Wendell Carter Jr., Daniel Gafford overcome injuries to practice fully for Bulls

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When Wendell Carter Jr. rolled his left ankle after stepping on somebody’s foot and team officials suggested Carter sit out the rest of Tuesday’s practice, the second-year center pleaded his case to keep playing.

That didn’t happen, but Carter returned to practice fully on Wednesday. After thumb surgery limited his rookie season to 44 games and offseason surgery repaired a longstanding core muscle injury, Carter has missed enough time and is raring to play.

“Energy has been good. Everybody has been coming in ready to work. Everybody is in early getting in extra work and staying after practice getting up shots,” Carter said. “I feel like everybody is pretty committed on the individual thing and then once we get to practice, everybody is all ears, all eyes. Everybody is paying attention, talking, wanting to learn. We have a good group of guys.”

That group also included rookie center Daniel Gafford, who practiced fully despite hyperextending his right elbow. The injury caused some concern among team officials, but Gafford felt improvement as Tuesday progressed and didn’t need further evaluation.

The injury news isn’t as good for second-year swingman Chandler Hutchison. For the first time, coach Jim Boylen said the Oct. 23 regular-season opener in Charlotte is in jeopardy for Hutchison, who he added is “at least two more weeks away” from returning.

Carter, Hutchison’s draft classmate, is in a better place. He reiterated his offseason surgery has him feeling “the best I’ve felt in a very, very long time,” which is encouraging for a second-year player looking to take the next step.

“It was going on since I was 15 years old. I used to go to the doctor every summer and have tight hips. I kept stretching. And me stretching made it worse,” Carter said of the core muscle injury. “Once I got to the league, I remember one practice I went to make one move and it hurt real bad. It hurt for me to walk and stuff. But it wasn’t a pain I haven’t felt before. So I thought I could play through it. I kept trying to play but I was very limited. I went and got an MRI. They thought surgery would be the best idea. I didn’t need surgery at all. But to play pain-free is always the goal. So I went ahead and did it.”

Carter flashed plenty of promise while averaging 10.3 points and 7 rebounds last season, which also featured heady defensive play. Now, he and the Bulls are looking for him to take the next step.

“I’ve always made the right decisions since I’ve been here, so Coach has a lot more trust in me getting more shots and being more aggressive,” Carter said. “Start of the game, usually I am going to be rolling (to the rim) a lot, try to get my easy points at first. But later, once it got into the game to where I feel the defender is setting a lot of picks, picking and popping, moving all around the court, that’s another way I can wear out my opponents.”

Carter said he currently weighs 270 pounds, up 15 from last season, but at the same 6 percent body fat. He also talked about picking-and-popping and attempting more 3-pointers. Last season, Carter attempted just 32, making six.

“He can catch the ball in the pocket and make a decision. That's usually not a skill for a young guy. He can rim protect. He can do the straight up at the rim,” Boylen said. “He'll adapt and he'll grow, but I think people underestimate how smart he is. He knows what we're doing. He never asks, 'What are we doing there?' or 'How's that work?' He's an intelligent young guy. And he embraces contact and collision. If you can do that man, you can do anything in this world.”

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