What if Michael Carter-Williams isn’t just a jump shot away?

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.

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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.

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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.

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5 Comments

  1. I have to agree with this. I’ve always felt MCW could make a good backup pg. he’s young and cheap right now so I think he would fit that role fine going forward. But he’ll never be starter material. At least not successful starter material. He has always had a turnover problem. All of the Bucks do, but guys like Giannis, Jabari, and Middleton’s turnovers aren’t so ugly and seem to be more of an account of the other teams good defense and not boneheaded passes or going out of control so I think if he is limited to 20-25 minutes per night and can just take care of the ball he would be a nice addition to sub out a quality starting pg.

  2. Probably not a point, but possibly a very good player, perhaps even making the all-defensive team.
    MCW has good form, so I think the outside shot will come, as it did with Michael Jordan and our own Jason Kidd. That shot will probably decide if he’s a starter, because two-guards generally have to be great from the outside; although a lesser but still significant improvement with his jumper could make him an outstanding sub with a lot of versatility — somewhat Pippinesque, perhaps.
    I could be way wrong, but I don’t have confidence that the current coaches for the Bucks are able to get the best out of our players, to assess them properly and develop them to their full potential. For one thing, the glaring need for another point guard or two on the Bucks has not even been acknowledged, as far as I know, much less addressed. Last year, even an unproven and unpolished Kendall Marshall — when he had an opportunity to play — brought out the best in his teammates, and lifted the whole team.
    Also, it seems like other players on the Bucks have been slow in developing their outside shots, such as Giannis and Jabari. Maybe we need a greater coaching emphasis on shooting, maybe even a special shooting coach or instructor.
    The point position is extremely difficult and exceedingly demanding, so it’s no disgrace for a player such as MCW to not fit that role. It doesn’t mean he doesn’t have a good place in the NBA, even a very good place on a championship team. Players have the most responsibility for themselves, but still, coaching can make a world of difference (e.g. the Spurs).

    P.S. I am truly sad for Steve Novak, which I say in sincere preface to another recommendation for Scott Suggs. I think he’s averaged about 26 points his last two games, and made something like 9-18 from the arc.
    I’d like the Bucks to pick up Suggs and a point from the D-League for the rest of the season (if not Kendall Marshall, somehow). Are the Bucks so awesome that they won’t deign to stooping to the level of signing D-Leaguers? Let’s be a little creative with our additions — and by the way, not wear down, or even wear out, guys like Khris and Giannis and Jabari with too many minutes per game.

    • A sign that MCW has a lower shooting ceiling than Jordan or Kidd is his poor percentage from the free throw line. Jordan was around an 80% free throw shooter right away and Kidd always hovered around the 70% mark. MCW has gotten worse every season and is around 65% this year. Seems like a bad sign.

  3. It’s note that MCW is a terrible player….. it’s just that he’s not a very good point guard. As Jeremy pointed out, the primary skills of a point guard are to pass well, minimize turnovers, get the entire team involved and stretch the floor with the ability to shoot from distance. It can be argued that MCW does none of the above very well.

    It’s a shame cause he does other things pretty well. Driving to the basket and rebounding for sure as well as getting steals. He’ll play in the league for a long time but just not as a starting point guard.

  4. MCW just doesn’t pass the eye test.

    This is a great analysis and evidence MCW is actually taking on coaching and improving.

    But he is what he is. Someone who used his atheticism to succeed. Not his guile. Not his wisdom. Not his unity with other players. His experiences haven’t given him the instincts to be a floor leader. His experiences have given him a square peg-round hole type existence on the floor and it’s uncomfortable for everyone.

    Good kid. Good worker. Good defensive skills. Good off the bench for 18-20 mins a gsme. That’s who he is.

    It’s just a shame the team converted an easy $70m asset in BK into a bench player.