Is Philadelphia 76ers' Michael Carter-Williams for Real?

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Is Philadelphia 76ers' Michael Carter-Williams for Real?
Jesse D. Garrabrant/Getty Images

Michael Carter-Williams was supposed to struggle right away. The Miami Heat were going to rip him apart on opening night, then leave his remains rolling downhill for the next 81 games. 

Of course, that’s far from what happened. Carter-Williams emerged as the season's first pleasant surprise, coming within three rebounds and one steal of a quadruple-double in his professional debut against the defending world champions. 

It's now three weeks later, and Philadelphia's rookie has, statistically speaking, re-entered Earth's atmosphere. Based on what we've seen and the promise he showed in those first few games before bruising the arch in his left foot against the San Antonio Spurs, is Carter-Williams a legitimate point guard prospect? 

For some answers, let's take a closer look at how he's doing on both sides of the ball. 

 

Offense

To date, only 12 players in the league have an assist rate of at least 30 percent while still averaging at least 16 points per game. Carter-Williams is one of them, and a lot of his success is due to his physical ability to see over the defense (he's 6'6").

When blitzed on a high pick-and-roll, Carter-Williams does a solid job hitting the roll man and letting him do damage in space (here’s where Thaddeus Young makes a great teammate).

Jesse D. Garrabrant/Getty Images
NBA.com/Stats

In the pictures above, Cleveland chooses to double up high. Carter-Williams reads it, sees Young rolling to the elbow and eventually sets him up perfectly with a quick pass leading to a made floater.

According to SportVU, he’s averaging 13.1 assist opportunities per game (a statistic that measures how many assists a player would have if his teammates made all the open shots he delivers), more than Kyrie Irving, LeBron James, Damian Lillard, Eric Bledsoe, Russell Westbrook and the point guard he’s replaced, Jrue Holiday.

Trying to beat pick-and-rolls off the dribble is where he runs into trouble, with a penchant for slowing his body down to let the play develop in front of him. This is definitely not what a point guard should do, especially after flying off a screen.

Carter-Williams’ reaction to defensive schemes needs to be instantaneous, or he’ll miss out on momentary opportunities (i.e. passing lanes). This most likely will come eventually, as most young point guards struggle mightily in this area when they're first starting out.

Instead of trying to get the ball out of his hands—as the Cavaliers do in those screen shots—most defenses have opted instead to let him shoot. They've dared him with space, and the rookie's response has been less than spectacular.

NBA.com/Stats
mySynergySports
mySynergySports

Look how Tony Parker and John Wall have no problem offering Carter-Williams plenty of cushion. They'd love nothing more than for him to let one fly off the bounce. And with good reason.

In the eyes of Philadelphia’s ownership group, Carter-Williams’ shooting percentage is a mild form of extortion. Only six players who’ve logged at least 250 minutes this season are averaging under 17 points while jacking up at least 15 shots per game: John Wall, Derrick Rose, Brandon Jennings, Kemba Walker and Carter-Williams.

It’s early, but what do all those players have in common besides their position? None have proven to be quality shooters. The Sixers rookie is making 25.8 percent of his shots between eight and 24 feet (subscription required). He must get better if Philadelphia’s offensive spacing is ever going to improve, especially on a team that also features Evan Turner's inconsistent jumper.

 

Defense

As of this writing, Carter-Williams had twice as many blocks and a dozen more steals than LeBron James...in just about 100 fewer minutes of playing time. Statistically he's been a menace, using a 6'7" wingspan from the weak side to swipe at opposing players driving toward the rim. 

Individual defense is where he's most comfortable, and figuring out how to defend certain point guards in the pick-and-roll is something that will surely come with time.

But Carter-Williams has been an absolute mess away from the ball. Let's look at the three screen shots below and how John Wall is able to make a wide-open shot from the corner.

NBA.com/Stats
NBA.com/Stats
NBA.com/Stats

From the start, Carter-Williams is over helping in the paint. There are five seconds on the shot clock, and Washington Wizards forward Trevor Ariza is well-guarded and in trouble. 

As Ariza begins to drive baseline, Carter-Williams drops even further down, despite three Sixers being in fine position to defend three Wizards. While all this is happening, Wall is completely ignored behind the three-point line, so he cuts to the wide-open space in the corner.

Carter-Williams is so deep in the paint, he can't even close out to contest the shot. There have been countless examples of similar plays this season, where the rookie completely loses track of his man while being overeager to help.

NBA.com/Stats

The picture above comes moments after a missed shot by the Sixers, with San Antonio racing the other way in transition. Rookies often have a difficult time picking up their man from one side of the floor to the other, and here Carter-Williams is no exception.

He's looking for Tony Parker, but San Antonio deployed a brief cross match on the other end, having Marco Belinelli guard Carter-Williams. Thanks to where both players were on the court when Philadelphia shot the ball, Carter-Williams should've stayed with Belinelli in transition.

Instead, he's lost, and Manu Ginobili finds Belinelli for an open three. The blunder is understandable, but it's still difficult to play defense any worse.

NBA.com/Stats

*** 

All the issues highlighted in this article are merely an analysis of how Carter-Williams has played to date, and it's completely normal for a 22-year-old point guard to have multiple problems this early in his career. 

The good news is that many of them are correctable, especially on the defensive end, where Carter-Williams has the potential to give opposing point guards nightmares for the next decade. 

Carter-Williams doesn't even have a dozen NBA games under his belt. His struggles still outweigh his strengths, but that won't last forever.

 

All statistics current as of Nov. 22.

Michael Pina is a writer with bylines at Red94, CelticsHub, The Classical, Bleacher Report, Sports On Earth and Boston Magazine. Follow him here.

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