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Examining how Michael Carter-Williams is setting the league on fire

Nov 4, 2013, 3:17 PM EDT

Michael Carter-Williams

Through his first three pro games, Michael Carter-Williams is averaging 20.7 points on 47% shooting, with about nine assists, five rebounds and four steals. Those numbers aren’t just impressive for a little-hyped rookie, they’re impressive for absolutely anybody. Carter-Williams’ current PER of 29.2 is nearly six whole points higher than that of four-time league MVP LeBron James, who MCW arguably outplayed in his historic NBA debut.

What’s more, Michael has done all this for a team that’s shocked the NBA world by starting the season 3-0, beating contending teams like the Heat and the Bulls in the process. And MCW has played a central role in all three W’s, including hitting the game-sealing free throws against Miami and dishing the game-sealing assist against Chicago. As crazy as it sounds to say, through the first week of the 2012-13 NBA season, Michael Carter-Williams is probably your league MVP. It shouldn’t be possible, but it is.

But how? How is he doing this? Well, as for which dark forces are involved that have inspired Carter-Williams to play like this, I can not attest, but I’ve isolated some of the more specific things MCW has excelled at doing through his first three games that have allowed him to put up such ridiculous numbers. Hopefully nobody from an opposing team will notice or plan for these things, and MCW can keep playing like this forever and ever.

1. Hitting Catch-and-Shoot Threes

The most common knock on MCW out of college was that he can’t shoot, but as I’ve said before, that’s not really true–it’s not hitting the shots that’s the problem so much as knowing when or where to take them. So far in his pro career, MCW has mostly only taken shots off good looks, resulting in him shooting an impressive 8-17 from deep.

He’s by far the best when he just releases off a catch-and-shoot, getting his feet set and squaring up, and he’s shot 5-10 so far off catch-and-shoot threes. Look at this one he hit early against Miami:

What’s impressive about this clip isn’t the shot so much as what Carter-Williams does to get it. He sees Thaddeus Young working his way into a double team in the post, and inches his way over to the corner without attracting the attention of the help defender. This helps get him a better shot once Thad notices him and kicks out, not just because the corner three is the shortest in the league, but because the help defender has to scramble a longer way to contest it.

Even when I thought he was going to struggle for most of his rookie season, I encouraged Sixer fans to consider the shots MCW was getting more than whether or not he made them, and Michael working to get himself shots like this is very encouraging.

2. Scoring with Length

Carter-Williams doesn’t have a particularly diverse repertoire yet when it comes to getting his own shot, but as a long-armed, 6’6″ point guard, he does have a huge natural advantage in most matchups against opposing PGs, including Chicago’s Derrick Rose. In this clip, you can see him simply taking it to the hole and scoring over Rose on three separate occasions, who does his best to contest but can’t really get high enough to bother the shot.

MCW will eventually have to greatly improve his mid-range game, and develop a floater for when he gets past the first line of defense and has to shoot over big men that he can’t simply toss it in over. But he should be able to get an easy bucket or two a game simply by being longer than his over-matched defender.

3. Causing turnovers with length

Scoring isn’t the only thing Michael’s height and length are good for. His size advantage and quick defensive instincts also contribute to his being a disruptive force on defense. In this clip from the Sixers’ opener, LeBron James gets MCW on a mismatch, forcing him to try to front LeBron.

Due to MCW’s length, Miami’s Mario Chalmers and Udonis Haslem both struggle to feed LeBron an entry pass for what would be an easy layup or dunk. Eventually, Haslem floats a pass that isn’t high enough and is easily picked off by Carter-Williams, who leads the break the other way and finds Turner isolated on the other end against the power forward Haslem, allowing Turner to shake his way to an easy iso score.

A couple games later, he teams with Thaddeus Young to pester Derrick Rose 30 feet from the basket late in the fourth quarter:

In this one, Carter-Williams’ length forces Rose to leave his feet to be able to even see where an open teammate might be, and then Rose has to throw the pass so high that it ends up sailing well above its target and out of bounds.

Racking up steals was something Cater-Williams excelled at out of college, leading the Big East with 2.7 a game last year, and his length is obviously a big reason why, so it’s good to see that translating so far to the bigger bodies of the pros.

4. Gambling for steals

Length isn’t the only asset MCW has when it comes to creating turnovers–he also has excellent instincts for filling passing lanes and gambling for takeaways, like with this pickoff he came up with in the first quarter against the Heat:

Taking a closer look at this one, you can see MCW’s eyes focused on Heat guard Roger Mason in the corner, who is telegraphing his upcoming pass to the flashing Udonis Haslem near the basket.

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MCW would be taking a big risk by going for the steal here, because if he guesses wrong, he’s leaving his own man, Mario Chalmers, wide open at the top of the arc for the basket. Luckily for MCW and the Sixers, his guess is right, and he gets the easy steal to lead the break the other way.

Later in the game, he again finds himself isolated on the wing against LeBron.

This is a bad matchup for the slight-of-frame MCW, and he knows it. So rather than let LeBron get the ball and either back him down for an easy turnaround jumper or drive or spin past him for an easy layup, he decides to curl around LeBron for the last second and attempt to interrupt Bosh’s entry pass. Bosh never sees the intercept coming, and Carter-Williams has the ball and is off.

It’s through this combination of athleticism and smarts (and a couple lucky breaks on bad Heat passes) that MCW managed to rack up a record nine steals in his debut game against one of the smartest offenses in basketball. Given the transition-heavy offensive attack Coach Brown wants to run with these Sixers, getting live-ball turnovers like these is absolutely paramount, so MCW’s defensive disruptiveness is obviously a tremendous asset.

