Film review: How Michael Carter-Williams beats the blitz

76ers guard Michael Carter-Williams dribbles around Indiana Pacers guard George Hill. (AJ Mast/AP)

Of all of Brett Brown’s objectives heading into the season, developing Michael Carter-Williams into a starting-caliber NBA point guard was probably most important. A rebuilding team’s rookie lottery pick is generally going to receive every opportunity to improve, no matter how much he struggles.

It’s still early, but while displaying an all-around game that has been a major catalyst for the Sixers’ better-than-expected start, Carter-Williams has entered the league with a higher baseline than most draft observers expected. In other words, he already looks the part of a starting point guard. The major question is why that is.

The playmaking ability that Carter-Williams showed in college was considered an area of strength as he made the transition to the pros. Among Draft Express’ Top 100 prospects last year, Carter-Williams ranked first with 7.3 assists per game. There was a major caveat, though: Carter-Williams turned the ball over on 26 percent of his possessions, third worst in the DX Top 100.

How Carter-Williams’ brilliant, yet erratic, floor game would translate to the pros was a major question. So far, he’s answered that question emphatically, actually improving upon his college assist-to-turnover numbers. Carter-Williams is currently averaging 7.4 assists per game while cutting his turnover percentage down to 16 percent.

These numbers are impressive for a rookie, albeit one who has only played in 11 games. Only two rookies in NBA history have averaged more than 7 assists per game and turned the ball over on less than 17 percent of their possessions over a full season, Chris Paul and Allen Iverson. Those are admittedly arbitrary benchmarks, but it’s still pretty cool company to be in.

There are a number of possible reasons why Carter-Williams is distributing the same while taking better care of the ball against decidedly tougher competition — better spacing from professional shooters and a deeper three-point line, stricter hand-check rules, natural progression though skill development — but they’re all just guesses. Regardless, his playmaking has translated well to the NBA.

On the court, Carter-Williams utilizes his 6-foot-6 frame to make passes other point guards simply can’t. One type of defense that has proved noticeably unsuccessful against the rookie is when opponents aggressively trap, or “blitz” pick-and-rolls. In these situations, he consistently passes over top of the defense, like he does to a diving Spencer Hawes in the screen grab below.

On these plays, the defense forces the ball out of Carter-Williams’ hands at the risk of playing three-on-four on the backline. Hawes, who has probably been the Sixers’ best player on the young season, has benefitted from consistently running high pick-and-rolls with Carter-Williams. Here are a few such plays:

Carter-Williams isn’t necessarily considered an advanced ball-handler at this point of his career. He’s consistently able to get into the paint with nothing more than a few hesitation moves, a deceivingly quick first step, and long strides. It will be interesting to see how the rookie’s overall game evolves if he’s able to tighten up his handle.

Once Carter-Williams gets into the lane, he does a good job of not overpenetrating, as many of his assists come from around the foul line and foul line extended. Part of the reason for that is because he rarely initiates offense from anywhere except the top of the key.

As the season progress, it’ll bear watching if Brown starts consistently calling more side pick-and-rolls, an extremely popular NBA set, for his rookie point guard. Here are a few examples of Carter-Williams’ penetration and passing ability:

As you can see above, it’s pretty apparent which side of the floor Carter-Williams prefers to shoot from. While he’s managed to start out as a workably inefficient player in Brett Brown’s high-paced attack (and even then, it’s worth repeating that he’s only a rookie), scoring efficiently is his biggest question mark going forward.

The good news is that Carter-Williams has made major improvement on catch and shoot threes to start the season. Only a 28 percent shooter in catch and shoot situations during his sophomore year of college, he’s hitting a solid 50 percent of his spot-up attempts, including 8-16 from three. On a few occasions, Carter-Williams has even flashed the ability to rotate to soft spots in the defense while off the ball:

Unfortunately, as I wrote about last week, Carter-Williams has been a poor shooter in pick and roll situations, and off the dribble in general. According to NBA player tracking stats, he is shooting 29.6 percent on 6.5 pull-up jumpers per game, a major drag on his overall offense.

Some of the shots that Carter-Williams attempts off the dribble are ridiculous in a vacuum, like the semi-regular pull-up three-pointer in transition. Considering that the season’s goals are mostly about player development, Brown can live with these shots as long as they’re taken with proper form. Essentially, Carter-Williams is using the NBA season as a live practice to improve his shooting.

Carter-Williams has arguably shown even more promise on the defensive end of the floor. He owns the Sixers’ lowest defensive rating and is averaging an absurd three steals per game. In my opinion, his only defensive shortcoming is an occasional laziness fighting around screens.

For the most part, though, Carter-Williams makes life very difficult for opposing ball-handlers, who are only generating .65 points per possession out of the pick-and-roll when guarded by him, per mySynergySports. In these situations, the rookie consistently works hard to cut off the same passing lanes that he looks to create on offense.

We’re still extremely early in Michael Carter-Williams’ career, but in those few games, he has shown plenty of promise. More promise, frankly, than I personally expected. Now let’s see how he builds on this very good start.

RIch Hofmann Jr. can be contacted @rich_hofmann.

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