Michael Carter-Williams is searching for redemption next season. But will he find it?
Last season ended poorly for Michael Carter-Williams. Traded by the Milwaukee Bucks in exchange for Tony Snell, he joined the Chicago Bulls just ten days before the start of the regular season.
While Carter-Williams’ career had steadily declined since his 2014 Rookie of the Year campaign, many believed he’d be a valuable contributor off the bench or even a temporary substitute for the struggling Rajon Rondo. They were wrong. In 45 appearances, Carter-Williams notched career lows in every major category, averaging just 6.6 points, 3.4 rebounds, and 2.5 assists per game.
In an all-time first for a former Rookie of the Year, the Bulls declined to make a qualifying offer to Carter-Williams this summer, forcing him to test the uncertain waters of free agency. Surprisingly, he quickly found a biter. On July 7, just one day following the end of the moratorium period, Carter-Williams signed a one-year, $2.7M contract with the Charlotte Hornets. The addition was requested by Kemba Walker himself, who apparently still sees potential for the point guard.
Carter-Williams is feeling optimistic.
“It’s different here,” he told the Charlotte Observer.
“It’s a bright light for me; they know their direction and they’re looking for pieces. I think I can be a big help.”
Yet given the minimal value and commitment of the deal, the 2017-18 NBA season will be a make-or-break year for Carter-Williams.
Among players who averaged 15 or more points as a rookie, only five averaged single digits during their fourth full NBA season: Phil Ford in 1982 (9.9), Kelvin Ransey in 1984 (9.5), Bob Feerick in 1950 (8.1), Jim Barnes in 1968 (7.3), and Carter-Williams in 2017 (6.6). None of the aforementioned ever reclaimed a double-digit average and not one lasted more than seven seasons in the NBA. Carter-Williams is now entering his fifth.
After leading the Syracuse Orange to the Final Four in 2013, Carter-Williams was drafted 11th overall by the Philadelphia 76ers. During his rookie season in the NBA, he averaged 16.7 points, 6.2 rebounds, 6.3 assists, and 1.9 steals per game—surely impressive, at first glance. However, his success was largely determined by one factor: the 76ers weren’t trying to win.
In fact, most would agree that GM Sam Hinkie had deliberately set up his team to lose, tanking for future lottery picks. The squad finished 19-63 that season while giving up an NBA-high 109.9 points per game. To Carter-Williams’ benefit, this also resulted in a League-leading average of 99.2 possessions at the other end, allowing him to rack up big offensive numbers despite extreme inefficiency. Though ranking second in FGA per game (87.2), the 76ers finished second-to-last in FG% (43.5). They also committed 16.9 turnovers per game, more than any other NBA team.
That year, Carter-Williams alone shot a dismal 40-26-70 and finished within the Top Ten for turnovers (247) among all NBA players. Yet even with such inefficiency, his production earned him Rookie of the Year honors among a historically weak class. Capturing 104 first place votes, he was trailed by Victor Oladipo (16), Mason Plumlee (2), Trey Burke (1), and Tim Hardaway Jr. (1).
Nevertheless, the distinction not only earned Carter-Williams a trophy, but also the high expectations that accompany such an honor. Perhaps unfairly, each season since has been viewed as an exceptional disappointment after failing to become a star in Milwaukee or Chicago—both franchises with winning expectations and a calculated strategy. Following his fall from grace, Carter-Williams now finds himself in a vicious cycle of declining production and questionable confidence as he packs his bags for Charlotte, his fourth team in five years.
Strengths And Weaknesses
Offensively, Carter-Williams’ primary advantage is ball distribution. Even with declining court time, he has averaged 5.4 assists per game. His career assist percentage of 30.3 ranks him a Top 25 player in this category. Carter-Williams was able to showcase his ball handling talents during the 2014 NBA All-Star Weekend Skills Challenge alongside fellow rookie Victor Oladipo. In a near perfect showing, the duo lost to champions Damian Lillard and Trey Burke by just 1/10th of a second.
Nevertheless, his strong suit is undoubtedly at the other end, earning 7.9 defensive win shares throughout his career. He is especially skilled in the steals category with an average of 1.5 per game, while his rare height at the position gives his team a competitive edge off the glass. Standing at 6’6”, Carter-Williams ranks as the second-tallest point guard in the NBA behind the Warriors’ Shaun Livingston (6’7”).
However, Carter-Williams is just as often a liability on the court. Despite his selfless offensive mindset, he carries a career turnover percentage of 18.2, averaging 3.1 per game. This equals a troubling assist-to-turnover ratio of under 2:1.
Carter-Williams has also failed to improve his scoring ability since his rookie campaign. In fact, he’s only regressed. His points-per-minute numbers have dropped by an average of 10% each year, while his overall Player Efficiency Rating has steadily fallen from 15.5 to 9.9. Shooting a career low 36.6% last year with the Bulls, his eFG% (39.1) was trailed only by Semaj Christon and Andrew Harrison among players who saw at least half the season. His career three-point (25.2) and free throw (69.6) percentages have also dipped below his rookie numbers, causing some to question his commitment to improving his game.
Can He Fit In At Charlotte?
While the odds for Carter-Williams may be unfriendly, they’re certainly not impossible. A successful partnership with Walker and the Hornets may just save MCW’s career, especially if head coach Steve Clifford can emphasize his talents as did with Jeremy Lamb, Cody Zeller, and Frank Kaminsky last season. With any luck, the team may even be able to reach the Playoffs again after missing out in June.
With Walker safely established as the team’s starting point guard, MCW is currently set to lead the second unit, facing little competition with former backups Ramon Sessions and Brian Roberts entering free agency this summer. This unit will also presumably include lottery pick Malik Monk alongside Lamb, Kaminsky, and Zeller, bumped to the bench following the addition of Dwight Howard.
Statistically, Walker’s vote for Carter-Williams makes perfect sense. The Hornets can forgive his turnover struggles, due to their NBA-low 11.5 as a team last year. They won’t rely upon his outside shot, with Walker, Marvin Williams, Nicolas Batum, and Kaminsky all shooting a fair 30-40% from beyond the arc.
Meanwhile, his pass-first mentality will help the Hornets in any lineup configuration, even allowing him to play alongside Walker at times in a role like that of Jeremy Lin in 2015-16. This will allow Walker to embrace his scoring abilities without the sole responsibility of ball distribution. Most likely a substitute for Michael Kidd-Gilchrist alongside Walker, Batum, Williams, and Howard in this situation, Carter-Williams would serve as a last option on offense, save for the occasional inside bucket. Meanwhile, his length and defensive presence will nicely suit a Hornets team that ranked 27th in steals per game (7.0) last year.
However, it is crucial that Carter-Williams improves his short and mid-range jumper with the Hornets’ second unit. Last season, only 41.5% of Charlotte’s total shot attempts came from within ten feet, converting on just over half (54.3%). This offensive need provides the perfect chance for MCW to re-prove his worth as an inside-savvy scorer, with 58.2% of his career attempts coming from within ten feet. He shot a career high 52.2% from this range with the Bucks in 2015-16. However, this rate dropped to 44.5% last year.
While his success will ultimately depend upon his efficiency, the opportunities are there for Carter-Williams next season. His new home in Charlotte will allow him to develop his game under the radar, though a strong contribution is vital to extending his career beyond his latest contract. If he can step up to the task, perhaps this Hornet will generate some buzz in the League once again.
*All statistics courtesy of Basketball-reference.com
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