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A lingering injury could explain the Orlando Magic's starter's poor season

In the final seconds of the Orlando Magic's preseason game against the Utah Jazz, Wendell Carter grabbed a crucial rebound, helping the Magic maintain a one-point lead in the final seconds of the game.

It was still early in the season. Nobody knew yet what kind of year the Magic would expect.

They had just lost two games in Los Angeles, 2-2, and the team was just hoping to survive and split that West Coast road trip early in the season. Paolo Banchero's go-ahead goal seemingly saved them from an embarrassing defeat and a late lead.

Without Carter's massive rebound, the team would not have won this game.

But that came at a price. Carter got the rebound and immediately came out of the play, clutching his left hand. He would miss the next 20 games and required surgery to stabilize the fracture of his third metacarpal in his left hand from that game.

Carter would eventually return, but had his worst season since arriving in Orlando in the memorable Nikola Vucevic trade in 2021.

There might be a good reason for the frustration everyone felt about his season.

The Magic announced Saturday that Carter will undergo a second surgery to stabilize the third metacarpal in his left hand. The preventive procedure involves applying a plate to the fracture site. He will be re-evaluated in four weeks and is expected to make a full recovery before training camp for the 2025 season in September.

This just shows how much Wendell Carter has struggled this season. In interviews at the end, he spoke about the psychological toll his injury took on him.

It may have been a minor injury that he was able to return from and play through. But it still demanded a lot from him this season.

“It affected me in a lot of ways,” Carter said during the team’s farewell talks last Monday. “Of course, physically. My hand hurt. But mentally I was out of the squad for a while, watching from the sidelines, we did a fantastic job and then the pressure came to come back and continue where Goga was.” [Bitadze] and Moe [Wagner] had stopped. It was hard.”

Carter was not on the roster during the team's breakthrough nine-game winning streak in November. There were calls to return to Bitadze at various points during the season, at least from fans on the outside who were frustrated with Carter's play.

The Magic have always understood Carter's versatility on both ends and his ability to stretch the floor as a shooter has been valuable to the team. Carter still showed hints of why the Magic have been so invested in him all season.

Still, the early-season injury took more from Carter than anyone probably realized. And it's now clear that it never went away.

“It got to the point where I doubted myself a little bit,” Carter said during the team’s farewell discussions on Monday. “It was hard. I think a lot of people outside the facility were able to help me, encourage me and keep me going. It got to a point where I felt like I wasn't good enough. On the other hand, the fact that I was able to come back from that and help our team get to the playoffs and do what we did in the playoffs. I was happy I could do that for this team.

Carter was able to recover significantly. He still contributed positively to the team in the playoff push and was a crucial force for the team in reaching Game 7.

But there's no doubt that Carter is also happy to have the season behind him.

While the Orlando Magic were packing for Boston before their Game 7 loss to the Cleveland Cavaliers. Carter said his body really appreciates some rest and recovery — and not just for his hand. Everyone feels the relief of the end of the season and the chance to slow down.

Carter certainly seemed to need this decision to undergo surgery.

It has undoubtedly been a frustrating season for Wendell Carter.

He averaged just 11.0 points per game and 6.9 rebounds per game. Those were the fewest points he's scored since his rookie year and the fewest rebounds he's averaged in his career.

He still shot 52.5 percent from the floor and a career-best 37.4 percent from three shots. But it was clear that something was wrong with him. Carter was not the dominant player in the 2023 season.

According to Basketball Index data, the Magic scored -0.07 points per 75 fewer possessions than average with Carter as the roll man in the pick and roll. In fact, the Magic scored 1.03 points per possession on pick and rolls with Carter as the roll man, which ranked him in the 38th percentile.

Carter is not a pick-and-roll star – the Magic as a team are not a pick-and-roll heavy team. But the Magic couldn't always rely on Carter offensively.

In the end, Carter seemed to wait more than ever for his 3-point shot – whether on purpose or out of Carter's convenience is unclear. He made just 3.1 attempts per game, but 40.2 percent of his shots were three-pointers, compared to 36.7 percent last year when he started making threes more regularly.

His hand injury appears to be a direct result of this. That might explain why Carter had so much trouble.

He still found ways to contribute. He's always been an excellent screener, even if he's not a great pick-and-roll player. Carter accounted for 2.6 screen assists per game (up from 3.8 per game last year).

Carter still had a positive impact on defense. Opponents shot 58.4 percent against him at the rim after shooting 64.0 percent during the 2023 season, according to data from Second Spectrum. But even that was a mixed bag.

Still, it was clear all season that something was wrong with Carter. The hope has to be that whatever problem has been causing him discomfort or slowing him down (even if it hasn't stopped him from playing) will help him get back on his feet next year.

Carter didn't play in the playoffs either.

In the playoff series, he averaged just 7.6 points per game and 6.3 rebounds per game. His return to the starting lineup in Game 3 helped turn the series back in the Magic's favor. But it was also clear that he had trouble dealing with Evan Mobley's size, particularly on offense.

This season, Carter remained a reliable defender, but his offense was wildly inconsistent and his ability to close the ball around the basket suffered a major setback.

Whether the team should stick with Wendell Carter at center could quietly be one of the bigger decisions for the Orlando Magic this offseason. As the team looks for ways to improve the roster, there will be many options on the table.

Fans are already expecting the Magic to focus on acquiring a guard and shooting in free agency.

But it's at least possible that the Magic could use Carter and the final two years of his contract – at a bargain price totaling $22.8 million – to make a big trade and expand the roster. The Magic could sign free agents like Isaiah Hartenstein or Nic Claxton if they feel it would be a more significant improvement on defense.

It's one of the many things the Magic will have to weigh this offseason.

Even in a season with so much success, Carter's season was certainly a setback. It shows how good this team can still be when players who didn't live up to expectations bounce back next season.

If the Magic believe Carter can do that, and his struggles are simply due to an unfortunate injury that has slowed him down this year, then the team already has the versatile, space-making player this team may need at some point.

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It's not entirely clear how much Carter's hand injury has affected him this season. But it obviously played a role in the Magic's season and the way Carter ultimately played.

Anna Harden

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