The Curious Case of Michael Carter-Williams


Philadelphia 76ers rookie point guard Michael Carter-Williams has started off his NBA career at 100 mph, with alternately tantalizing and disastrous results, depending on the game. The 76ers, who have been tabbed as one of the weakest teams in the association by many NBA observers, traded their cornerstone point guard Jrue Holiday to the New Orleans Pelicans on draft night to secure the rights to the 5th overall pick.  The pick became high risk/high reward center Nerlens Noel, who is likely out for most of the 2013-14 season.  The 76ers chose 6’6″ wafer-thin point guard Michael Carter-Williams with their own pick at number 11.  New GM Sam Hinkie made the bold, and likely wise, decision to let go of any hope the Sixers might compete this year, and to move forward with an eye on 2015, when Noel might actually be healthy, Thaddeus Young, Evan Turner and Spencer Hawes might be gone, and Brett Brown has a better grip on exactly what MCW might be capable of on a week-to-week basis.

As of now, Carter-Williams is looking like a 16 year-old who has been given the keys to the beat-up, old family station wagon, and he is burning rubber up and down some one way streets.  The results have been intriguing, if unpredictable. Basketball-reference.com creates a “Game Score” based on each individual’s performance, taking into account scoring efficiency, rebounding, assists, steals, blocks, and turnovers.  Each score falls somewhere close to an actual point total scored (0-45 in most cases), but evaluates the total performance.  MCW played at Syracuse for two years.  In his sophomore season, he shot only 39% from the field, 29% from the arc, but did manage to average 7.3 assists, 5.0 rebounds, and an astounding 2.7 steals.  Though he was only at Syracuse for two years, MCW is 22 years old as a rookie.  Through eight games (and a surprising 4 wins, though 6 of the 8 games have been in Philly), here are his game scores, including opponent:

  1. vs. Miami – Bursting onto the scene, MCW opened the Brett Brown era in Philly with a monster game against the Heat, who were worn down from an opening night clash with Chicago. . MCW managed an insane 9 steals against the sloppy Heat, and somehow dropped in 4 of 6 from long-range.  22 points, 12 assists, 7 rebounds, and 9 steals.  Quite the debut.  And likely his best game of the season. Score: 34.7
  2. @ Washington - 14 points on 6 of 15 from the field, not exactly Mr. Efficiency, and 5 assists.  John Wall wasn’t going to let this young blood show him up. Score: 6.9
  3. vs. Chicago - 26 points on 10 of 22 shots, and, more importantly 10 dimes to only 4 turnovers against a very good defensive team.  Three steals to boot.  This was quite a surprise, but it might have had as much to do with Derrick Rose regaining his speed and stamina as it had to do with MCW’s quickness and decision-making.  Still, this was damn impressive.  Score: 22.2
  4. vs. Golden State - To hear Zach Lowe tell it, the Warriors are an above average defensive team.  To hear Simmons tell it, the Warriors have Bogut and Iguodala and a questionable cast around them.  Both are probably right.  Missing Harrison Barnes for the first few didn’t seem to bother the Warriors, who have played very good defense so far this year (holding San Antonio to only 76 points was particularly impressive). MCW was stymied by the Warriors, going 4 of 17 from the field, and a putrid 1 of 7 from distance (as one might expect based on his college numbers).  In addition, MCW turned it over 6 times to only 4 assists.  Getting to the line 12 times kept this score from being a goose egg.  Score: 4.3
  5. vs. Washington – 7 assists to only 2 turnovers, 2 steals and a block are all nice, but 19 points on 8 of 21 from the floor and only 4 free-throw attempts.  This is closer to what Brett Brown should expect as the season progresses and teams start game-planning for MCW.  Score: 14.2
  6. vs. Cleveland - the first of a home-and-home match-up, MCW had another miserable shooting night (4 of 13) and couldn’t get to the foul line.  Two of five from behind the arc helped him from being a complete disaster in this one.  Six assists to three turnovers isn’t awful, though.  Tony Wroten’s impressive 18/4/4 in 26 minutes propelled Philly to an easy win. Score: 8.8
  7. @ Cleveland – MCW came charging back to life in a hard-fought loss to the Cavs in the back end.  21 points on 17 shots is average.  Cleveland kept him from getting to the line, but MCW drained all three from long-range, and added 13 assists, 7 rebounds, 2 steals and 2 blocks.  In this double-OT thriller, the Cavs hung on behind 39 points from Kyrie Irving.  MCW’s performance was memorable, but Cleveland without Bynum is another questionable defensive team. Score: 22.1
  8. vs. San Antonio – And then he crashes back to Earth.  The Spurs, who dictated the pace against the upstart and athletic young Sixers, held MCW in a vice grip: 2 of 11 for 8 points, 4 assists and only 2 rebounds.  Though MCW managed 3 steals and 3 blocks, the result wasn’t pretty.  Score: 7.2

***

What does it all mean?  Michael Carter-Williams is growing up.  His rookie season will probably be about as up-and-down as any in recent NBA history because he has been given complete freedom and confidence by coach Brett Brown, who seems to understand the psychology behind encouraging and motivating players as well as any young coach.  The ups will be sky high, and will probably come when the 76ers are able to push the pace relentlessly, akin to the Ty Lawson-led Nuggets.  The downs will be subterranean, as skilled defensive teams like the Spurs force MCW into the half-court, where his poor shooting is exposed.

Through 8 games, MCW is shooting 38.9%, but the 39.5% figure from behind the arc is destined to drop.  

In a quick search for the worst single-season shooting percentages in recent NBA history (in close to a full season): Nikoloz Tskitishvili, 2002-03, 29.3%.  For an extended career, Rafer Alston may be have the worst percentage in the last thirty years or so: 38.3%, including two seasons where he played more than 500 minutes and shot under 35% (34.6 in 2001-02 and 34.8 in 2009-10).

It will be a schizophrenic experience in Philadelphia, albeit one that tempts all NBA fans into hoping that the next Penny Hardaway has just arrived.

***

Jonah Hall writes The Darko Index because he is intrigued by talented young NBA players.

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