A recurrent theme in discussions of what the Cleveland Cavaliers should do in the 2018 NBA Draft revolves around LeBron James. The Cavs almost have to have two big boards on draft night — one for players who make the most sense if they’re competing for a title, and one for if the team is rebuilding in the wake of another LeBron departure.
However, LeBron isn’t the only player the Cavs have that should be planned around. Whether LeBron is present or not, the Cavs still have Kevin Love under contract, and there’s a good probability that he’s in their 2018-19 plans. In the four years he’s been here, Cleveland has had many difficulties figuring out how to use Love effectively, and covering up for his weaknesses. He’s persevered and thrived at times despite this, but heading into a contract year, finding him some help should be something that’s on the Cavs’ list of goals headed into the 2018 NBA Draft.
If the Cavs run into a situation where their backcourt targets are off the board — Trae Young, Michael Porter Jr., and Mikal Bridges — the Cavs might be forced into looking at one of the many center prospects that headline this year’s draft class. That may end up being beneficial. Many people who are interested in a big for the Cavs are focused on one of the flashy centers, Marvin Bagley or Mohamed Bamba. But if the Cavs pick Wendell Carter, they may get the best big in the class for their — and specifically Love’s — needs.
Carter went under the radar this season, as he was used as a complimentary player to Bagley. With his teammate and DeAndre Ayton posting gaudy numbers, Mohamed Bamba displaying immense defensive potential, and Jaren Jackson Jr. blossoming as the year progressed, Carter was the last of the five major bigs to get top-10 buzz. But like Jayson Tatum last year, that doesn’t mean he doesn’t have a higher ceiling than what he was able to show at Duke.
Carter’s offensive role at Duke was similar to a Tristan Thompson-type role early on. He was used mostly as a garbage-man finisher, high screener, and pick-and-pop specialist, with Bagley taking most of the creation load between the two bigs. But as the season progressed, that flipped, as Duke began using Bagley’s finishing more, and Carter got to blossom as a secondary creator. His passing is perhaps the most underrated skill in the draft, and he has potential to turn that into an elite skill.
Carter isn’t just a strong post passer. He’s a diverse passing weapon, able to distribute in a variety of ways. Averaging three assists per 40 minutes, Carter has shown the ability to throw skips from the post, drive-and-kick out of face-ups, and even hit Joakim Noah-style big-to-big interior passes.
Carter’s also hinted at a pretty strong face-up scoring game. While he wasn’t allowed to fully flesh things out on the court, he entered college with the profile of a scoring face-up big, and when given the opportunity to attack of the dribble, he shows a combination of mobility, handling and craft that is exciting for his potential as an offensive initiator.
Carter has the potential for excellent scoring diversity, as his face-up game is predicated on a promising shooting stroke and excellent finishing touch. Carter had just 46 attempts from three this year, but his stroke might be the most promising of any of the bigs in the class. 37 of those attempts came from above the break, and he hit 43.2 percent from there per Will Schreefer’s shot chart data, putting him in the 88th percentile of college big men.
Even if he only hit 33.3 percent on NBA threes, he at least should have a threat from mid-range on pick-and-pops, and his handle opens up even more for him out of these looks. If he has to use it, he’s confident heading to the rim, despite being undersized. He was certainly helped by the presence of Bagley drawing a defender out of ideal position to contest the rim, but he was a 71.2 percent scorer at the rim, good for the 70th percentile of big men:
Carter’s offensive value is what has many scouts excited about his NBA future, but he was actually more impactful as a defender at Duke. Much of the Duke defensive turnaround in the second half of the year stemmed from the switch to zone, which put Carter in the middle of the defense. He’s not a physical freak like Ayton or Bamba, and there are questions about his athleticism and strength at the NBA level. That might keep him from ever becoming a high-level NBA defender. But he excelled at Duke, primarily because he compensates for his physical limitations with an outstanding understanding of the game:
Carter’s avenue to being an impactful defender is not going to be as a rim protector, but as a space defender. Despite not having the best agility, he has great functional athleticism, and his recognition and focus throughout the possession put him in the right spots constantly. In a zone, this made him an anchor of an otherwise horrible defensive rotation. At the NBA level, it’ll make him an effective defender in the right system, as long as he’s not over-extended.
He couples that focus with an outstanding motor that he uses primarily on the glass. Carter grabbed 13.5 rebounds per 40 minutes despite sharing the floor with Bagley, perhaps the class’s best rebounder. Carter’s box-out technique is amazing, and he’s consistently able to seal players that are much bigger than him under the basket:
Carter’s skill set is one that would compliment the Cavs’ current bigs, especially Love. Offensively, a Carter-Love pairing could unlock the ability to stay big while going five-out, which would absolve some of the matchup problems the Cavs have had throughout the past season and a half. Having two players that will let you get LeBron isolated on a big in the pick-and-pop sounds lovely, and Carter’s ability to defend in space and tangle with opposing big men for rebounds helps strengthen the defensive performance of those units.
Additionally, Carter’s combination of passing ability offers some intriguing ability to add some interesting high/low concepts to the offense. His cutting could potentially be the thing that finally let’s Love get some elbow touches, and his skill as a post entry and touch passer could work really nicely as an opportunity to get Love better looks in the post:
The goal of the Cavs drafting Carter isn’t to replace Love, but to compliment him. He’s a five that can play with Love and let the Cavs continue to use a lot of the same sets that have made them successful, while adding aspects that can work against confounding matchups. Carter’s offensive ceiling is high enough that the goal should be to work in sets where he is creating downhill off LeBron’s initiation, or that he’s allowing the Cavs to throw in some post-ups that actually go somewhere outside of Love’s possessions.
If he begins to approach his defensive ceiling, he definitely will help drag the team’s defensive performance upward — as we know, smart defenders that try hard are very foreign to us here in Cleveland.
The player who benefits most from this is Love. Suddenly, he’s not the only big that can shoot. Suddenly, he has another high-level thinker and passer on the interior who can add extra threat as a pick-and-pop weapon and as a hub to get him more open threes. Suddenly, there’s another space defender who can somewhat approximate Thompson’s role and keep Love from getting attacked in five-out lineups. This all helps to conserve Love’s energy, and put him in better positions to take advantage of his gifts. With LeBron, that’s a luxury. Without him, it’s a necessity.
The Cavs might have better options to help their team develop in this draft, but there’s a scenario where none of them are available at No. 8. Without them, shifting to a goal of finding a big who can fill out the rotation is still very important. Larry Nance has promise, and Ante Zizic could turn into something, but neither is good enough to pass up Carter’s abilities and fit. Carter may not be a flashy pick, but he could end up having the most value of any of the big men at the top of the draft for the Cavs.