Feb 12 2014

Michael Carter-Williams vs. the Rookie Wall

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.

The rookie wall can also be seen from outer-space. (Photo courtesy of Sean Hawkey/Flickr

The rookie wall can also be seen from outer-space. (Photo courtesy of Sean Hawkey/Flickr

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.

  • robbybonfire23

    Gutsy article, Tom, in that it goes against the still “popular” consensus. A big part of the problem, when it comes to public perception as to how well these players are playing, comes from “format” journalism which mentions just totals – points scored, rebounds, assists, etc. without mentioning that the player was 6-17 from the floor, or thereabouts. Incredibly there was a game a few weeks back where Monta Ellis was written up as the “star of the game,” for scoring over 20 points, yet he went 6-17 from the floor with ONE assist.

    Here and elsewhere you see, from time to time, comments along the lines that MCW’s floor shooting percentage will improve “with experience.” Does this really happen or is it wishful thinking. Based upon Allen Iverson’s consistently low-end career FG% numbers, we should be concerned whether MCW’s gaining experience will actually bolster his “ability.” Iverson’s first eight seasons for FG percentage progressed… .416, .461, .412, .421, .420, .398, .414, .387, on that course to a career percentage of .425. You see any improvement with experience there, because I surely do not?

    Also, if MCW is inconsistent from close range that means that poor “shot selection” is not the problem. Wouldn’t it be a mind-blower if the slowly improving Tony Wroten turned out to be the centerpiece for this team, going forward?

    • Kevin

      I understand the point that is being made by both here, but I think it may be a little extreme. I think it is pretty clear that through draft and Free Agency the 76ers goal is going to be to add players that can put the ball in the basket and to obtain a clear no.1 option, if not a no.2 option as well. Everyone knew MCW’s offensive limits when he was drafted out of Cuse (where he shot 39% FG’s, 29% 3FG’s his sophmore season). The positive is that he has shown the ability to score the ball when needed and this is as what I would say is the clear no.1 option and a player that others teams focus on.

      The goal for this team is not for MCW to be a Kyrie Irving/Steph Curry type of player, the goal is for him to be more of a Rajon Rondo type player, and I don’t think that is too far fetched.

      • robbybonfire23

        Good points. I do think MCW is a “keeper” and if he revs up his offensive efficiency that would be a bonus.

        What happened in the case of Iverson, in that he did not improve his game over the course of his career, is hard to speculate? Especially as ALL players, to some extent, improve up to their career peak years, 28-30, and then naturally decline. How much of this improvement is the result of a strong “work ethic,” and how much of it is the result of the physical maturation process, to go with gained experience, is another interesting but difficult to measure question and answer.

        • Kevin

          I do agree that players can naturally get better as they physically and mentally mature, gain experience and develop a level of familiarity and comfort. However, work ethic has to play a factor. Work ethic is what helps turn MJ and Kobe from high flyers that relied heavily on their superior athletic skills to players that are equally known for their reliable jumpshots and turnarounds later in their careers.

          As for A.I., I may not have been able to see some of the players that you mentioned short of video highlights and I in no way want to short change them. I just know he is the best scoring little man that I have ever seen. He could get to the basket at will, and probably would have settled for less “bad” shots had he gotten half the calls he should have gotten when driving to the hoop. He was also relied on to do everything for the 76ers offense. His 42.5% is actually rather interesting. They surrounded him with Lynch, Snow, Jumaine Jones, Geiger, Deke, Tyrone Hill, Claxton, Bell, OIlie, Macculloch, Nazr, and the list goes on. He was the only player the opposing defense keyed on. Than he went to Denver. In over a season and a half he shot over 45%. Nothing changed about him as a player, just the talent level around him.

          I do have a question though. Not saying he wasn’t selfish at times, but wasn’t it somewhat out of circumstance? The man played the SG position, averaged over 6APG for his career, and averaged over 7APG in 6 of his 13 seasons and averaged 6.7 or more in 2 other seasons. He basically averaged 22 Shot attempts per game over his career, where other big time players average around 20-22 as well and generally did this on more talented teams.

          • robbybonfire23

            Well, first of all, had we had Kobe in that NBA final series with the Lakers, and the Lakers had Iverson, the outcome would have almost surely been reversed. Kobe had so much better a career than Iverson, no matter what rationale we might make for Iverson’s low career shooting percentage. Fact is, this organization lacked the guts and the vision to take the most talented player in the draft – qualities the Lakers possessed, and golden opportunity the Lakers seized upon.

