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CHARLOTTE, N.C. — The 2013-14 home opener of the Philadelphia 76ers drew a large and hyper crowd for a game against LeBron James and the Miami Heat, not necessarily because of who was playing; actually, the object of the affection was someone who wasn’t. There he stood in baggy jeans, a jacket one size too big, a do-rag defiantly wrapped around his head and showing puppy eyes that lied about his image and age.
Allen Iverson was approaching his 40s and uncomfortably retired. Based on his outfit, he couldn’t let go of yesterday. Nor could nostalgic Philly fans who applauded and shouted during a ceremony to honor the iconic former Sixer, who playfully cupped his ear with his hand to encourage the love.
Then, something unexpected happened: Philly honored a second Sixers point guard that same night.
Much like Iverson well before him, Michael Carter-Williams buzzed around the floor, getting buckets, attacking the rim, finding the open man and cutting off Miami passing lanes. If he couldn’t upstage Iverson, he certainly outdid LeBron by scoring 22 points with 12 assists, seven rebounds and nine steals in a Sixers’ upset win. It was his first game as a pro, with his misty-eyed family in the stands, with Iverson pumping a fist, with LeBron feeling flat, and the night felt surreal, dreamy, galactic. How could he or anyone not see that this was the beginning of something special?
“A great night,” Carter-Williams recalled the other day. “I always wanted to play that way, against guys like LeBron James and Dwyane Wade. After I had, like, seven points, my mom told someone that she’d be happy if the game ended right now.”
That smash opening act led to the Kia Rookie of the Year award, which of course then led to a series of injuries, trades, bad fits, false starts, airballs, benchings and a failure to secure the kind of blockbuster contract that allows you to live XXL. Four years and four teams later, Carter-Williams is the backup point guard for the Charlotte Hornets with a career creeping down the path of the unknown, already sitting at the crossroads at age 26.
This wasn’t a totally self-created spiral. His body betrayed him as much as his jump shot. He found himself trapped in situations that ranged from weird to woeful. He had the timing of a fake Rolex. An award-winning rookie was put through the NBA wringer and fell through the cracks and has now landed a few seats down the bench from Michael Jordan, although symbolically, he’s worlds away from the Hornets owner.
Bitter? Angry? Confused? Yeah, just a bit.
“It was tough, given the situations I’ve been in,” he said, “and the backlash I received wasn’t worthy or fair to what I’d been going through. I was in tough situations with injuries and being traded and it affected my performance on the floor. I got real low, with everybody asking, `What happened to him?’ It wasn’t right.”
He’s on a one-year deal with the Hornets, which he hopes to leverage into security next summer in free agency, though the big-paycheck prospects are hardly encouraging so far. Still searching for durability with his body and respectability for his game, Carter-Williams is averaging 17.3 minutes in role-playing duty. And he’s once again haunted by his faulty shooting, now dragging at 27 percent, deadly for a guard.
Let me tell you, he knows how to play. But the injuries, especially with the shoulder, have held him back in his shooting development.”
Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim on Carter-Williams
It’s a cautionary tale about fate and the curvy nature of pro sports, and about the 2013 NBA Draft, headlined by the one and only Anthony Bennett. From almost every conceivable measuring tool and metric, that class lurks as perhaps the quietest in NBA history.
The only All-Star is Giannis Antetokounmpo, who went 15th, and he, Rudy Gobert and CJ McCollum are the only franchise cornerstones. Half of the top 10 are already on different teams. Another way to apply context is with money. Only Giannis, McCollum, Gobert, Otto Porter Jr. and Steven Adams received max contracts, and half of the top 10 didn’t see multi-year extensions.
Several players sat on the free-agent market last summer for weeks and even months, collecting cobwebs as they nervously stared at a market that turned chilly a year after doling out millions. They begrudgingly settled for qualifying offers that amounted to pocket change: one year and $4 million for Nerlens Noel (the No. 6 pick), one year and $4.2 million for Alex Len (No. 5). The No. 9 pick and consensus college player of the year, Trey Burke, is playing for the Knicks. The Westchester Knicks of the G League.
As a whole, that class was astonishingly light at the top, lacked any second-round surprises (besides Allen Crabbe) and quickly became a wash. And of course, the No. 1 pick is already out of the league.
Bennett wasn’t even the consensus top choice prior to the Draft among NBA talent scouts, some of whom had Noel rated higher, even though Noel was coming off knee surgery. That said plenty about the class and also Bennett, who leveraged a decent stretch at UNLV to hear his name called first by Cleveland. That joy didn’t last long; Bennett was a hopeless ‘tweener at forward in his pitstop NBA career and instantly exposed for his lack of shooting and low-post grit. He quickly became a throw-in for the Kevin Love trade but couldn’t salvage his career in Minnesota, Toronto or Brooklyn. He currently plays for the Northern Arizona Suns in the G League.
