On Nov. 4, Philadelphia 76ers point guard Michael Carter-Williams made history when he was named Eastern Conference Player of the Week, becoming the first player to win the award in the first week of his NBA career since the great Shaquille O'Neal.
The No. 11 overall pick out of Syracuse had an opening night for the ages, with 22 points, 12 assists, seven rebounds and nine steals against the defending champion Miami Heat.
A future star was born.
Even his coach, Brett Brown, was shocked by Carter-Williams. "The competitive side of him when the lights come on, that has surprised me. And there's a talent in him that has surprised me," he told The Philadelphia Inquirer's Keith Pompey earlier in the season.
Though he has cooled off somewhat from that incredible start, Carter-Williams is still the front-runner for the 2013-14 Rookie of the Year award. He leads all qualified rookies in points per game, assists per game, steals per game and player efficiency rating (PER).
The gambling world certainly seems to think the award is his to lose. As Fansided.com's Andrew Melnick reported, gambling site Bovada had Carter-Williams as a 5-4 favorite for Rookie of the Year as recently as Jan. 8.
If Carter-Williams does win Rookie of the Year, he will be the third consecutive point guard to take the award, joining Kyrie Irving of the Cleveland Cavaliers (2011-12) and Damian Lillard of the Portland Trail Blazers (2012-13).
Both Irving and Lillard are already considered top-flight point guards. Irving has already been named to his second consecutive All-Star team and Lillard could very well be named to his first All-Star team this season as a reserve.
Each time the Cavaliers play the Trail Blazers, the basketball world is inundated with debates about who is the better point guard.
So does that mean Carter-Williams will follow his point guard predecessors on the path to greatness? The last guard prior to Irving to win Rookie of the Year was Tyreke Evans in 2009-10 and he is now a backup for the sub-.500 New Orleans Pelicans.
However, Carter-Williams is not likely to follow the path of a player like Evans. He still has holes in his game, but is putting up the kind of numbers that could earn him a place alongside Lillard and Irving.
3 Rookies, 3 Different Circumstances
Each player came from a different background.
Irving was a one-year phenom at Duke until injuries cost him the better part of his only season. As soon as he declared for the 2011 draft, he was destined to be selected first overall. Irving came to Cleveland with tremendous hype and pressure—he was to be the replacement for former Cavs No. 1 overall pick LeBron James, who had abandoned Cleveland for South Beach one year earlier.
Lillard never faced that kind of hype. He was a four-year player from a small school, Weber State, who was chosen No. 6 overall by a Portland team that already had a certified All-Star in power forward LaMarcus Aldridge. Lillard has never been asked to carry the load of a first-option player.
Carter-Williams was the lowest pick of the three, going No. 11 overall to Philadelphia in the 2013 draft. His selection was immediately overshadowed by the draft-night trade that sent All-Star Sixers point guard Jrue Holiday to New Orleans for the No. 6 overall pick, Kentucky big man Nerlens Noel.
The Holiday trade signified the Sixers' plan to rebuild, and with Noel sidelined with a knee injury, Carter-Williams was handed the reins of the team from the start of the season.
How Can Carter-Williams Join the Elite?
Statistically speaking, Irving and Lillard are remarkably similar players. Irving has the higher career field-goal percentage (45.0 to 42.7 percent), but Lillard's success from behind the arc has given him the edge in effective field-goal percentage (50.7 to 50 percent).
Lillard has averaged 5.9 assists and 2.6 turnovers per 36 minutes during his career, while Irving has managed 5.8 assists and 3.0 turnovers per 36.
Both players have a penchant for game-winning shots.
If Lillard and Irving have a weakness, it's on the defensive side of the ball. Neither player is considered a good defender, though Lillard is probably weaker on that end than Irving.
Carter-Williams, on the other hand, is a completely different kind of point guard. He is already a better defender than either Lillard or Irving—in 1110 minutes this season, he has already accumulated more defensive win shares (1.2) than Lillard and Irving have in any single season of their respective careers.
At 6'6", Carter-Williams is much longer than either the 6'3" Lillard or the 6'2" Irving, which makes him superior as both a defender and rebounder.
Carter-Williams has also shown to be superior at getting to the rim and drawing fouls. He averages more free-throw attempts per 36 minutes (5.5) than either Irving or Lillard.
Where Carter-Williams falls short, however, is in his shooting. He field-goal and three-point percentages are well below what Lillard and Irving averaged in their rookie seasons, as shown in this chart.
|Rookie Year Stats (Per 36 Minutes)|
Unfortunately for the Sixers, Carter-Williams has been one of the worst shooters in the league this season. It really is the only thing holding him back from superstar status—not in some distant future, but this season. With his rebounding and assist numbers, Carter-Williams would be an All-Star in 2014 if he simply shot at a league-average clip.
A player's shooting stroke can be fixed, but it is often a long and arduous process. For the Sixers' sake, they had better hope Carter-Williams is a quick learner.
If he can fix his shot, he might just surpass every young point guard in the league.
All statistics courtesy of Basketball Reference, updated through the afternoon of Saturday, Jan. 25.