition (such as the Phoenix Suns and Philadelphia 76ers). Widen the lens, and the Magic are eighth in defense since the turn of the calendar. There's something here, and Carter is central to Orlando's growth as a defensive unit.

Carter has been among the league's best rim protectors this season, capable of operating in a deep drop, higher up in centerfield or helping off the weak-side as a secondary rim protector alongside Mo Bamba. According to Second Spectrum Tracking, opponents shoot 11.2% worse than expected when Carter is defending the rim, a mark that puts him in the upper tier of paint protectors in the league and comfortably in the top 10 of that metric. He doesn't block an outlier number of shots, but don't let that fool you. Come at the king, and you best not miss because he's going to be in the right spot with extremely well-timed contests and verticality, getting the most of his 7-foot-3 wingspan.

In a pinch, he can switch onto smaller players and hold his own on the perimeter, something Carter mentions he focused on as he prepared for the season.

"I had to kind of tackle that this past offseason, being able to keep up with a lot of these 4s and 3s," he said.

"He’s taken on the defensive challenge of playing some of these big-time bigs," Mosley said. "He’s guarding 1-through-5 in situations, being able to step into big moments as he has."

Orlando's game against Philadelphia earlier in March was a showcase of Carter's growth on both ends, as he matched up with top-notch competition. He went right at Joel Embiid all night off the dribble, attacking from the outside in and finishing with 23 points and 12 rebounds. He defended Embiid most of the night, and while Embiid scored 35 points, it was on mediocre efficiency (49.3% TS), buoyed by trips to the line. Carter defended the MVP candidate one-on-one better than just about anyone has this season while giving him work on the other end.

There's a short list of players in the world who can put together that sort of game, and those performances are becoming more of a regularity. Carter recently set a new career-high in scoring (30) against Oklahoma City, and he has scored fewer than 10 points just once in 2022.

The foundation is set, and the seeds of the next hopeful era of Magic basketball have been sown over the course of the regular season. Orlando's year will end in roughly a week after the final buzzer sounds out at Amway Center on April 10, closing out against the Miami Heat at home. In spite of a losing record, the future seems much brighter in Orlando than recent years. Carter's strides underscore the budding potential of a young and talented organization.

He wants to be an All-Star someday. He says he wants to make All-Defensive teams and earn a First-Team All-NBA selection in the future.

"On a deeper level, I feel like just turning up Orlando to the levels that Shaq and Penny had this place rockin' — sold-out games every night, don't matter who we play, because they come to see us," Carter said.

He loved the 30 for 30 "This Magic Moment" about the '90s Magic and says that documentary and "The Last Dance" got him hyped and motivated about the future in Orlando.

He details the process, which involves taking the next steps as a competitive team, getting to the playoffs, winning rounds and developing the confidence as an organization to eventually win a championship.

"That's the game within the game that I'm looking at," Carter said. "If we get that swag, that feeling, you know we've got the whole city behind us, rocking with us. I feel like that's just such a dope feeling to have."

Hitting higher grounds as an individual clearly means a lot to Carter, but he lit up in an entirely different way when talking about revitalizing Magic basketball. He wants it bad. He's spearheading Orlando's youth movement with his play and development this season, showing his commitment to the process and growth while building upon and unsheathing his potential. As the Magic continue to take steps forward, Carter has cemented himself as a franchise cornerstone as they carve out a more auspicious horizon.

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