This week, Michael Carter-Williams was awarded his third Rookie of the Month award for the Eastern Conference. He has led the Rookie of the Year race since opening day despite ideas that he was less pro-ready than other players, it appears things are going pretty well for the former Orange.
It’s with trepidation that I announce the ending of the honeymoon period. It is not my belief that it should end, but I do think it will end very soon. Carter-Williams has shown just enough to raise the expectations and despite the extensive reconstruction of the playing staff, remaining a league-average point guard won’t be good enough for long.
Due to the substandard nature of the 2013 draft class, players like Michael Carter-Williams and Victor Oladipo are thrust into a premier standing. They are the finest rookies in this NBA season, an esteemed status usually reserved for players capable of changing the course and public perception of an entire franchise.
Awards and titles come with attention and expectation, and while awards are given based on performance relative to others, the expectations that come with it are constructed separately from the performance of the player. Instead, they are usually based off an aggrandized view of the award.
By this I mean that while the rookie award is usually awarded to the most impactful rookie – as opposed to the most promising rookie (Lillard over Davis) – the perception of the award has grown large enough that it is a status symbol. The last 10 winners make impressive reading: Damian Lillard, Kyrie Irving, Blake Griffin, Tyreke Evans, Derrick Rose, Kevin Durant, Brandon Roy, Chris Paul, Emeka Okafor and LeBron James. Three are already Hall of Famers, one is a former MVP and all but Okafor and Evans are All-Stars.
By winning the award, either Carter-Williams or Oladipo (the only viable candidates) will be placed within an exclusive club that will unfairly distort perception. So they win the award because they’re better than Anthony Bennett or Otto Porter and then they have to live with the indiscriminate and unjust increase in expectation that celebrated rookies receive. They are elite only in comparison to their age-adjusted peers. Compared to other great young guards in recent times, the light is not so favorable.
By their sophomore years, Lillard, Irving and Rose were already pushing into the conversation of the league’s best point guards and competing for Team USA places. Carter-Williams for all of his ability, is nowhere near this debate or level of performance. His shot has regressed and the woeful support around him has become the safest point in his favor. He has to carry a burden greater than the aforementioned stars, but to suggest that he will grow to be similarly impactful in the league as these players is wildly optimistic.
Nobody is saying he is Rose or Irving or Lillard. But in 2016-17, no one will remember that, they will see a former rookie of the year who developed into an above-average, sub-All-Star point guard. The potential disappointment that this will cause people is what I fear.
Pre-draft hype and a culture of overzealous high school/college coverage can cause teenage superstars to be anointed with an alarming regularity. We, as a culture, are undoubtedly lazy with our comparisons sometimes.
If a LeBron-type prospect emerges once every half-decade and a Blake Griffin emerges every other year. By the same measure, every draft contains multiple players in the same caliber of Michael Carter-Williams, it just so happened that this year he was a rarity.
So base your expectations off the play of a promising young point guard and not the accolades attached to his name. He is deserving of praise but at this point it seems fairer to reward him with tempered expectations and shield him from too harsh a spotlight. The 76ers obtained a starting point guard with the 11th overall pick, that is already hard to do. Going overboard with expectation would be a mistake.
Carter-Williams has a vast amount of talent, like a lot of players in the league. He’s a natural point guard that requires a large amount of development and refinement. He can drive and finish at the rim, his passing whilst already fine will improve with experience. His development though will not be helped by the pressure of carrying a franchise when not capable.
For years, Andre Igoudala suffered a similar fate. As an All-Star caliber and Team USA representative Igoudala was not celebrated for what he did, he was derided for what he could not do. He was the the primary focus of a playoff team but his inability to score like Carmelo Anthony or Tracy McGrady left people wanting more. Now, in Golden State, he leads one of the league’s stingiest defenses helping the Warriors to their best season in two decades. The performance hasn’t changed, but the perception has.
Next year, Nerlens Noel plus a likely two 2014 lottery picks will be placed into the regular rotation. As players so young rarely make a difference in win totals so quickly, it’s very likely that another bottom-dwelling season is in the works.
The 76ers may be preparing for multiple years in the cellar but as the first player to emerge in a positive light from the rebuild, Carter-Williams will be the figurehead of the lost seasons. Again, the performance may not change, but the perception surely will. Patience can be preached but practicing it is significantly more difficult.
Whether he wins the Rookie of the Year or not, Carter-Williams may have earned himself too much attention.