The Philadelphia 76ers started the season with clear intentions to rebuild. They traded away a 23-year-old All-Star in Jrue Holiday last summer and scooped up two lottery picks, Nerlens Noel and Michael Carter-Williams, in the draft. The former pick is still recovering from an injury he sustained in college, but the latter is leading the Sixers to a level of play they probably didn't expect.
With Carter-Williams, Philadelphia is winning more than it might like. In 11 games without the promising young guard, the Sixers are just 1-10, a mark right on track with their long-term goal of scoring another high draft pick. But when Carter-Williams plays, Philly is 11-14. When their rookie guard is in the lineup, the up-tempo Sixers often feel good enough to compete with any team in the lowly Eastern Conference outside of Miami and Indiana .
Carter-Williams, 22, was considered a project when he was drafted, but he is exceeding early expectations. In 25 games, he's averaging 17.8 points, seven assists and 5.9 rebounds. The only rookies who have ever put together such a resume are Oscar Robertson, who nearly averaged a triple-double in his first season, and Magic Johnson. This season, only LeBron James and Russell Westbrook have scored, rebounded and maintained an assist rate (31.9 percent) at Carter-William's level.
What's interesting is that, while his shooting percentages aren't much higher than they were in college and his free-throw rate is almost the same, he's scoring nearly six more points per game in the NBA. Most of that is what he's asked to do. On Philadelphia, a team short on one-on-one offensive players, Carter-Williams serves as a primary scorer. While his efficiency is below average by nearly every standard, it's impressive that he can compile numbers at this volume for a team that, frankly, isn't very good.
Another encouraging aspect of Carter-Williams is his shot selection. A quick look at his shot chart distribution shows a player very conscious of the most efficient spots on the floor.
Nearly 85 percent of his shots come from either inside the paint or behind the arc -- nearly James Harden-like distribution. Carter-Williams isn't nearly as crafty at getting to the stripe -- Harden shoots over nine free-throws a game and MCW is just above five -- but that isn't anything to worry about. Rookies often struggle at getting to the line, and getting there five times a night is good for a 22-year-old in his first full season.
Carter-Williams is filled with good signs: he can run an offense, he's first in the league in steals per game, he can rebound and he can score when he's asked to. He isn't scoring efficiently but he's finding the right spots on the floor, which signals that his efficiency numbers can improve over time. Most importantly, he's leading the Sixers to wins. That's probably a good thing, whether they like it or not.