He had big shoes to fill. His predecessors — one of which he would be playing next to — had set a high bar for excellence out the gate and one of them set an unattainable standard of excellence that continued on. He himself admitted that he was surprised by his No. 1 selection and in general the consensus among fans and analysts alike was that his selection would be looked back on as a mistake — even in a universally proclaimed poor draft class that was not necessarily boasting the stars of the future. Surprisingly he has managed to underachieve even given his lowest expectations and in general his NBA experience has not been one to write home about. His start brought back memories of Rodney Stuckey‘s laughable “I literally can’t find the basket” streak to start last season. A self-announced Twitter blackout did not help much. But honestly the things happening around him have been more dysfunctional than his actual play on the court. His best role model for a player with a pass first mentality is a their occasionally back-up big man who once tried to pull an NFL-ish type holdout (unsuccessfully); their star big man barely plays half of the team’s games; and they underachieved so horribly to start the season that they had to call a player’s meeting that may or may not have lead to one member of the team’s backcourt fracturing the nose of the team’s star point guard.
Life has not necessarily been good for Anthony Bennett, but has been better for a few of his fellow NBA rookies so far this season. Players like Tim Hardaway, Jr. and Victor Oladipo have met expectation fairly well, while players like Mason Plumlee and Steven Adams have played well in limited minutes. Three players — Michael Carter-Williams, Trey Burke, and Ben McLemore — deserve a closer look though, if only because they are playing in much larger roles than their fellow rookies (with the exception of Oladipo and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope). Let’s get into it:
First Step: Top Trey
After missing the opening portion of the season Trey Burke had logged 10 games and eight starts heading into last night’s game against Portland. In his limited games Burke’s efficiency numbers have been generally bad — aside from a decent touch from 3 and slightly above average assist numbers — but there are a definitely a few positives to take from his early performance.
Probably most encouraging — except for the aforementioned assist percentage and assist to turnover ratio — is the decent 3-point stroke Burke has shown so far. Burke is shooting 37.5 percent from 3 and is shooting 38.9 percent above the break. Specifically, Burke has been lights out from the top of the key, shooting 8-for-15 from that spot and 5-for-10 on pull-up 3s from that area. At this early stage of his career, teams have been content to play off Burke in high pick and roll scenarios — somewhat understandably — so Burke has had a lot of space coming off screens at the top and is fully taking advantage of that space. It is hard to say whether this shooting will keep up, though. Teams will probably be more aggressive with Burke on screens up top and the shots he is hitting now may not be as open in a couple of weeks. That could become a problem because Burke has really only been good from that spot behind the arc. He is 7-for-24 on all other 3-point attempts and if he gets to the point where has to rely on other shots more, his numbers may dip. However, at this extremely early point in his season and in his career there is definitely a chance things swing the other way. Burke is not taking a lot of shots from the corners — three to be exact — and over time if he can learn to take advantage of the shorter line and in general become more accustomed to the NBA line, there is a chance that Burke’s 3-point stroke continues to be an asset for him going forward.
Burke has also looked promising around the rim, as well. Burke’s size was definitely a major point of concern going into the draft, as guards of his size typically struggle to be successful around the rim. Burke has not necessarily been mind-boggling good in this regard, but he definitely has not struggled like many — including myself — projected. He is shooting 58.1 percent in the restricted area on just more than three attempts per game. While that is nowhere near the John Wall, Tony Parker and Mike Conley range, it is not too far off from Isaiah Thomas‘ 60 percent figure — Thomas is probably the league’s best undersized player around the rim — is slightly better than Monta Ellis and significantly better than Kyrie Irving and Ty Lawson this year. Burke is not having much of an issue getting to the rim in the halfcourt this year — he is a little slower reading screens in this regard but that has not necessarily deterred him from the paint — and is also doing a good job getting to the rim in transition. When he gets there he is not the most creative player but is showing competence when it comes to finishing around the basket. He will probably never strive for more than competent in this regard, but again considering his size, if he can keep up this level of success around the rim he will be pretty well off as a scorer.
Burke’s problem as a scorer, then, is the game between the restricted area and the 3-point line. Burke is shooting a dismal 18.8 percent on paint, non-restricted area shots and 28.6 percent on mid-range shots — shots between the paint and 3-point line. In general, Burke’s in between game has been severely lacking so far, save a decent pull-up shot from the elbow areas and a nifty step back jumper he has flashed on the left side at the end of the shot clock. This should not necessarily be a huge area of concern yet, though. That in between game — which typically consists of pull up jumpers, floaters, and flick shots to use before reaching the teeth of the opposing interior defense — is rarely a part of a young player’s repertoire and hopefully that is an area where Burke improves as his career progresses. In general, though, there is definitely enough good to hold out hope for Burke as his season and career moves forward. He will probably never turn into a star — like most players from this draft class — but he can definitely turn out to be an adequate starting point guard.
