Michael Carter-Williams has the rare ability to dominate a game without scoring -- Doris Burke
It takes a special combination of skills for a guard to dominate a basketball game without being able to shoot. Since you can't play off the ball if you can't stretch the floor, a perimeter player without a jumper needs the ball in his hands to be effective. And because five players share one ball on offense, time with the ball in your hands is a very valuable commodity indeed.
That's why elite NBA guards who can't shoot are almost always transcendent passers: if you are dominating the ball, you had better be able to keep everyone else involved. If not, you're Tyreke Evans. It's no coincidence his best season was his rookie year, when the Kings ran all their offense through him and he posted a 20/5/5 statline. It's also no coincidence Sacramento went 25-57.
At the same time, it's hard to be a great passer if you can't shoot. Defenders can play off of you, giving them more space to cut off a drive. On pick-and-rolls, they can go under every screen, making it very difficult to hit the roll man. To beat an NBA defender off the dribble who's playing 2 or 3 feet off you, you had better be a great athlete. Evan Turner was a do-everything 6'7 point forward in college but, at the NBA level, he's not a good enough athlete to make up for his lack of a consistent jumper.
A guard who can't score or shoot better be a great passer, rebounder and defender. In the modern NBA, there's only three guys who have fit that description: Jason Kidd, Ricky Rubio and Rajon Rondo. They share a lot in common: exceptional size (Kidd and Rubio are 6'4, Rondo is 6'1 but has a freakish 6'9 wingspan) and speed, which allows them to dominate defensively and get out in the open court, either through forcing turnovers or grabbing defensive rebounds. In the halfcourt, their exceptional floor vision allows them to dissect defenses playing 4-on-5 against them.
** Andre Miller is the exception that proves the rule. You'll see a lot of things in the NBA before you ever see another portly 6'2 guard who can't shoot play 14 years without ever working out in the offseason.
Syracuse sophomore Michael Carter-Williams impacts the game in a similar way. He's a lightning-quick 6'6, 185-pound point guard with great ball-handling ability and floor vision. He averages 12 points, 10 assists, five rebounds and three steals per game, all while shooting an abysmal 39/26/75 from the floor. Despite his poor shooting, no defender can stay in front of him. He effortlessly glides to the front of the rim, where he has the vision and length to pass the ball to any spot on the floor.
Even though he only played 10 minutes per game as a freshman, he has completely taken over the Syracuse team this season, playing almost the entire game with the ball in his hands. That's the conundrum with a ball-dominant guard who can't shoot: it's all or nothing. Either they're the hub of the offense or an afterthought; they can't be a role player. As a freshman, Carter-Williams was stuck behind Scoop Jardine and Dion Waiters. Because he destroyed Syracuse's floor spacing off the ball, he was next to useless with Jardine and Waiters running the offense.
The team that drafts Carter-Williams has to give him the keys to their offense. He can't play with another PG or with a low-post scorer who needs floor spacing on the perimeter. He doesn't make sense on 90 percent of the teams in the NBA, which is why his draft stock will be so interesting to watch. Ideally, he would wind up on an NBA team built like Syracuse, with athletic big men who can run the floor and dead-eye shooters who can space it.
With that combination in place, the Orange are almost impossible to defend. Unless a team has the skill and savvy to tear up their 2-3 zone, they won't be able to outscore Syracuse, the No. 6 team in the country with a 12-1 record. They have the second-highest scoring margin in the country at +21.6. They haven't just won games; they've beat the tar out of people. That's partly been a reflection of their soft non-conference schedule, but it's still very impressive.
If Carter-Williams had a jumper, he would probably be a top-3 pick in the draft. But even without one, he could still become an All Star-caliber player, particularly if he can put on 10-15 pounds of muscle to his frame. That would allow him to absorb contact and finish at the rim, where he already draws almost five fouls per game. Until then, college basketball fans should enjoy a player who dominates games unlike anyone else in the country.
Here's our look at Carter-Williams and the rest of the Syracuse roster with an eye toward the NBA Draft.
Character Flag: This isn't the end of the world, but it's something he'll need to explain in pre-draft interviews. Players should steal basketballs, not bathrobes. Here's an example of how warped the NCAA is: Syracuse would be in a lot more trouble if Carter-Williams had paid for the clothes with someone else's money rather than stealing them. For now, I'm going to call him the Terrycloth Bandit.
Best case: Rajon Rondo
Worst case: Shaun Livingston
Shot creation: A 6'8, 215-pound senior forward who has diligently worked on expanding his offensive game in college, both off the dribble and with his back to the basket. However, he's neither skilled nor athletic enough to get his shot off on the next level. (Averaging 14 points per game on 54 percent shooting, 1.6 free throws a game)
Outside shot: A pure shooter with a quick, compact release. If he's open, he's not going to miss. At 6'8, he could be a valuable weapon as a pick-and-pop guy and floor spacer on an NBA bench. (Shooting 54/71/44, 4.4 threes a game)
Defense: Like so many players Jim Boeheim recruits to play his 2-3 zone defense, Southerland is a classic tweener. He's a "3.5" -- too slow for small forwards and too small for power forwards. In the NBA, he would need to be hidden on the worst frontcourt player whenever he's in the game. (1.1 steals, 1.2 blocks)
Rebounding: Southerland primarily plays on the perimeter, so he doesn't grab many boards for a 6'8 player. (4.9 rebounds)
Passing: One of the nice things about a shooting specialist is that he doesn't have the ball in his hands long enough to turn it over often. A very efficient player who can swing the ball around the floor. (1.1 assists on 1.2 turnovers)
Best case: James Jones
Worst case: Europe
CJ Fair: An athletic 6'8, 215-pound junior forward who's steadily grown as a player in his three years in college. This is going to sound like a broken record, but the big concern about projecting Fair is whether he's a "3.5." He's improved his perimeter jumper, but he's still more effective playing within 10-15 feet of the rim and he's probably too small to play on the inside at the next level. (Averaging 12 points and seven rebounds on 49/46/80 shooting)
Rakeem Christmas: An athletic 6'9, 240-pound sophomore forward with a 7'3 wingspan who protects the rim in the Syracuse zone and can run the floor. Christmas may be a different type of tweener -- a "4.5" who isn't quite big enough to play as a center or skilled enough to play as a power forward. To stick in the NBA, he'll probably have to carve out a role as an undersized defensive-minded 5 on a second unit or develop a perimeter jumper so he can space the floor as a 4. (Averaging 7 points, 6 rebounds and 2 blocks on 58/0/59 shooting)
DaJuan Coleman: A massive 6'9, 290-pound freshman center with a 7'2 wingspan. He's got quick feet, a wide body and a decent feel for scoring in the low post. However, just like Christmas, he's either an undersized center or an unskilled power forward in the NBA. He'll need to become a dominant low-post scorer and rebounder in college to overcome concerns about his athleticism and get a chance at the next level. From Boeheim's perspective, the good thing about recruiting guys who don't fit NBA prototypes is that they'll likely stay in school for four years. He is not related to Derrick Coleman. (Averaging 7 points, 6 rebounds and 1 block on 45/0/46 shooting)
Jerami Grant: An athletic 6'8, 205-pound freshman forward with a 7'2 wingspan. Are you starting to see a pattern in the types of players Boeheim recruits? He's buried at back of the Orange rotation behind more experienced players, but his combination of size and athletic ability makes him worth watching over the next few years. Jerami has some impressive bloodlines: the son of Harvey Grant, nephew of Horace Grant and younger brother of Notre Dame guard Jerian Grant, an NBA prospect in his own right. (Averaging 4 points and 2 rebounds on 54/42/38 shooting)