Draft Preview: Michael Carter-Williams

Rangy Syracuse point guard’s potential makes for draft intrigue

Michael Carter-Williams
Syracuse point guard Michael Carter-Williams
Ezra Moore/NBA/Getty Images Sport
(Editor’s note: Fourth in a recurring series leading to the June 27 draft. Coming Wednesday: Victor Oladipo.)

Drawing a bead on Syracuse point guard Michael Carter-Williams might be one of the most challenging assessments among potential 2013 lottery picks. Is he the player who posted eight points and assists double-doubles during a sophomore season in which he led the Orange to the Final Four? Or is he the player whose season ended with a clunker, putting up two points and two assists, shooting 1 of 6 with five turnovers, in Syracuse’s national semifinal loss to Michigan?

Scouts who tend to be less confident in Carter-Williams’ NBA future acknowledge he has a high ceiling as a rangy (6-foot-5¾) point guard with dazzling passing skills, as underscored by his 7.3 assists in his only season as a Syracuse starter – he came off the bench behind 2012 lottery pick Dion Waiters and All-Big East point guard Scoop Jardine as a freshman.

But those scouts simply aren’t as comfortable as others that Carter-Williams will put it all together to reach what many see as All-Star potential. The most common comparison is to Shaun Livingston, the No. 4 pick in 2004 straight out of high school whose promising career was derailed in his third season by a devastating knee injury. Others see a little Jrue Holiday in his game at the same stage, but whether his career parallels Holiday’s will depend on how Carter-Williams’ offensive game develops – mostly, his ability to develop as an efficient scorer to enhance the threat of his passing skills.

The Pistons could go in several directions with the No. 8 pick this year. They know that Nerlens Noel and Ben McLemore will be gone and that another group of four or five players – including Victor Oladipo, Trey Burke, Anthony Bennett and Otto Porter – is more likely than not to be off the board.

They could add a big man to play behind both Greg Monroe and Andre Drummond, potentially someone like Cody Zeller, Bennett should he slip over health issues or Alex Len. They could fill a need along the perimeter by taking Shabazz Muhammad, who might now be seeing his draft stock slip illogically after entering his freshman season at UCLA as a strong candidate to be the No. 1 pick and averaging 18 points.

But the strength of the draft when the Pistons pick, if it plays out close to the consensus projection, might well be at point guard where Carter-Williams and Lehigh’s C.J. McCollum are close on Burke’s heels to be first at the position selected.

And if the Pistons are looking for an old-school ball distributor first and foremost, then Carter-Williams will hold strong appeal. That court vision, especially in one with such a willowy frame, makes the Syracuse sophomore an especially intriguing prospect, one who finished in the top five nationally in both assists and steals and logged a heavy 35 minutes a game on a loaded Syracuse roster.

But be careful projecting greater upside in Carter-Williams over McCollum based on the former’s two years in college compared to the latter’s four; both players will turn 22 within a month of each other this fall. Questions about Carter-Williams’ defensive ability, par for the course with all Syracuse players, revolve around his lack of man-to-man experience given Jim Boeheim’s dedication to the Syracuse zone.

The Pistons requested interviews with all three lottery-caliber point guards at the Chicago draft combine earlier this month and were granted meetings with both McCollum and Carter-Williams.

“It went real well,” Carter-Williams said. “I liked the guys there were in there. They gave me a lot of words of wisdom. They liked me as a person and they liked my attitude and my passion for the game They see me fitting real well, especially with the two young big guys they have and Brandon Knight. They moved (Knight) to the two and I could play the one over there and flourish at that position. It would be a great team to go to, especially with those young guys. I know Andre (Drummond). We played AAU against each other and I know he’s a good guy.”

If it comes to a tiebreaker for the Pistons as they weigh Carter-Williams against McCollum and especially vs. Burke, Carter-Williams’ superior size might give him the edge. Though he needs to add strength to his 184-pound frame – think a Rip Hamilton physique at this point – Carter-Williams’ length would give the Pistons the luxury of keeping Brandon Knight at shooting guard, if they choose, and cross-matching in the backcourt so Knight isn’t exploited by taller point guards in post-ups as he sometimes was down the stretch last season.

“I don’t have any preference right now,” Carter-Williams said of playing one backcourt position over the other. “I expect to play off the ball and even guard off the ball, guard two guards. I think that’s a good thing.”

It won’t hurt Carter-Williams that he tested very well in Chicago, perhaps surprisingly so, including a 41-inch vertical leap that was just an inch below the figure posted by both McLemore and Oladipo, considered athletically elite shooting guards. His lane agility drill, essentially a measure of his lateral quickness, was ninth best of all combine participants and better than that of Burke.

Likely playing catch-up to Burke for teams looking to draft a point guard in the upper half of the lottery, Carter-Williams said he would welcome the opportunity to work out against him in the month leading to the draft.

“That will be fine,” he said. “Trey’s a great player and good friend of mine. He’s tough. I think just going against him and being competitive will help me and help him also. It can’t hurt either of us. At the end of the day, there’s too many things that separate us from each other. He’s a great point guard and I think I’m a great point guard. It comes down to preference – what team likes what type of point guard. He’s a different type of point guard than I am. I’m tall and he’s smaller. He does things his way and I do things my way.”

Carter-Williams is likely to win over some personnel evaluators on the fence about him in predraft interviews, where his sincerity about his passion for the game will be in evidence.

“I want to go to the NBA and be an All-Star, to be honest,” he said in Chicago. “I’ve always dreamed big and I’ve accomplished a lot of my dreams. In five years, I want to be an All-Star and be one of the top players in the NBA.”

He’ll wind up going to a team that believes he has a chance to be just that.