MCW showing his value to the Sixers

Posted: January 16, 2014

IN A SPORTING WORLD where numbers mean more every day, no number resonates like this one for the Sixers:

They are 1-10 without rookie point guard Michael Carter-Williams in the lineup.

Yes, other factors contribute: fellow starters who miss the same games he missed; quality of opponent; tough personnel matchups on any given night.

But 11 games is more than 13 percent of a full NBA season and constitutes a strong sample set. The Sixers are 11-15 in the games he played, entering tonight's visit from the Bobcats. That .423 winning percentage not only would make the Sixers a playoff team if the season ended today, it would give them the seventh seed.

It also would make the Sixers better than New Orleans, where the Sixers traded All-Star point guard Jrue Holiday on draft night with plans to choose Carter-Williams with the 11th overall pick.

No other rookie has made an impact close to that of Carter-Williams; certainly, none selected ahead of him. Some of the other rookies have issues - Nerlens Noel, whom the Sixers took with the Holiday pick at No. 6, was drafted with a knee injury and is not expected to play this season - but MCW has, to date, been a steal: 6-6, a wingspan an inch longer, with enough speed and polish to run a fastbreak, enough body strength and control to finish at the rim, a quick first step, a nose for help-side steals, a commanding court presence and the knack for doing the right thing.

"He's a point guard," said Brett Brown, the Sixers' first-year head coach, who helped develop Tony Parker while he was an assistant with the Spurs. "The team reaps the benefit of that. I think point guards are born. He has that instinct, that intellect to see things, a leadership quality where he's not afraid to speak his piece."

It took Holiday until the end of 2011-12, his third NBA season, to operate with Carter-Williams' assuredness.

"It's in the way he captains the team," said center Spencer Hawes, a Sixer since 2010. "He almost led the NCAA in assists. He's a pure point guard. He's got that kind of mindset. His poise. His understanding of getting other guys going. That's big for us. I think that's what is going to separate him down the line."

The separation has begun. He leads all rookies in minutes (35.2), points (17.5), rebounds (5.8), assists (7.0) and, of course, steals, because his 2.69 steals lead the league. That sparks the Sixers' break, and they are best when they're running.

"It's just natural instinct; seeing man and ball," Carter-Williams said. "Then again, sometimes I lose my man, because I'm in the help mode so deep. So, it hurts me and helps me at the same time."

Friday night's loss to the Pistons served as a fine example of where that part of Carter-Williams' game stands.

In the second quarter, Kyle Singler dribbled the ball on the right wing; Carter-Williams waited, stayed on his assigned player, a few feet away, near the top of the key. He knew Singler would go left; in fact, Carter-Williams nearly betrayed his strategy by sliding over 2 seconds too soon. He delayed, though, and when Singler drove, Carter-Williams was there to steal the ball.

"I baited him, yeah," Carter-Williams acknowledged. "I do that a lot now, especially when players turn their back with the ball; that's when I like to jump the ball and jump passing lanes."

The steals are a bonus.

It is Carter-Williams' first responsibility to make sure the Sixers' limited offense works. He makes sure forward Thaddeus Young gets the ball on the correct block, or penetrates to cause a defensive shift to set up Young or Hawes for a backside three-pointer. He makes sure Evan Turner receives his passes on the move, so Turner can best use his size against smaller defenders.

Carter-Williams is as polished as his understudies are rough, agree both Brown and general manager Sam Hinkie.

Tony Wroten is a 6-6 shooting guard in his second NBA season with astounding athletic ability. The Sixers are in the middle of converting him to play the point. Lorenzo Brown, 6-5, converted to the point last season as a junior at North Carolina State, but he is a late second-round rookie who has bounced between the 76ers and 87ers, the team's NBA Development League squad. The Sixers are 1-14 when Brown plays.

Nowhere are the shallow Sixers thinner than at point guard. They have only one.

"It's a comfort thing," Carter-Williams said. "When I'm not out there and they're playing, they tend to struggle a little bit. Tony does a great job, but when I'm out there, the back end runs a little bit smoother. The players feel confident."

"Tony is trying, is learning, to be a point guard," Brown said. "Michael's a point guard. Go from there: Time of game, score, leadership, who needs the ball, knowing why are we running what we're running. Tony Wroten has some incredible skills at the point, and the ability to make the greatest pass you've ever seen in your life . . . or hit somebody in the forehead."

Carter-Williams hits teammates in the hands . . . and, more impressively, he orchestrates things so another teammate can make the right pass. When he drives and the opposition double-teams him, he has mastered the hockey assist: the kick-out pass that, swung one more step around the perimeter, gives a shooter a clean look at the basket.

When Carter-Williams is not double-teamed, however, things can get ugly. That's what happened in the second half Friday against the Pistons.

Unable to keep him from driving and unable to keep him from making shots at the rim, the Pistons went after the kid: three, four, five times in a row; going down the lane, running the break, leaping to the rim; hammered again and again and again, his spare, 185-pound frame crashing to the floor.

Not once did it result in a foul call.

Not once did he whine.

This is one of Brett Brown's strategies.

"Were trying to help Michael get through the physical nature of this league," Brown said. We're desperately trying to embrace the hits, to get through no-calls. We want him to grit his teeth, get through it, show the league he can endure it, show the refs he can endure it, show his team he can endure it.

"He needs to have that resilience. He needs to have that reputation."

Derrick Rose, the rookie of the year in 2009, earned that reputation. Rose got hammered early, too. He saw his free-throw total increase 35.2 percent from his rookie season to his sophomore season. From his rookie season to his third season, it increased 122 percent.

Asked when he thinks he'll start getting calls, Carter-Williams replied: "I hope soon. I don't know. Maybe next year. I think sometimes I am getting hit, especially in the air. I've just got to keep playing."

And working.

The steals totals camouflage defensive deficiencies; smaller, quicker guards devour him offensively, he lacks a consistent outside shot of any sort. He lets tight games get away from the team down the stretch.

"He's just scratching the surface," Brown said.

For a last-place, 12-win team, that is fine. For the moment, with Noel healing, Carter-Williams represents hope after Holiday; and after the disastrous trade in 2012 that jettisoned Andre Iguodala in exchange for Andrew Bynum, the Buster Douglas of his NBA generation.

Carter-Williams helps with the Bynum hangover. Young, for one, didn't expect MCW to be NBA-ready.

"He's a little bit more there, a little bit more in sync with the game than I thought he'd be," Young said. "For instance, on defense he'll get into a screen-and-roll position with the big men. Rookies tend to think, 'I'm going to stay on my man.' Coach has this thing: 'If you see the crack of his butt, just go take the next man.' Mike's been doing that."

That, and a whole lot more.


On Twitter: @inkstainedretch


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