It’s a fate that the most celebrated rookie of that class hopes to avoid, and praying he isn’t running out of chances. Carter-Williams, the 11th pick, was consistent and steady that first season. A 6-foot-6 guard who caused matchup problems and brought good vision and defensive instincts, he averaged 16.7 points, 6.2 rebounds, 6.3 assists and 1.9 steals. He led all rookies in points, rebounds, assists and steals. Only Magic Johnson and Oscar Robertson did that, although for the sake of context, Magic’s competition in his first year was fellow Hall of Famer Larry Bird, and Oscar came in with Hall of Famers Jerry West and Lenny Wilkens.
Carter-Williams became the lowest-drafted player to win Rookie of the Year since Mark Jackson in 1987. But coming from that 2013 Draft, it was like winning a sack race without using a sack.
After that, he was no longer blessed by the basketball gods; he still hasn’t matched the numbers or impact he had as a rookie.
We didn’t see eye to eye on different things. He was a great player but he hadn’t been coaching for that long and he was still learning.”
Michael Carter-Williams, on Bucks coach Jason Kidd
The Sixers were in the early stages of a crash-and-burn rebuilding philosophy managed by former GM Sam Hinkie. Rather than having the chance one day to throw lobs to Joel Embiid, who was drafted a year later but sat with a foot injury, Carter-Williams was dealt midway through his second season by Hinkie. Carter-Williams was exchanged right before the 2015 trade deadline for a package that included three picks (a first-rounder belonging to the Lakers is now property of the Celtics and unprotected for 2018).
“Being traded was hard for me,” he said. “I didn’t see that coming. To this day, I still don’t understand it. I never got any answers and never went to ask for any. Of course I felt pretty bad but I was fine with it once I realized the situation I was going into — or thought I was going into.”
He was in Milwaukee to be coached and tutored by Jason Kidd, one of the all-time great point guards. Carter-Williams gave Milwaukee a big backcourt with Khris Middleton and the Bucks had a long and lean starting five. He scored 30 against the Cavs and another 30 in his first game back in Philly, and in the playoffs went for 22 points and nine assists in a game against the Bulls. The next season he looked forward once again to feeding passes to Giannis, until Kidd had another idea: Giannis would take Carter-Williams’ position and do the feeding to others.
Suddenly and once again, an ideal situation turned sour quickly for Carter-Williams, who couldn’t believe the sharp turn his career took.
“I don’t know how to describe it,” he said about his relationship with Kidd. “We didn’t see eye to eye on different things. He was a great player but he hadn’t been coaching for that long and he was still learning. I learned from him but my expectations going there were high and it wasn’t the situation I thought I was going to be in.”
On one hand, Kidd and Milwaukee put Carter-Williams out of his misery by trading him; on the other, Carter-Williams went to the struggling, chaotic Chicago Bulls, who were in the process of being stripped to the bone, at the start of the 2016-17 season. Once again, Carter-Williams was swept up by the winds of change and spit out.
Not only did his teams change, so did the league, which gravitated to players and especially guards who brought shooting range and consistency. Then and now, that’s his biggest flaw. He’s a career 25-percent shooter from deep (just 40 percent overall), and in a 3-point league, that’s a deal breaker.
It took me a while to regroup and restart and resurface and get healthy, which I’m still trying to do. I’m still young and my game is still growing. I haven’t reached my potential.”
Also, injuries didn’t help. The last three years he has played only 165 out of 246 games due to shoulder, ankle and hip conditions. He needed platelet-rich injections in both knees last summer to quicken the healing process of his patella tendons.
“He’s had some difficult injuries and it has clearly hampered his development,” said Jim Boeheim, his college coach at Syracuse. “Let me tell you, he knows how to play. He’s always been a good passer and defender. But the injuries, especially with the shoulder, have held him back in his shooting development. I told him to keep playing and hope the ball goes in.”
Those circumstances both within and beyond his control have prevented Carter-Williams from cashing in. He was the first Rookie of the Year in NBA history to fail to have his rookie contract extended and is on a one-year deal with the Hornets for $2.7 million.
“You know what? I’m in a good place now,” he said. “It took me a while to regroup and restart and resurface and get healthy, which I’m still trying to do. I’m still young and my game is still growing. I haven’t reached my potential. I still believe I’m a starter in this league. I’ll play a role right now, because that’s what my team needs to win, but I want to lead a team.
“Each game I go out and play with a chip on my shoulder. I probably lost some respect from some guys in the league. But ultimately my goal is to make all the teams that gave up on me say, `We had him once.’ I’m going forward.”
He’ll always have that opening night with Iverson leading the cheers, that near triple-double against LeBron, and that Rookie of the Year hardware. But that’s the thing, you see. After that launch, Michael Carter-Williams expected more.
For one year, he was the king of that 2013 draft. Four years later, he’d rather not become a symbol of what that draft became.
Veteran NBA writer Shaun Powell has worked for newspapers and other publications for more than 25 years. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.
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