            You are right as regards Iverson mostly played with a chorus line of bottom-feeder front court dregs in his time here. BUT, he could have made them better by dishing off to them more often for higher percentage shots inside than he was getting from the outside. His career assist total is fair, but nothing spectacular. And would have been better, had he been more prolific in the assist department.

            I said it before and I will say it again – to base your offense around a low percentage shooting guard is a strategy guaranteed to get you bounced out of the playoffs vs. teams with higher percentage floor shooting options. Had Iverson played in the era before the 3-point shot compensation for mediocre shooting ability, we would never even discuss him, he would be a long-forgotten seventh man, or something.

          • Kevin

            Many points to this. I agree that it is senseless to base your team around a low percentage shooting guard and agree that Kobe is clearly the better player.That is not up for debate. [The facts also support that the only time Allen was ever around a legitimate scoring threat (which all of these other players have) he shot over 45% for those 1 1/2 seasons.] Now, I don’t think the outcome would have been different that particular year had the 76ers had Kobe Bryant as opposed to Allen Iverson. While Kobe may be the better player throughout an entire career, in 2001 Allen Iverson was a better player and if he didn’t have a better series he wasn’t outplayed by much. A lot of Kobe’s success can be attributed to Shaq’s dominance and some to Aaron McKie playing on a bad wheel after the first game.

            Kobe was drafted 13th by Charlotte. The Lakers traded for him. They took a chance on his potential and that he would be better than Eddie Jones. It’s easy to say now that they should have taken Kobe, but the truth is nobody in the world would have taken Kobe Bryant with the no.1 pick, because if it didn’t work out, they would be out of a job, probably permanently. If teams would have been willing, it wouldn’t have taken 12 picks for him to come off the board. The 76ers ended up with a Future HOF SG that made them relevant again, and we are knocking them for that? The Lakers weren’t the only team to end up with a better player than Eddie Jones in that draft. They just decided to draft the one that was more of a sure thing.

            As for Allen being a long forgotten 7th man in the era before the 3 pointer, well, I think that may need some clarification. 26.7 career PPG, 1.2 career 3FG made per game, take that away and he’s still 25+ per game….He may have taken near 4 per game, but the 31% shooting only had him making just over 1. He did make 7-8.9 FT’s per game throughout his career, which means he also drove to the bucket a fair amount. His weakness was his inconsistent jumpshot in general, and he still put up points because of his driving ability and getting Free Throw attempts. 3FG’s don’t have much to do with his overall numbers, If anything, they hurt his FG% which sits at .425 and would sit at .448 without (obviously that could be better, just making a point that attempting 3’s affected his stats negatively in this regard).

            Nobody could finish inside consistently. They didn’t have anybody that was a true threat, and that was evidenced by them trying to make Deke somewhat of a offensive threat. He was selfish at times, through circumstance in my opinion, but he did pretty much what he was able to do with what he was given. No different than averaging 22 Shots per game for his career, and in his time in Denver he took 3 less shots per game and got an additional APG. His style of play didn’t change, the difference was having players with offensive abilities so he could rely on others.

          • robbybonfire23

            There are different ways of looking at these issues and questions. For a quick scan of each player’s box score line, I first look at (total) points scored per missed FG attempt (PPX); and then at the total of assists and DR’s for each player for the game. So that, when a player has a good scoring night, relative to his shots missed from the floor, and approaches or even exceeds double digits in the DR’s + A scan (such as Kyle Anderson with a robust total of 12 last night) well, these are the players I do follow-up statistics on.

            I bypass looking more closely at players who are not solid in both the shooting game and the “floor game,” as I call DR + A’s. So that a player with a hot shooting game but an invisible floor game will not get closer scrutiny from me, for this game. And vice-versa, a great floor game along with a cold shooting night does not warrant further inspection.

            So that, any reference to Iverson’s PPG average is missing the key ingredient which enhances or diminishes a 25 PPG average, and that is: how many shots did he miss on his way to his PPG average, and what was his DR + A total, game by game and overall?

            I am always skeptical of totals which exclude modification according to the rate of efficiency, and for good reason. Media guys gloss over poor FG % shooting nights for those players who scored over 20 points.

            Also, some players are accorded superstar status because they have played on championship teams. While other players, most noticeably Allen Iverson for purposes of this discussion, are apparently accorded superstar status because of playing on sequence of dreadful teams rendering him mostly surrounded by a default bunch of nobodies, which diminished his career numbers and accomplishments.

