The Milwaukee Bucks 102-91 loss to the Detroit Pistons was full of disappointment. But two moments stood out.
The first moment was obvious. Steve Novak sprained his MCL against the Detroit Pistons on Saturday night. It was evident quickly that Novak’s injury was severe, as the Milwaukee Bucks bench in its entirety didn’t wait long before surrounding him on the court. He couldn’t put any pressure on his knee as he was carried off by Greg Monroe and Giannis Antetokounmpo. A feel good story about a hometown kid finished not long after it had started.
But moments later another moment seemed notable. It wasn’t as obvious as Novak’s injury, but was directly related, and it was a peak into another team’s unflattering view of a Bucks player.
Michael Carter-Williams struggled his way to an eight point, seven turnover outing before being mercifully pulled halfway through the fourth quarter. But he wasn’t finished yet. Novak’s injury left him unable to shoot his free throws. By NBA rule, the Pistons were allowed to choose any player on the Bucks active roster to replace him at the free throw line. The Pistons chose Carter-Williams, Milwaukee’s opening night starting point guard. They had such little respect for his ability as a free throw shooter that he was the player they actively wanted shooting free throws against them.
He missed both free throws.
To this point in his career, it’s always come back to shooting for Carter-Williams. Last summer, Bucks fans hoped Carter-Williams would return to the team in October with an improved jump shot. He hadn’t been able to work on his game the previous summer after shoulder surgery, so many fans hoped Carter-Williams would reap the benefits of a summer spent shooting. And by most standards, MCW’s shooting percentages have headed the right way this season.
Thanks to a subtle uptick in jump shot accuracy and drastic decline in overall 3-point attempts, he’s shooting a career-best 45.2% from the field, blowing away his previous career high of 40.5%. He’s attempting a higher percentage of his shots from inside 10 feet than he did last season and he’s shooting better than 50% on these shots for the first time in his career.
From outside 10 feet, he’s still a mess. There are 33 guards in the league that have taken at least 200 shots inside 10 feet this season. Among those players, only Andrew Wiggins, Elfrid Payton, and Ish Smith have been worse shooters outside of 10 feet than Carter-Williams. But, he has shown improvement year over year. His 34% shooting is a career high.
So, maybe the jump shot will come around. At the very least, it seems like the Bucks have his scoring game trending in a positive direction. But it’s been hard to notice his improvements as a shooter, partly because he’s still among the worst shooters in the league and going from trainwreck to run of the mill car accident doesn’t put smiles on the faces of many fans every night. But it’s also been because of his other flaws. Despite improving as a shooter this season, he’s still been one of Milwaukee’s worst regulars.
Among players who have started at least 10 games for the Bucks this season, only OJ Mayo has an offensive rating worse than MCW’s 96. And among players who have played at least 1000 minutes, his net -10 rating per 100 possessions is by far the worst. He’s the only player worse than net -4 (per Basketball-Reference.com).
This is why I had to wonder last Saturday night after watching seven turnovers and those two free throws if a jumper is even a cure-all for MCW?
I sorted another list of guards. These guys have all played at least 50 games and average at least 30 minutes per game. Among 36 guards, MCW ranks dead last in turnover percentage, coughing it up on 14.4% of his possessions. And the guys who were comparable regarding turnover frequency were players like Rajon Rondo, John Wall and James Harden – players who set their teammates up with assists quite a bit more than Carter-Williams. MCW isn’t a high risk-high reward turnover or assist type player right now. He’s just putting his head down and running over the opposition, dribbling the ball off his leg or forcing passes in where they shouldn’t be forced.
Carter-Williams optimists, those who think he’ll turn into something special as a player once he starts hitting 40% of those shots outside 10 feet, reference his ability to create turnovers and grab rebounds. He ranked ninth in steal percentage (2.5%) and third in rebound percentage (9.4%), so nods to those skills aren’t without merit. He does create some turnovers, and he is a good rebounder for a guard. But those are nice to haves, not necessities. It’s the necessary things, like passing, shooting and generally running an offense where MCW has come up empty so far with Milwaukee.
It’s not that MCW hasn’t had good games or nice stretches. When he first came off the bench in December, he put together a fine month. And it isn’t even that MCW hasn’t developed at all. But this isn’t a guy making the drastic leaps forward that we’ve seen out of Giannis Antetokounmpo by any means. Everyone expected Giannis to get significantly better every season early in his career. He didn’t have the same development opportunities growing up that many of his NBA peers had. But MCW has been afforded opportunities. He’s in his third year in the NBA after two years in college. At this point, it seems like he isn’t going to rapidly accelerate. Surley he’s a hard worker who will continue to improve, but will those improvements ever land him among the top 15 at the most competitive position in the NBA? That’s difficult to envision.
MCW has 23 games left this season, and the damage is probably already done. There isn’t enough time to make up for his lasting impression. Carter-Williams almost certainly won’t be Milwaukee first choice as their starting point guard going into next season. If he is, it will be because the Bucks struck out in attempts to more adequately fill a position that’s been troubling them for about 15 years. And if he can’t show much in these last 23 games this season, it’s hard to see him grabbing that role back with any other team going forward either, whether he develops a jumper or not.