Nikola Vucevic on Michael Carter-Williams: 'He’s a critical player to have on our team'

ORLANDO – In 20 years of working at the NBA level – as a scout, an assistant coach and a head coach – Steve Clifford has been around some of the NBA’s all-time greatest players.

Never, however, has Clifford coached someone with the all-around, off-the-charts defensive capabilities of Orlando Magic wing Michael Carter-Williams. Mind you, that Clifford has worked with legendary players such as Kobe Bryant, Tracy McGrady, Yao Ming, Steve Nash, Dwight Howard and Pau Gasol, and the veteran head coach will tell anyone who will listen that Carter-Williams stands in a class by himself when it comes to the many facets of his defensive arsenal.

``Defensively – and I say it over and over – but you can’t play it a lot better than he does it on the ball,’’ Clifford said of Carter-Williams. ``And his pick-and-roll defense is just light’s out.’’

Carter-Williams was so good on both ends of the floor in Orlando’s 120-115 win over Memphis on Wednesday that halfway through the second-half, the head coach decided right then and there that he wanted his best defender on the floor at the end of the game.

That turned out to be a brilliant move as Carter-Williams made one of the Magic’s best defensive plays of the season with the game on the line. By having the wherewithal to come off his man and the fearlessness to give up his body and take a charge against leading Rookie of the Year candidate, Ja Morant, Carter-Williams preserved Orlando’s three-point lead and earned himself even more respect and kudos from his head coach and teammates.

``That charge was big-time. To give up your body and make a play for your team, that was a huge, huge play,’’ Magic center Nikola Vucevic marveled. ``That’s what (Carter-Williams) does – he plays hard on defense, he competes and always gives it his all. He’s a critical player to have on our team.’’

Carter-Williams and his lockdown defensive abilities will likely play a central role in Thursday night’s game at the Amway Center when the suddenly surging Magic (30-35) face standout guard Zach LaVine and the Chicago Bulls (22-43). Carter-Williams’ best stretch of basketball in years has coincided with Orlando winning three straight games and six of the last nine.

Just as he did last season when he was a driving force on a Magic squad that pushed their way into the playoffs last spring, Carter-Williams seems to be willing Orlando on another late-season run with his grit, guile fearless style of play. He might only average 6.9 points, 3.3 rebounds, 2.5 assists and 1.0 steals in 18.3 minutes a night, but make no mistake about the fact that Carter-Williams is a key cog in Orlando’s success.

``I think things are coming around great,’’ said Carter-Williams, who scored a season-high 20 points on Tuesday for his fourth straight double-digit scoring performance. ``I’ve had some success the last few games. I’ve put in a lot of work. Sometimes, I might not be able to show all of the work that I’ve put in because I’ve got a certain role. I’ve had openings and my teammates have done a great job of finding me and it’s on me to convert them.

``I always try to go in there and stick to my base, which is the defensive end, and then just let the offense come to me,’’ added the player affectionately known as ``MCW’’ to his coaches and teammates. ``Some nights it’s going to be like (Tuesday’s 20-point performance) and some nights it’s not, but I just have to take advantage of my opportunities.’’

During the Magic’s three-game winning streak, Carter-Williams has scored 20 points (against Memphis), 16 points (versus Houston) and 17 points (against Minnesota). In those same three games, teammates Terrence Ross (16, 24 and 18 points) and D.J. Augustin (24, 16 and 16 points) have been equally effective to give the Magic plenty of offensive firepower off the bench. According to Elias Sports Bureau, it’s the first time a trio of players from the same team have scored 15-or-more points off the bench in three straight games since the NBA started tracking stats for starters and reserves in the 1970-71 season.

Their play has been a big reason why a Magic offense that lagged near the bottom of the NBA most of the season has been tops in the league the past 12 games. In that stretch, the Magic have not only gone 8-4, but they rank first in the NBA in scoring (120.8 points), first in field goal makes per game (45.1), first in assists (32.1), second in field goal percentage (48.6 percent) and 13th in 3-point field goal percentage (37 percent) – massive improvements over the first 55 games of the season when the team was mired in the NBA’s bottom five in nearly every major offensive statistical category.

Known throughout his career obviously for his defense as a 6-foot-6, 205-pound ball-hawk, Carter-Williams’ ability to play extended minutes has often depended on his ability to also knock down shots on the offensive end. Carter-Williams has spent countless hours this season working with Magic assistant coach Bruce Kreutzer – the team’s shooting guru – so that he can make squad’s pay when they sag off of him. In his last four games, Carter-Williams has drilled 21 of 35 shots (60 percent) and five of 12 3-pointers (41.7 percent).

Kreutzer, who played a major role in all-star guard Kemba Walker become a significantly better perimeter shooter years earlier, has certainly helped Carter-Williams – a career 25.4 percent shooter from 3-point range – make strides this season.

``(Kreutzer) he helps me a lot and we spend a lot of time together working on my shot,’’ Carter-Williams said. ``He’s fixed a lot of things with me and he helps me mentally, also. He’s a good coach on and off the court and he just builds confidence in you.

``(Kreutzer) starts with your base and your feet and he gets you trying to stay up on your toes as you one-two step into your shot,’’ Carter-Williams added. ``He helps with wrist placement and (metaphorically) putting your wrist on the rim and a lot of other things also.’’

With the Magic needing a jolt and more depth at point guard last season, Clifford pushed for the team to sign Carter-Williams, a guard who played for the veteran head coach in the 2017-18 season before suffering a shoulder injury. It was then that Clifford got to see just how dominant Carter-Williams can be throughout games with his abilities as an elite defender.

This season, with the Magic expecting the emergence of point guard Markelle Fultz and continued steadiness from Augustin, Clifford had Carter-Williams spend his offseason preparing to play more at the shooting guard and small forward positions. For Carter-Williams, who played most of his career at 190 pounds, that meant bulking up some 12-15 pounds and bettering his jump shot. Again, Clifford said, anything it took to find a way to get Carter-Williams’ off-the-charts defensive skills on the floor for the Magic.

``He’s one of the few guys, maybe the only one, that I’ve ever been around who can contain the ball defensively and also steal it and force turnovers at the same time,’’ said Clifford, while shaking his head in amazement.

For Carter-Williams, playing stellar defense comes down to having a willingness to fight and scrap – even if that almost regularly upsets players from the other team. He is a player who has found his niche and someone who knows how he can best assist the Magic.

``I try to be physical and put (opposing players) in tough situations,’’ Carter-Williams said with a sly smile when asked about his willingness to mix it up with foes. ``Sometimes, they’re going to make tough buckets against you and you’ve just got to shake their hands. But I try to always be into the player, be scrappy and play my role on this team.’’

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