It seems the Philadelphia 76ers are in history’s most casual freefall. They’ve lost nine straight games and have rarely looked like breaking this run of mediocrity. It goes without saying that few teams are as comfortably uncompetitive as the 76ers are right now. But this season goes so far beyond the win-loss total that referring to it feels not just like missing the forest for the trees, but actually misunderstanding the concept of collective growth within an ecosystem. And this ecosystem in particular has been cultivated for one specific entity to thrive and grow. That guy is Michael Carter-Williams, so how is he doing and how good can he eventually be?
By trading Jrue Holiday away for Nerlens Noel and New Orlean’s 2014 first-rounder, the 76ers made it obvious that they were openly (and justifiably) approaching this season as the start of a total rebuild. At the center of this turnover was Carter-Williams, the rare rookie to be instantly pushed as the face of the franchise, despite not even being a top-five pick. The former Syracuse point guard had faced polarizing opinion, his maligned shooting being unable to make up for his exceptional length and obvious point guard skills while his defensive potential was, in retrospect, overlooked due to Jim Boeheim’s famous 2-3 zone.
However, with a new coach in Brett Brown and a roster in total transition, Carter-Williams was given a license to roam as he chooses. This is fastest team in the league but the experimental nature of their playing style has rarely looked revolutionary. Currently, the fast-paced, free-launching style looks more like an on-court dystopian future than NBA basketball; however, it’s unfair to assess the vision when in flux and more significantly, Carter-Williams has admirably held up within the confines of this loose system.
With an average line of 17-6-5, Carter-Williams heads a historically weak rookie class. Given the nature of sports it is easy to be drawn towards wins and see Carter-Williams as merely the beneficiary of good timing, a default champion in a field of busts and disappointments. However, few rookie guards in NBA history have played as many minutes with as much responsibility as Michael Carter-Williams. In fact, since Allen Iverson only Kyrie Irving and Tyreke Evans have had a usage rate at Carter-Williams level (26.2 percent).
It would be foolish to simply infer that his usage rate in this instance is a sign of excellent play, it is much more likely to be indicative of the type of roster he has been asked to lead. A team with Philadelphia’s talent deficit (especially in terms of depth) will obviously lean on it’s brighter stars. However, with a PER of 15.7, he has also been carrying out the thankless task of carrying this team at a respectable efficiency, it is fair to consider him an average NBA point guard at this point despite being saddled with a very, very below-average situation.
For context, his rookie year compares well with similar point guards drafted into similar situations. Aside from Chris Paul and Kyrie Irving — the best-case scenario for any rookie point guards from an efficiency standpoint — Carter-Williams sits in the second tier of players a shade behind Damian Lillard, Stephen Curry, Derrick Rose and John Wall while slightly ahead of Russell Westbrook. The PER statistic is by no means a perfect stat but it is a useful all-in-one indicator of a player’s contribution. What PER misses is any attribution to defensive play outside of blocks and steals, which is lucky for this assessment because few players contribute less defensively than the type of ball-dominant rookie guard we’re looking at.
His shooting mechanics are not terrible but more importantly, as we’ve seen recently, the ball doesn’t go in that often. He currently carries a pretty brutal true shooting percentage (47.7 percent) buoyed only by an ability to earn foul shots at a rate that is both very good and sustainable due to his length advantage. It’s too early to say if Carter-Williams is capable of improving his shot, but it is not an uncommon problem. Jason Kidd, Rajon Rondo, Derrick Rose, Ricky Rubio and John Wall are just a few guards who had everything except maybe the most fundamental basketball attribute. Capable of so many things, these players all suffered the same affliction, sometimes the problem grows to define a player and sometimes it becomes a distant memory.
As a relentless driver to the rim (only Ty Lawson, Monta Ellis and Tony Parker do it more times a game), Carter-Williams’ ball-handling ability is surprising sweet for his size. His drives are inefficient as he is not a great finisher at the basket nor does he provide much opportunity for his teammates, however, there is a lot there to look upon favorably. As he grows into his game and gets more comfortable as a pro he will learn to assess the court and search for opportunities to find his teammates as every veteran point guard does, added weight will surely increase his own ability to finish through traffic as well.
From a defensive standpoint, Carter-Williams and his never-ending limbs will be a huge advantage in the coming years. Being able to play a point guard with Carter-Williams’ size advantage without sacrificing any command of the floor on the offensive end may soon leave opposing teams envious. Indiana for instance, have shown the damage that can be done with an extremely long and active defensive point guard in George Hill. With 2.1 steals a game, Carter-Williams sits third behind Ricky Rubio and Chris Paul in the NBA; his game is too often like a free safety but as he becomes more regimented defensively he could become an All-Defensive team candidate.
All in all, Carter-Williams has given us cause for optimism through the first 43 games of his career. His game is one of multiple strengths hindered by one very, very significant weakness. We do not know whether or not his shooting will improve but if he ever reaches an average level his future will be marked with multiple All-Star berths. The 76ers may not resemble an effective team right now, but they have found a point guard who may be able to lead them into the next era of contention. The first building block of Sam Hinkie’s architectural vision is in place and a stable foundation is beginning to emerge.