Breaking Down Where Michael Carter-Williams Must Keep Improving

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Breaking Down Where Michael Carter-Williams Must Keep Improving
USA Today

Michael Carter-Williams came into last summer's NBA draft looking like an enormous project. His size at the point guard position, playmaking and defensive skills all hinted at dramatic potential, but questions about his offensive decision-making and shooting abilities emphasized how far he might be from maximizing that potential.

This scouting report from Jonathan Givony at Draft Express summarized the popular perception of his strengths and weaknesses:

It will be interesting to see how Carter-Williams is evaluated in this draft class, which is not particularly strong at his position. Although he has some glaring flaws in terms of his perimeter shooting and all-around scoring ability, his size, passing skills and defensive prowess could make him a very interesting prospect for a team drafting in the lottery, even if the extent of his upside is still up for debate.

Starting with a 22-point, 12-assist, seven-rebound and nine-steal performance in an opening night victory over the Miami Heat, Carter-Williams has been answering questions about his ability to contribute in the NBA. 

As with any rookie, his situation has a lot to do with the balance of success and failure. With the Philadelphia 76ers not feeling any pressure to push for the playoffs this year, he has the freedom to start, see big minutes and play his way through early mistakes.

Even he has acknowledged how much head coach Brett Brown and the 76ers system have meant to his early success. Per The Associated Press, he said, "Coach gives me a lot of confidence out there. I'm able to play freely."

Despite missing 11 games with a skin infection in his right knee, he is still the runaway favorite to win Rookie of the Year, doing just about everything you could ask of a first-year player.

He's scoring 17.8 points per game, which is tops among this year's rookie class by a wide margin. He's creating opportunities for his teammates with 7.5 assists per game, which also leads this year's newbies.

His contributions stretch beyond the offensive end of the floor as well. He's chipping in 5.5 rebounds per game, which leads all rookies, and 3.1 steals per game, which leads all NBA players. If those numbers hold out for the rest of the season, he would be just the second rookie in NBA history with per-game averages of at least 17.0 points, 7.0 assists, 5.0 rebounds and 2.0 steals.

The only other rookie to hit those benchmarks was Magic Johnson.

He has figured out how to make a difference with his skills and has been a huge part of the 76ers' surprisingly competitive start.

But for all he's given Philadelphia, Carter-Williams is still struggling with some of the same questions that came with him into the draft. 

Although he's been able to rack up some impressive point totals, his shooting has been as poor as advertised. On the season, he's made just 31.2 percent of his shot attempts that haven't come directly at the rim. 

He's been finishing around the basket at a respectable rate and getting to the free-throw line much more often than he did in college, but until he can hit from the outside consistently, defenses will have a much easier time scheming for him and his teammates.

Teams are well-aware of his shooting struggles, and his defender will often go under the screen on a pick-and-roll, daring him to shoot. So far this season, he has been more than willing to take that space and fire from the perimeter.

You can see in the clip that his form usually looks good, devoid of any striking hitches. His balance and release point look much more consistent than they did in college, but the ball just isn't going in.

What's interesting is how consistent his inaccuracy has been. His outside shots have been fairly evenly split between catch-and-shoot and off-the-dribble attempts, and he's been missing both at the same prodigious rate.

Carter-Williams is walking a delicate line. He has to develop a consistent outside shot if he's ever going to scrape the ceiling of his potential. The only way to get there is by taking shots and essentially maintaining the aggressive mindset he's shown so far this season. While it's in his and the 76ers' long-term interests for him to keep shooting, it's unfortunately hurting the offense in the short term.

Besides his shooting, the other big question about him at the time of the draft was his ability to protect the ball. He's actually looked much improved compared to his last year at Syracuse, turning the ball over on just 16.5 percent of his possessions so far this season.

But those turnovers have been clustered in some troubling areas. According to mySynergySports (subscription required), he is turning the ball over on 18.9 percent of his possessions as a ball-handler in the pick-and-roll. Nearly a third of his possessions come in pick-and-roll situations, so cutting down turnovers here is important for his growth.

The mistakes he's making are common to young point guards. Here, after creating no separation on the pick-and-roll, he leaves his feet to try and squeeze the ball to the roll man. There's no opening to make the pass, but if he throws the ball to either wing, it would probably result in a turnover anyway. As soon as he leaves his feet, the possession is doomed.

On this pair of turnovers, he's caught trying to squeeze the ball into tight openings. On the first play, he misses a wide-open Evan Turner on the wing to try and thread the needle to a cutter at the rim. On the second, he forces a lob to a well-defended teammate.

Like the quandary with his shooting, these types of plays represent both positive and negative implications for his development. In the short term, they're killing the half-court effectiveness of the 76ers offense, but by continuing to try these sorts of aggressive passes, Carter-Williams is learning valuable lessons about when and where to unfurl his creativity.

Ultimately, he has answered any questions about his ability to be an impact player in the NBA. In Philly's aggressive, up-tempo system, his capacity to create offense with the ball and cause disruptions at the other end are huge assets. 

But as the 76ers move forward and refine this roster and system into one that they hope is capable of competing in the playoffs, Carter-Williams will need to continue honing his game. Aggressiveness and physical gifts have taken him far, but the next steps are to make outside shots and protect the ball in the half court.

He is capable of doing so many things on the basketball court. To become a superstar, he just has to figure out exactly when and where to do them.

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