By Sam Perley
Back in November 2009, point guard Michael Carter-Williams verbally committed to play at Syracuse University, a five-and-a-half-hour drive northwest of his Hamilton, MA home. In the eight years since making this decision though, each of his playing whereabouts have been out of his control up until this past July.
Signing with the Charlotte Hornets over the summer meant Carter-Williams would be joining his fourth different team in as many seasons. He began his career with the Philadelphia 76ers, who took him 11th overall in the 2013 NBA Draft. With averages of 16.7 points, 6.2 rebounds, 6.3 assists and 1.9 steals in his first professional campaign, Carter-Williams became the lowest drafted player to win the Rookie of the Year Award since 1987.
His stay in Philly was short-lived though as he was surprisingly shipped to Milwaukee just minutes before the trade deadline in 2015. He spent a year and a half with the Bucks before he was flipped to Chicago at the start of the 2016-17 NBA campaign. By the end of his fourth season, injuries to Carter-Williams’ shoulder, ankle and hip had limited him to just 165 games over the previous three years.
Any NBA player that bounces around to multiple teams in such a short amount of time is generally met with skepticism, but there’s much more to it with regards to Carter-Williams’ situation. Each of the three prior organizations he played for seemed to start shifting course soon after he arrived.
The 76ers began a large-scale rebuilding process while the Bucks phased out using a traditional point guard by making forward Giannis Antetokounmpo their primary ball-handler. As part of the Jimmy Butler deal this past June, Chicago added Kris Dunn to an already crowded Bulls backcourt rotation.
The constantly-changing environments mixed with unexpected injuries made living up to his Rookie of the Year status a lofty challenge for Carter-Williams.
“That second year in Milwaukee [in 2015-16], that’s when the Bucks started going in a different direction. It was one of those things that was kind of out of my hands. It was almost impossible for me to live up to expectations my second season because [Philadelphia] kind of went away from me. That’s fine. I had a different role. Obviously in Chicago, I had a different role also.”
For Carter-Williams, coming to Charlotte was largely about having more control over his next situation. He had to receive platelet-rich-plasma injections to both knees a few weeks after signing with the team, a treatment designed to accelerate healing in his patella tendons. The ensuing recovery time and learning curve delayed his Hornets debut until Nov. 5.
“It’s been pretty challenging, but my coaches and teammates have done a great job helping me out. Even when I went down to [the team’s G League affiliate in] Greensboro, the coaches there were great. The players there were great helping me out. I know all the plays. The defensive schemes I’m still working on,” said Carter-Williams back on Nov. 1.
Standing at 6’6”, Carter-Williams is one of the tallest point guards in the league and his size gives the Hornets the option of also playing him at other positions. He’s already displayed a noticeable knack for poking away passes and disrupting opposing offenses. He’s averaging 4.7 deflections per 36 minutes (T-5th in NBA; mini. 7 GP) and a team-high 1.25 steals since returning on Nov. 5.
“Defense is something I’ve always taken pride in from college and high school. I always like the challenge and I was able to show more offensively with some other teams because my role was different. I still have a lot of confidence in my offensive game. I try to get guys involved and get in the lane, but defense is my backbone,” he said.
“It’s very important to have [Michael Carter-Williams],” said Kemba Walker following the team’s home win over the L.A. Clippers on Nov. 18. “He’s very versatile. He can guard multiple positions. He can make plays. He can get to the basket. He can pass it. We need guys who can makes plays and he’s one of those guys.”
“MCW is a difference-maker,” said Hornets Head Coach Steve Clifford after beating Minnesota on Nov. 20. “He changes our defense, he can guard multiple guys. He’s working his way into shape, he’s got terrific feel, he can play fast and slow [and] he can find people.”
Carter-Williams might never again put up the kind of numbers he did during his rookie season in Philadelphia and that’s alright with him. He relished the option to come to Charlotte, knowing full well what his role would be in joining the organization. The 26-year-old is simply playing to his strengths on both ends of the court, which is exactly what his new team needs.