I remember covering Michael Carter-Williams’ first game with the Bucks, on Feb. 25 last year, after he was acquired in a three-team deal at the trade deadline for Brandon Knight. I remember it now because, a little more than a season later, we have gained no more insight into Carter-Williams’ fit with and future in Milwaukee than we had that night.
I remember watching and writing about his debut, which was delayed a week due to a lingering toe injury, and thinking that he’d showed us exactly what we already knew about him. And that was fine, at that time, because an NBA player should look like the player he is and – particularly the reining Rookie of the Year – should play the way he has to get to that point. Plus, it was his first game with a new squad.
Carter-Williams’ stat line didn’t blow you away that night, a 104-88 win over his moribund former team, the 76ers, just like his performances haven’t blown away Bucks fans – save for a couple 30-point games in April last season – since he came to Milwaukee. He showed early flashes of his tantalizing potential – four points on two dunks, a couple assists, two steals, all in the opening five minutes – but, coming off an injury and in a rout, he finished with seven points (3 of 5 shooting) and eight assists (one turnover) in only 18 minutes. Afterward, he said several times that it was “fun” playing with the Bucks.
In the ensuing 54 weeks, the fun times on the court ebbed more than they flowed for Carter-Williams and, on Monday, they were cut short with the team’s announcement that he would be undergoing season-ending surgery to repair the torn labrum in his left hip. And that news made me realize: Now, 84 games (including playoffs) after that Milwaukee debut, I still don’t really know anything more about MCW and his ability to play point guard for the Bucks than I did back then.
He’s a strange enigma. By being exactly the same player he’s always been, by not changing or answering the basic questions people have always had about his game, he’s raised even more questions and created more uncertainty.
We knew then he couldn’t shoot; he still can’t shoot, as his 45.2 field-goal percentage is propped up largely by a 55.5 percent mark inside five feet and he is ghastly from beyond 10 feet. We weren’t sure whether he was a capable playmaker; his usage rate and assist percentage both fell this year, but so did his turnovers, suggesting he was doing everything more cautiously on the court, making both fewer plays and fewer mistakes.
We weren’t sure if he was a legitimately good defender, or just a long-armed one who got steals when he gambled; his defensive rating (106) was worse than last year, much like the rest of the Bucks’, and his steals percentage was a career low. We didn’t know if he was a starting-caliber point guard; the coaching staff made sure not to answer that one, as Carter-Williams was shuffled between the starting lineup and the bench four times in three months.
On that last note, though, is where MCW may have given the best glimpse into his NBA future – those 17 games he played in as a reserve. His assist percentage, turnover ratio, net rating and player impact estimate were all better off the bench than as a starter, according to NBA.com. His usage and scoring percentages were higher with the second unit, too.
The recent improved play of 21-year-old franchise faces Giannis Antetokounmpo, as a playmaking point-forward, and Jabari Parker, as an aggressive scorer, jumped in the last four games, which Carter-Williams missed with his hip injury.
Antetokounmpo isn’t considered a plus-shooter, but he’s shown the ability to knock down open 18-foot jumpers when the defense plays off him, something Carter-Williams wasn’t able to do, and the Greek Freak has as many double-figure assist games in the last two weeks as MCW had all season. And Parker, an excellent slasher, has more space to drive to the basket when defenders can’t sag off the point guard and clog up the lane.
Over his three professional campaigns, Carter-Williams has missed 12, 16 and now 28 games due to injuries. When next year begins, he’ll be 25, which isn’t young in the NBA. Because of health issues, organizational tumult and his own skill stagnation, the luster of potential has faded from Michael Carter-Williams – the allure of what we didn’t know a year ago has been dimmed by what we still don’t know now.
We still can’t say who won last year’s Milwaukee-Phoenix-Philadelphia trade. Knight and the Suns have regressed, while the 76ers have mostly been a mess and the top-five protected pick they received will be an unknown quantity until after the draft. The Bucks reportedly tried to trade Carter-Williams at this season’s deadline (one league insider called him “undeniably gettable”) and, though center Miles Plumlee has done well since moving into the lineup and Tyler Ennis’ scant playing time has increased with MCW out, it’s likely the team received three NBA-caliber backups last year for their starting point guard (and, at that time, best player).
In mid-December, I went through a phase where I watched Carter-Williams closely each game and really cheered for him to do well. For a few nights every six weeks or so, MCW would look like a convincingly good NBA point guard. He’d go for 20 points, shoot 50 percent, grab eight rebounds and hand out five or six assists with only a couple turnovers – and he did that multiple times in mid-December.
But the problem is he was already doing that as a rookie on a bad team two seasons and 120 contests ago; on a (theoretically much) better Bucks team, his game was supposed to evolve, become more sharpened and efficient. Instead, those positive games would pass as flashes in the pan, followed by 2-for-11 shooting nights, seven turnover affairs, critical mental lapses on defense and the return to a reserve role. There’s been virtually no sustained development, even while his peers (Parker very recently, Antetokounmpo since the beginning of the year, Middleton steadily the past two seasons) have made noticeable improvements.
Still on his bargain rookie contract, Carter-Williams is signed by the Bucks through next season and will become a restricted free agent in 2017, when the salary cap is set to balloon to $108 million and even marginal good players will be paid like kings. Who knows then whether the Giannis-as-playmaker thing will still be going on and going well? Who knows if the Bucks will have drafted a point guard with their lottery pick – perhaps a shoot-first one they can play off the ball along with Middleton on the wing, a la Brandon Knight? Who knows how much better or worse (or motivated or hindered or, most frustratingly, the same) Carter-Williams will be when he comes back from his unfortunate hip procedure?
Assuming he hasn’t been traded (and that’s far from a certainty, given Jason Kidd’s enduring fondness for MCW and the need for another team to want him bad enough to make a mildly fair deal), what, if anything, will we know about Michael Carter-Williams – and his involvement in the Bucks’ vaunted owning of the future – at this time next year that we didn’t already know at this time last year?