Wendell Carter Jr. badly wanted to play in the Rising Stars Challenge on the Friday night of All-Star weekend. Especially with the festivities taking place in his ‘home' city of Chicago.
But Carter is still recovering from a high ankle sprain suffered Jan. 6 in a loss to the Mavericks - an incident that tipped a devastating set of injury dominoes for the Bulls and has further derailed their season. Unable to play, Zion Williamson slotted onto Team USA's roster as Carter's replacement.
Still, Carter acknowledged that being selected to the team at all is a tremendous honor, and a marker of the growth of his game.
"It just shows that I've been playing how I'm supposed to play throughout this last year, and that people see a lot of potential in me," Carter said at Friday morning's Rising Stars media circus. "It feels good, just the fact that I was recognized as one of the great second-year players in the league."
Around the corner from Carter were twin tsunamis of reporters clamoring for Zion Williamson and Ja Morant's favor. Beside him, standout Heat rookie Tyler Herro, and behind, Trae Young. The list goes on, but Carter was in good company.
And deservedly so. Before spraining his ankle, Carter was making a veritable jump forward in his second season, averaging nearly a double-double (11.7 points, 9.9 rebounds) while anchoring both the Bulls' defense and locker room. Since Carter's absence began, the Bulls own the 19th-rated defense in the NBA (113.1), resulting in a drop from No. 6 in the league on Jan. 7 (105.6) to No. 13 (108.2) just a month later.
But this weekend, the Bulls' tumultuous season can be far from Carter's mind. Instead, he has the chance to rub elbows with some of the top players in the world - young and old, new acquaintances or long-time friends. Carter said he knows most of the first- and second-year guys selected for the Rising Stars game from back in high school, and that he keeps an "open line of communication" with as many as he can, as they embark on the next phase of their lives.
As for potential recruiting pitches? Carter hasn't thought too much into that, even as an unofficial ambassador for the Bulls this weekend. But he has a rough idea of what his sales pitch could look like.
"It can't be the weather, as y'all have seen," Carter said. "Probably the food. We probably have the best food out of all the cities, that's my pitch."
Then, further, of what the Bulls are building: "I think it's pretty evident. Everybody kinda sees that we're in a bigger stage, and I feel like we're at a really good place. But we haven't been able to get healthy for a long string of games, so everybody kinda sees the potential in us to know that when we're fully healthy and fully active we're pretty hard to beat."
In that vein, Carter remains focused on next steps, both for himself and for the Bulls, as a team. On an individual level, that starts with getting healthy. Carter said he's aiming for the Bulls' first game after the All-Star break (Thursday, Feb. 20 vs. the Charlotte Hornets) for a return, though that's of course unofficial.
"I'm definitely feeling a lot better, I'm continuing to do rehab and therapy on my ankle every day," Carter said. "Just trying to get it feeling right. And I want to be back next game, that's what I'm shooting for right now. I don't know if that's gonna happen, but that's what I'm shooting for."
For what it's worth, that return date would mark just over six weeks since his injury, which initially warranted a four-to-six week recovery timeline.
Once he can get back, Carter maintained the team goal is a playoff berth (they enter the break trailing the eighth-seeded Magic by five games). And, for himself, ultimately becoming the player he believes he can be: An All-Star.
"I definitely think I'm on the right path to becoming an All-Star. When, I'm not sure, but I feel like basically I'm going there," Carter said. "My respect for the game, the way I play the game, and how effective I am when I play.
"Now that I'm here (at All-Star weekend), you know, it's the game that's above all is the All-Star game. So that's something that I'm shooting for now."
Wendell Carter Jr. has high hopes: For return from injury and All-Star acclaim originally appeared on NBC Sports Chicago