            By the way a low-percentage shooter taking three fewer shots per game than his career average, while racking up one extra assist above his average, is helping his team add 3-4 points in a game which can turn a lot of straight up and point spread results the other way.

          • Kevin

            Iverson is always going to fall shy of some other players in the DR+A column simply because he was a below 6’0 player against a league with an average height of about 6’7 or 6’8. Simply put, the man wasn’t going to get too many DR’s a game, and all of his numbers are basically coming from the assist category. Hence, his over 6 career APG average and just under 3 DR career average.

            I agree taking 3 less shots per game and recording an extra assist can win games. It is obviously better to have a player shoot better and create an addition basket every game. This is why I stated that at the same time he shot 45% and had a much more offensive talented team around him in Denver. It was more of a point of what he did when he had offensive help.

            I’m not here to gloss over poor FG% and I’m not trying to dispute the point that no team should want it’s primary player shooting 20+ shots per game at a below average percentage. My point is more along the lines that maybe this was as much as result of the sixers and the way they decided to build the team as much as Allen and his poor shot selection. I think some (def. not all) of his poor shot selection stemmed from his teammates inability to make shots and sometimes their not wanting to take shots.The same player went midseason to Denver and instantly raised his shooting percentage from 41% to 45% and did the same the next season. Either way, this is a player that is either loved or hated, and people have many different viewpoints on him. But he will be a HOF’er one day and not many players can say that.

          • robbybonfire23

            Just to clarify, Kevin, I look at the DR + A total with the understanding that with guards, a lot more is expected in the A column, than in the DR column. And with forwards it is just the opposite. Interestingly, DR’s and A’s are a fair comparison trade-off in that in the NBA so far this year, Assists have a regression value of +1.40; while DR’s have a regression value of +1.35. So that, on the basis of the floor game, you can cross compare positions objectively.

            Not quite the same where it comes to FG%, where it is necessary to discount the fact that forwards and centers, overall, are better in this respect. Which serves to emphasize that the best guards in the league, in any given season, are more assist prone than shooting prone.

          • Kevin

            I understand that those two categories will generally offset. I was more referencing the bigger guards that have the ball in their hands and have more ability to get in position for rebounding or the ability to outmuscle/jump higher than their opponent. Those players will always shine over him in that type of category. While acknowledging their place in history over his, it was more of a way to state that it is unfair to compare Iverson to the Kobe’s, LeBron’s, DWade’s, etc. using only this stat.

            I respect your research and approach to analyzing players and thinking outside of the box when doing so. I think often times stats can be misleading and often times certain things are glossed over because of the fans attraction to one particular number, point total in the case of basketball. You are correct in saying that a 6-17 minimizes the accomplishment of the 20 points. Just like Adam Dunn hitting .211 the past 2 seasons diminishes the fact that he also hit 75 HR’s, because when he didn’t hit it out of the ballpark, he was relatively ineffective. Overall though, While I am excited and happy that the 76ers are trying something new and have a vision when building this current team, I am still a bit skeptical in using this approach exclusively in doing so. The 2002 Oakland A’s are perhaps the most famous case of using this type of approach. They won a franchise record 20 straight games and won their division. But the Anaheim Angels won the World Series. I sure as hell hope they prove me wrong.

          • robbybonfire23

            Kevin –

            I’m not concerned with “fairness,” at all. Physical size matters in most sports. I don’t cut any athlete any slack because he is bigger or smaller than anyone else. What matters most are individual and team rates of production. This is why I am hyper-critical of the career totals of people like Pete Rose (mostly playing corner outfield positions, plus third base and lacking power and with a mediocre career BA, by HOF standards); and this Ichiro guy, a RF lacking power, and showing consistently low walk rates. When all you do is stroke singles over the course of a long career, that, to me, is not “greatness.”

            Winning the WS is more involved with the post-season crap shoot of just getting there, given that 10 teams (going on 16, one of these years) qualify. The World Series used to feature the two best teams in baseball. Now it should be called “The Playoff Series,” it has such little bearing and correlation with regular season supremacy. That Seattle team going 116-46 and not even getting there; The Mets of 1973 going 82-79 and succeeding in getting all the way to Game 7 of that year’s WS – those results are worse than a Fantasy Baseball nightmare, where the trashing of the integrity of the sport is concerned.

            Impossible but true that we can be living in an era when regular season results count for so little and post-season results just skew the entire mix of established long-term supremacy and inferiority. “Take the TV money and run” has reached new lows in all professional sports so long as any best of seven playoff series can nullify long-term established success rates.

