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Wendell Carter Jr. finds groove again as Magic travel to lowly Pistons

After Wendell Carter Jr. returned to the court in December for the Magic following 20 games away due to a fractured left hand, the Orlando center appeared to be a stepped behind everyone else.

It was clear there was more work to be done for him to look more like himself — a foundational player who serves as the team’s frontline defensive anchor and helps space the floor on offense while offering a strong rim presence.

In the last 10 games, however, Carter has found his groove again on both ends of the floor to help the Magic go 5-5 in that stretch, including three wins in their past four games.

During that span, he’s averaged 15.7 points (59.6% FG and 41.2% 3P) and 7.4 rebounds, marks that are above his season averages — 11.4 points (51.4% FG and 40.9% 3P) and 7.8 boards in 23 games.

His reemergence is an important one for Orlando (26-23) as it travels to last-place Detroit on Sunday (Bally Sports Florida, 3) and continues to push for the playoffs in the second half of the season.

“Wendell at his best is a high high-level great player,” Magic coach Jamahl Mosley said Friday night after Orlando’s 2-point win at Minnesota.

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It was a decision from Mosley that initially helped Carter bounce back after he was out for more than a month. In Carter’s first 5 starts after returning, his impact was limited to 5.2 points, 5.2 rebounds and 2.0 assists in 21 minutes.

The move to the bench worked for Carter, who totaled 17 points on 3-of-3 shooting from beyond the arc in 24 minutes at Phoenix on New Year’s Eve.

The Magic center, however, returned to the inactive list just two games later due to right knee tendinitis. The injury kept Carter off the court for five games over a 12-day span.

When he made his way back at New York on Jan. 15, Carter came off the bench again. He didn’t return to Orlando’s starting lineup until Jan. 21 against Miami when the Magic limited the Heat to 87 points with their opening-night starting five — guards Markelle Fultz and Jalen Suggs plus forwards Franz Wagner and Paolo Banchero along with Carter — back together for the first time in months.

Now nine games later, Carter is hitting his stride, especially on offense.

He’s one of just five Magic players to play in all 10 games since his second return in mid-January. His offensive rating is 114.5, which is up from his season-average 108.9 offensive rating.

Carter is also shooting the ball better in this recent stretch. His effective field goal percentage — a field-goal percentage formula that adjusts for 3-pointers being worth more than made 2-pointers — sits at 67% in the last 10 games compared to his 58.8% EFG for the season.

“His ability to stretch the floor, making shots,” Mosley said about Carter, “but then when he wants to get a rebound and go after it, he does it.

“I don’t think there’s many people that can go there with him. He just does a great job of keeping our team leveled and when he has a presence at that rim, it’s something special.”

Not only is Carter healthy but so is the entire Magic roster. The injury report is empty for the first time in months after Gary Harris made his return to the court on Friday night following a 14-game absence due to a right calf strain.

The lone players not available for Orlando are Kevon Harris (two-way) and Jett Howard (on assignment), who remain with Osceola in the G League.

The Pistons (6-42) will be without starting big man Isaiah Stewart (left ankle sprain) while reserve Mike Muscala (concussion protocol) is questionable. Montverde Academy product Cade Cunningham (left knee injury management) is listed as probable.

Email Jason Beede at jbeede@orlandosentinel.com or follow him on X, known as Twitter, at @therealBeede.