The wall is winning.
At the start of their careers, some players storm out of the gates. Michael Carter-Williams roared out of them on a flaming chariot pulled by coked-up velociraptors.
On Oct. 30, it seemed a new star was born. In garnering 22 points, 12 assists, 9 steals, and 7 rebounds in the Sixers 114-110 upset of the twice-defending champs, MCW posted the second-highest assist total of a rookie NBA debut, the most steals, and became the first player of any experience level since 1985–and the third ever–to record a line of 22/12/9/7 or better.
It was astonishing. And MCW, for an improbably long stretch, continued to astonish.
He ran the floor like a manic gazelle, wearing opponents down with his relentlessness. His long arms were equally adept at disrupting opponents’ passing lanes as they were at dishing assists on the subsequent breaks. He struggled as shooter, sure, but his aggression and fearlessness suggested a killer instinct, the psyche of a superstar. Anything and everything seemed possible for him, his potential without discernible limit. An afterthought on draft night turned foundational piece–a 6’7 point guard who’s package of size, smarts, and athleticism was and is unparalleled at the position.
The NBA took notice. He was named the league’s top rookie after November and January and won Player of the Week honors on Nov. 3–becoming the first rook since Shaq to do so. Carter-Williams was the Association’s “it” freshman, the consensus gem of the class, the reason Jrue Holiday hadn’t been forgotten as much as he’d been wiped, Lacuna Inc.-style, from the city’s collective memory.
This wild success explains, in part, why it’s taken even close followers of the team a weirdly long time to recognize a plain fact: it’s been awhile since Michael Carter-Williams actually played good basketball.
A mean regression
“I’ve never played this long of a season, so I’m learning each and every day and I’m going through it a little bit,” Carter-Williams told Jason Wolf of Delaware Online in January, explaining a slump that’s since developed into something worse “My body is tired, a little bit, but mentally I’ve got to stay strong.”
While I couldn’t speak to his mental state, his production has taken a nose dive.
The primary problem with his game has been his inefficiency as scorer, an issue many analysts foresaw when he left Syracuse with a 39.8 field goal percentage. After a hot start to his pro career, his true shooting percentage, never robust, has fallen to 47.6, the lowest mark of any Sixers regular outside of Lavoy Allen.
The reason for this decline is broad and troubling. While Carter-WIlliams’ 3-point shooting has been particularly abominable–his mark from deep, the last three months, has been 17.6, 27.3, and 26.3 percent, and on the season his 29.1 percent average is the fourth worst in basketball, behind only Josh Smith, Jimmy Butler, and teammate Evan Turner–what’s most remarkable is how ineffective he’s managed to be from every discrete area of the floor.
From 10-14, 15-19. and 20-24 feet, MCW has hit just 35.6, 30.6, and 34.5 percent of his attempts. The closer to the basket he gets, the worse he’s been. The rookie has somehow made only 49 percent of his shots from within five feet. (Of players who have attempted more than 100 such shots, only seven have converted at a lower rate–including Kendrick Perkins and Ricky Rubio.)
His decline isn’t limited to shooting, either. As has been often noted, Carter-Williams leads all rookies in assists, steals and rebounds, as well as scoring. Disconcertingly, he’s slipping in each of these areas too. Since December, he’s backtracked each month in assist percentage (34.5 to 26.9), assist to turnover ratio (2.13 to 0.96), steals (3.5 to 0.60) and rebounding percentage (8.9 to 6.9), per NBA.com.
All this has taken a heavy toll on MCW’s standing with respect to advanced metrics. The putative leader in the ROY race, by measure of wins produced and win shares, is no even longer the top rookie on his own team. Hollis Thompson has clipped him in each category.
I usually prefer to end these bits of analysis on an upbeat note, or, if no reasons for optimism are obvious, a deliberately cryptic, “well, who knows what the future holds. In this case I’m not sure I can find one. When the season began, I wasn’t sure Michael Carter-Williams had the skills necessary to be an effective point guard in the modern NBA. With his rookie season now closer to its conclusion than its start, those doubts have crept back in.