            Too many organizations act like “making the playoffs” is akin to winning a championship. So that we can be happy the 1776ers have set their sights upon becoming dominant in the sport, far beyond just being focused on making the playoffs and “making money,” as are so many organizations in all sports, today.

          • Kevin

            I respect your take that physical size matters in most sports because it is a very true statement. Still, we will agree to disagree on cutting him slack in regard to his size. Either way his career DR +A is still on par with the likes of DWade and Kobe Bryant, and the great Michael Jordan average 10 across those 2 categories to Iverson’s 9.1 (Iverson’s average in Denver was 9.7). So even without cutting him slack he fits the bill.

            We can also agree that baseball is all about “who’s hot” when the playoffs come. it was more about using a reference because at the end of the day that was a team built using the analytic approach. Either way, I am extremely happy with the 76ers making an effort, even if I am skeptical. Nothing is worse than watching a franchise lounge in mediocrity, and I respect shooting for the stars.

          • robbybonfire23

            Why are you skeptical as regards the team’s rebuilding process coming to fruition? I know I am also in that category, but that could change, according to the results down the road of this draft, given that Wiggins and Parker and Exum and Ochefu and Embiid, and “sleepers” like SMU’s Ben Moore will either exceed expectations, or disappoint on a massive scale.

            My hope is that Noel will be given a major offensive role, to go with his defense, because his two primary assets in college were shot blocking and FG%. His rebounding was good but not great, with his being ranked 30th in the nation in that category.

            Plus, shot blocking is of much lesser import in today’s NBA game, than it was in the late 80’s, given it’s diminished regression value from a value of two points per block, to a value of 1.07 points per block, to date this NBA season.

            The team needs to recognize that they need to get more out of Noel simply because many of the teams we face will have Noel type shot-blockers who also are prolific scorers. What the Clippers are doing to DeAndre Jordan, making him an afterthought in their offensive scheme, his sensational FG percentage notwithstanding, is the nightmare I fear the most happening with Noel, around here. If the Clippers based their offense around Jordan, guess what, they probably cream Miami or Indy in this year’s finals. Instead, they will be lucky to get to the third round.

            We need to utilize the strength of our personnel to maximize our chances for success, not have five “role players” out there, who are not cohesive because they are either being limited – like Noel not shooting enough, or being asked to do too much, like MCW putting up 15-20 shots, every night,with his “brick layer” FG percentage. Noel putting up 15+ shots per night, with MCW putting up five or six shots per night, to me, is the direct path to success for this team.

            I remain cautiously optimistic that we will adjust according to what our players show they can and cannot do, and not fall into the trap the Clippers have fallen into of not even knowing what their greatest weapons and strengths are, so that they are doomed to under-achievement purgatory, this year and beyond.

          • Kevin

            I’m more skeptical on it being based purely on the analytic approach exclusively. That being said, I love and respect the fact that not only are they are striving for success but that they also have a vision and direction for the team. I think MCW and Noel are excellent starter pieces. I also love the fact that they are taking a chance and aiming to be more than a mere playoff team that makes an early exit yearly. I hope like hell this works and brings the 76ers back to the status this city and franchise deserves.

          • robbybonfire23

            I am going to have a lot of respect for the organization taking Delon Wright, wherever he goes in this draft? He is grading, by my criterion, as the top guard in the country. Admittedly, I don’t quite know what to do with outstanding swingman Kyle Anderson, so I put him at F, for comparison sake, not really fair to compare a swingman with full-time guards.

            Wright has the best PPX (total points / XFG) of major program guards in the nation, scoring 3.28 PPX (this in conference play). Our boy Wiggins, by contrast, in conference play, is scoring at a rate of 2.34 total points per missed FG attempt which is really bottom-feeder country compared with the best guards who grade 3+, such as Wright and Juwan Staten. And, not incidentally, Wright shows a regression score of 629, top score among the couple dozen guards I am keeping tabs on. Wiggins, by contrast, checks in with a paltry regression score of 353. I REALLY don’t know about this Wiggins guy who is all “potential” and nothing to show, so far, other than the usual “great wing span” rhetoric. I prefer having a real basketball player to having a California Condor in the lineup.

  • Pingback: Court Vision: The foretelling of Paul George's stardom, Dirk Nowitski sings, more | The Point Forward - SI.com()

  • Pingback: Court Vision: The foretelling of Paul George's stardom, Dirk Nowitzki sings, more | The Point Forward - SI.com()