While Marvin Bagley III spent most of the season getting all of the headlines, Wendell Carter Jr. was quietly the glue that held Duke together. Is he the ultimate big man in 2018? Or will his skills fail to translate to the NBA?

A few weeks ago, when the starless Boston Celtics outclassed the precocious Philadelphia 76ers, I turned to my friend Kurt and asked him, in all seriousness:

“Is Al Horford the best player of all time?”

Okay, fine, it was in jest, but we all saw Horford ball out against a team many had picked to win the East. At the very least, the general consensus was that Philly would get past a Boston team relying on Horford and a bunch of young wings. Wrong. The Celtics won in convincing fashion, and although the series was closer than it’s made out to be now, one thing remains undeniably impressive about the Celtics’ performance: Horford’s quiet effectiveness against Joel Embiid.

His number’s weren’t all that great—he averaged 15.4 points, 8.6 rebounds, and 3.4 assists along with 1.8 steals and 1.2 blocks per game, slightly higher than his season averages—but the image of Horford burning Embiid over and over with that signature rip-through move lingers. For a long time, the knock on Horford has been that he’s a jack-of-all-trades but a master of none. That may still be true, but after his stellar 2018 postseason, we’re left to ask ourselves if that’s really such a bad thing. Horford’s versatility carried a team some counted out in the first round all the way to the brink of the NBA Finals.

Which brings us to Wendell Carter Jr, Duke’s big man prospect that often draws comparisons to Horford. Many mock drafts have the Knicks taking either Carter, Mikal Bridges, Miles Bridges, Collin Sexton, or Trae Young with the ninth pick in the first round, so it’s worth wondering: are the Knicks about to draft the next Al Horford?

Let’s break down Carter’s game.


Strengths

At Duke, Carter starred next to his much more explosive frontcourt mate, Marvin Bagley III, which made Carter look more groundbound and flatfooted than he is. What Carter lacks in vertical leap he makes up for with great body control and above-average strength for his age, allowing him to consistently finish inside.

Carter can also stretch the floor, at least theoretically. He didn’t shoot a lot of three-pointers, just 1.2 per game, but made 41 percent of them with a credible, reliable release. That’ll be an important skill for him to hone in the NBA, as he doesn’t boast great size (6-foot-10) for a center, although his wingspan (7-foot-5) projects very well.

He’s not some dominant force on offense, as we saw during Duke’s March Madness loss to Kansas; it’s just not in his DNA to play that way. But that’s not why you draft a guy like Carter. Although he only has one tool he really trusts—a bruising spin move he goes to during both face-ups and post-ups—he can use it to finish with both hands and through contact.

His peripheral skills on offense are already well ahead of the curve. Carter is perhaps the best passing big-man in the lottery as well as the most tenacious offensive rebounder of the bunch. Oh, and did I mention he’s already got a Horford-esque pump fake in the works?

Horford, for comparison:

Carter is also an advanced rim protector for his age. His timing and positioning as a shot-blocker (2.1 blocks per game) are impeccable, and he’s comfortable both holding his own on the block as well as helping from the weak side.

Weaknesses

Carter doesn’t have a lot of upside for a lottery pick. He’s a guy who can absolutely play on a championship contender but will never be the best player on one. He’s not built for that type of role.

He’s also undersized for a center, and although he’s just as smooth, Carter’s undeniably slower than someone like Horford. He’s not a “fast-twitch” kind of athlete, and needs time to load up. Carter’s offensive game needs to get a lot more varied and decisive to make up for his lack of athleticism. His poor second jump might neuter one of his biggest strengths: offensive rebounding.

We’re burying the lede, though. The big elephant in the room with Carter is, “can he switch on defense?” Modern NBA offense is predicated on screening endlessly for your best playmaker until they have a favorable one-on-one matchup they can attack. Teams will target Carter on switches because of his poor lateral quickness. If he can’t handle that kind of defensive responsibility, he will be virtually unplayable in the postseason.

Pro Comparisons

• Ceiling: Horford (duh), small-ball Pau Gasol

I’ve harped on the Horford comp enough already, so let’s switch it up. I see a lot of Pau Gasol in Carter’s game. He is already starting to show Gasol-ian flashes: gorgeous interior passing, using his body to get to his spots, shot-blocking with textbook verticality. It’s become rare to see more cerebral, pro-ready prospects coming out of Duke, but Carter is that guy. He’ll be ready to contribute to an NBA team right away with a proper training camp. I think he’s a sneaky candidate for Rookie of the Year.

• Floor: Bigger Trevor Booker

If this is Carter’s worst case scenario, which I think it is, then sign me up! Booker is a solid pro, a high-motor tweener big-man with a similar knack for offensive rebounding. This is part of the reason why I think Carter might actually get picked before the Knicks can get to him with the ninth pick; he projects as a can’t-miss prospect (although you never know), and just has the feel of a guy that will be in the league for 10-plus years.

New York Pairings

• With Porzingis: There’s a real chance Carter gets drafted by the Knicks, and if he does, then it’s time to get the hype train rolling for a Carter-Porzingis frontcourt. Obviously, Kristaps Porzingis is out with an ACL injury, possibly for the entirety of the 2018-19 season, but if he comes back healthy this frontcourt should work seamlessly together. Porzingis is a stretch 4 in a gargantuan center’s body and Carter has the potential of becoming a stretch 5 in a power forward’s body. Defensively, a Carter-KP duo would block everything in sight.

• With Fiz: You have to love the fit here. Fizdale has become synonymous with developing young talent, and Carter also fits into some of the spacing geometry Fizdale had with both Chris Bosh in Miami and Zach Randolph in Memphis.

• With Ntilikina: It’s hard to say. Spacing with a Ntilikina-Carter pick-and-roll could be an issue if Carter’s jumpshot doesn’t fully translate to the NBA. Defensively, Ntilikina will have to cover a lot of Carter’s deficiencies on the perimeter by fighting through screens to save Carter from switching, and also communicate when Carter needs to hedge/lunge.

NBA fans saw just how valuable it is to have a do-it-all big man like Al Horford in the playoffs. Not only did Horford bring invaluable versatility but his poise was contagious. He’s become something like the Celtics’ spiritual totem on the court: their mythical, shining paragon manning the middle. A lot of people wondered how the hell the baby Celtics looked like veterans; look no further than number 42.

Wendell Carter Jr. has a long way to go before he offers that kind of value for a team. Who knows if he ever will? What is certain about Carter as he starts his career are the wide variety of tools he already possesses, all of them uncannily similar to Horford’s game. Time will tell if Carter can meet those expectations, but at the ninth pick when all of the franchise stars are off the board, he’s more than worth a shot.