5. Sucking in the D and dishing out to shooters

The most immediately obvious skill about MCW is his ability as a passer, which has led to him racking up an impressive 27 steals (with just seven turnovers) over the Sixers’ first three games. One way he gets these numbers up is by penetrating into the opposing defense, attracting the attention of a number of help defenders, and then passing out to an open teammate, usually behind the arc.

Michael does this here against the Heat to get an open look for James Anderson:

Freeze the picture and you can see that there are four pairs of eyes on Carter-Williams as he gets into the teeth of the defense, while Anderson simply sets up at the wing behind the arc and waits:

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By the time LeBron snaps back to reality, Carter-Williams has already delivered a clean feed to Anderson behind the line, who simply turns and fires for the most uncontested three he’ll get all night.

Michael draws even more attention on this crucial possession later in the game, as he drives down the floor with the Sixers up just one with less than two minutes to go:

This time, you can clearly see how all five Heat defenders converge on MCW as he attacks the basket…

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…leaving a wide-open Evan Turner in the right corner, wildly signaling for MCW to send the rock his way, which Carter-Williams does. Evan ends up missing the shot, but it’s a high-percentage look that Coach Brown would take ten times out of ten in a late-game situation, and it’s basically all due to MCW.

The Sixers don’t have a ton of great shooters on their roster, and certainly not many who can get their own looks off the dribble, so having a point guard who can deliver the ball to teammates in the right spots at the right time can help players like James Anderson stay relevant in the NBA, and help the Sixers take advantage of one of the most efficient shots in the game.

6. Passing to big-man shooters out of the pick-and-pop

Coach Brown has long encouraged his big men, particularly Spencer Hawes and Thaddeus Young, to launch from distance when given the opportunity. Playing with Michael Carter-Williams, Hawes and Young certainly get their share of such opportunities, as evidenced by this seemingly endless stream of drained pick-and-pop jumpers they’ve hit in just three games of playing with MCW:

Unlike during the Doug Collins days, when the pick-and-pop normally resulted in countless long two attempts–commonly viewed as the least-efficient shot in basketabll–most of the looks here are from three, which both Thad and Spencer have proven they can hit this season, Spence shooting 6-12 from deep so far. Of the team’s P&P big men, only Lavoy Allen still seems to favor the long two–likely because that’s the high end of his range at the moment–but Lavoy’s been hitting, shooting 9-14 from the floor so far this season.

The MCW-run pick-and-pop proved to be such a weapon against the Bulls that Brett Brown called it for the team’s last play of the game–seen at the end of the above montage–with Hawes setting the pick up high against Derrick Rose. Unlike earlier in the game, when the Bulls seemed content to let Spence fire away from deep, this time Chicago Joakim Noah lept out at the big man, allowing Spence to pump-fake to get Noah in the air, take a couple steps in and calmly drain the open game-sealing jumper.

Getting our big men open looks from distance, especially if they’re hitting, stretches the defense for this team, getting opposing bigs out of position and allowing penetrators like Evan Turner and Tony Wroten room to operate in the half-court. All good things for this offensively limited 76ers team.

7. Passing to rolling bigs out of the double-team trap

The primary reason I expected Michael Carter-Williams to struggle so mightily against the Heat was because they’ve typically terrorized unexperienced point guards with their tough perimeter defense, particularly by unelashing two-man traps on point guards far away from the basket, leading to turnovers on turnovers and unparalleled mental anguish for the poor opposing floor generals. For a rookie in his first game, it just seemed unfair to ask him to go against a defense like this.

But Michael Carter-Williams was apparently very well prepared for the Heat’s trapping ways, as he was able to quickly recognize the traps, and deliver passes over (or in one case, under) the double team to the open, rolling big man:

Consequently, MCW was able to negate the Heat’s most potent defensive weapon, cut down on live-ball turnovers the other way, and mos importantly, get his big guys all kinds of good looks towards the basket in the process.

By the way, as you can tell from his presence in so many of these videos, it’s not an accident that Spence is putting up the best numbers of his career–19 points, 11 boards, 65% shooting–while playing with MCW for the first time. He’s never shown chemistry like this with a Sixers point guard before, and just might continue to put up some serious numbers catching feeds like these from Carter-Williams.

Well, hopefully that all goes to explain some of how MCW has done what he’s done through three games of the NBA season–again, minus any potential promises to Satan or flirtations with Fairuza Balk or anything. Can he keep it up tonight against Stephen Curry and the Golden State Warriors? If you’re not glued to your TV tonight at 7:00–or there in person at the Wells Fargo Center–to see for yourself, you sir or madam need to get with the damn program.

  1. wheeeeeeee.com - Nov 4, 2013 at 3:36 PM

    Well, I enjoyed this post thoroughly.

    Reply
  2. yishmeister - Nov 4, 2013 at 4:02 PM

    MCW reminded me of Tayshaun Prince at Cuse and is following that up in the NBA.

    Reply
  3. Winged Nazgul - Nov 4, 2013 at 5:06 PM

    McWinsanity!!!

    BRB trademarking this…

    Reply
  4. brandonphilly - Nov 5, 2013 at 6:42 AM

    Sixers are my #4 or #5 team in Philly… pay little to no attention to them, but this was a heck of a post. Good work Andrew.

    Reply
  5. donkeylips - Nov 5, 2013 at 10:10 AM

    Aaaaaaaand he was terrible last night. : \

    Reply

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