In The Lane: Despite A Skin Infection
Let’s start off a discussion on the biggest surprise of the 2013 draft class by looking at one of the weirdest shot charts I have seen in a while:
As a whole, Michael Carter-Williams has not had much success scoring the basketball this season. He is shooting 56.9 percent in the restricted area — which is OK but not great considering his supreme size for the position — and 35.3 percent anywhere else in the paint. Outside of the paint he has not been much better, as he is shooting only 33.3 percent from mid-range — though he is smartly only taking a couple of these shots per game — and is shooting a porous 30 percent above the break from 3. His one saving grace is his 50 percent shooting from the left corner and even that points to the weird phenomenom going on with his in between and 3-point shooting. While Carter-Williams has generally been bad from this area, he has actually been really good taking these shots from the left side of the court. In watching MCW play, it becomes quite obvious he is more comfortable picking up the ball with his right hand and stepping right-left into his jump shot and left-right into his floater. Those shots come off a lot more comfortably from the left side of the court and it is quite clear that he likes those shots a lot less from the right side and from the top of the key. The fact that he is shooting these shots so well from the left side, though, is room for confidence among Philly fans. It is not hard to believe that the 76ers new, extremely analytical front office will recognize his tendencies and work with him to develop a comfort and effectiveness with these shots on the right side of the court as well as his career progresses.
The 76ers’ faithful should also take comfort in just how good Carter-Williams has been on the defensive end as well. Specifically, the CW (too corny?) already looks like a veteran theft just a month or so in to his career. Carter-Williams is leading the league with 3.1 steals per game and already seems adept at using his long arms and quick hands to disrupt the opposing team’s offense with constant deflections and consistent steals. He has a natural instinct for finding the ball on defense, and while that innate ability comes with a sometimes over-aggressive nature to get himself out of position on defense — as it often does with the league’s top steal guys — his ability to get into the passing lanes and bother opposing ball handlers is a huge plus for Philadelphia’s defense.
And Carter-Williams last real redeemable skill has been his surprisingly above-average passing so far this season. Carter-Williams has logged an above-average 30.4 assist percentage so far for what has been an at least average offense for most of the season. His turnover numbers have been pretty high, but he is also assisting at a pretty high rate, so his assist to turnover ratio of 2.0 has been very tolerable for a young point guard still learning the ropes. Overall, the future looks bright for the Philadelphia 76ers and Michael Carter-Williams projects to be a large part of their future success.
The Finish: Call Him B-Mac
OK, probably don’t call him B-Mac. I have talked about Ben McLemore in depth, as I covered the Kings most of this summer and briefly at the start of the season, so I will keep this short — as I typically do with this last section. I have been gratefully surprised with Ben McLemore so far this season. I had doubts about his chances to reach the high ceiling people were setting for him and thought at best it would take some time for him to figure it out at the NBA level. Instead he looked fairly good to start out this season and despite his recent struggles, I genuinely see him turning into one of the league’s better wings at some point down the line in his career. If his 3-point stroke eventually comes around — granted that is at least a semi-big ‘if’ at this point — he has major 3D (a wing that can shoot the 3 ball and is also a good on-ball defender on the other end; think Klay Thompson/Arron Afflalo at the top and Danny Green in the middle of the scale) potential, as he already looks like an above average defender at this point. That above average can definitely turn into great under Mike Malone — the guy who performed that transformation on Klay Thompson — and when you combine that defense with a hopefully above average 3-point stroke and McLemore’s intuitive ability to move without the basketball you can there is a good chance Sacramento has a top notch supporting piece going forward.
And One: The Return
For anyone that did not know: a) was the rock you were stuck under soundproof or just irrational fanaticism proof? b) Kobe Bryant made his return after suffering an achilles tear and c) there were no steroids involved in this nine-month recovery from a one-year injury. Also, for anyone that may have missed the announcement of his coming return, Kobe left you this video:
Which the Lakers video team matched by showing an equally praise-worthy (or vomit inducing; it depends on the person) video while playing Darth Vader’s theme music. Kobe followed these videos up with a 2-for-9 performance, scoring only nine points and accruing eight turnovers (that faint echo you hear is Laker nation screaming, “he had eight rebounds and four assists,” at anyone who criticizes Sunday’s performance). He gave himself an ‘F’ for the day and also said he played like horse s***. I agree totally with that assessment, Kobe, but would also like to add you looked really, really slow out there. And not like “he just needs to get his game legs back slow.” I mean he looks “that Achilles injury took your athleticism down at least three pegs, you can’t even blow by Steve Novak and you will never be the same” slow.
Was there any particular reason to use Kobe’s comeback as my And One section? No. But when you have a chance to simultaneously take shots at the Laker fans and Kobe Bryant, well…
Next Week: “3-5@2″ On Monta Ellis, Klay Thompson, and Arron Afflalo