Michael Carter-Williams’ transformation helps give Orlando Magic a winning edge

Orlando Magic guard Michael Carter-Williams conducted a Jr. NBA workout online to help young players stay sharp during quarantine. (Photo by Ronald Cortes/Getty Images)
Orlando Magic guard Michael Carter-Williams conducted a Jr. NBA workout online to help young players stay sharp during quarantine. (Photo by Ronald Cortes/Getty Images) /

After struggling with four different teams in four years, Michael Carter-Williams has found a new role as a defensive and offensive spark for the Orlando Magic.

With a line of 16.7 points, 6.2 rebounds and 6.3 assists per game in the 2014 season, Michael Carter-Williams took home the Rookie of the Year award as a Philadelphia 76ers guard, notably over Orlando Magic rookie Victor Oladipo.

But after that season, Michael Carter-Williams struggled to find a permanent home and role in the NBA. He was traded to the Milwaukee Bucks in the middle of his second year. He later bounced around with stints with the Chicago Bulls, Charlotte Hornets and Houston Rockets before signing in Orlando toward the end of the 2019 season.

His NBA career seemed on its last legs.

Though he only played 12 games with the Magic last year, Carter-Williams made an undeniable impact. He averaged 5.4 points, 4.8 rebounds and 4.1 assists per game. But his defense and energy helped the team make the run to its first Playoff berth in six seasons.

That earned him a new deal with the Magic and a full season with the same team for the first time in four years.

After early struggles, limited playing time, and a hip injury, Carter-Williams was able to carve out a regular rotation spot and possibly revitalize his career as a defense-first wing. He played a big role toward the end of the suspended season when the Magic really started hitting their stride, going 8-4 in their last 12.

Carter-Williams averaged more than 20 minutes per game in that post-All-Star Break stretch. He averaged 9.6 points per game and hits 36.4 percent of his 3-pointers in that time. He was stepping up his game and proving to be a valuable and key player off the bench.

At the very least, Carter-Williams has earned himself a new contract somewhere in the league. He has saved his NBA career.  And the Magic know he will be vital to the team’s hopes of making the Playoffs again.

As coach Steve Clifford puts it, Carter-Williams gives the team a needed edge.

Finding his place in the league

Going back to his rookie season, Michael Carter-Williams averaged 15.1 field goal attempts per game in 34.5 minutes per game. He was a volume scorer and his high scoring average helped him win Rookie of the Year.

He was in elite company as a volume shooter. The only other rookies to shoot more than15 times a game in the past 10 years are Blake Griffin, Damian Lillard, Donovan Mitchell, Trae Young, Luka Doncic and Zion Williamson.

Carter-Williams did not reach the heights those players reached. He failed to build off that rookie year and expand his game.

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Carter-Williams was drafted to a very strange situation in Philadelphia where the team was just beginning to seriously tank after the offseason trade of Jrue Holiday. Still, it is very possible Carter-Williams learned some poor habits while having the ball in his hands perhaps more than he should have in that first season.

In subsequent stops, Carter-Williams was put at either the starting point guard spot or as a lead ball-handler off the bench. HIs lack of shooting forced him to be a point guard and distributor. But even then defenses sagged off him.

Still, his talent kept giving him chances throughout the league. Steve Clifford had him while he was the head coach of the Charlotte Hornets. He has called Carter-Williams one of the best defenders he has coached from their time together — and now with the Orlando Magic. But injuries limited him to 52 games in that season in 2018.

The injuries followed him to Houston the following year before he was waived in January.

A Magic spark

When Michael Carter-Williams joined the Orlando Magic late last season on a pair of 10-day deals and then an end-of-season contract, Markelle Fultz was not playing for the team yet, and D.J. Augustin was the starting point guard.

Michael Carter-Williams was easily able to take the backup spot over Jerian Grant for the last 12 games of the season and the five games against the Toronto Raptors in the postseason.

During those 17 games, Steve Clifford and the Magic seemed to find something they liked that prompted them to resign him to a one-year minimum deal in the offseason.

During those last 12 regular-season games, the team went 10-2, and Carter-Williams had a net rating of +14.0 points per 100 possessions, easily the highest for any Magic players full season stats, and the second-highest on the team during the late-season run — behind only Terrence Ross at +14.6.

This season, with Markelle Fultz’s development as a priority and D.J. Augustin moving over to the bench, there were not any leftover minutes at the point guard spot for Carter-Williams.

Playing time was scarce and there were some games Carter-Williams did not leave the bench in the early months of the season. When Jonathan Isaac was injured, in addition to Al-Farouq Aminu already being out, there was a hole on the depth chart at wing behind Evan Fournier, Aaron Gordon, Terence Ross and Wesley Iwundu.

Carter-Williams also struggled with injuries.

He injured his hip early in the season and was in and out of the lineup throughout November. Then he strained a joint in his shoulder, missing 13 games in December and January. The Magic were missing some serious edge.

But since then, Carter-Williams stepped up to fill the void, playing 20.2 minutes per game with 8.8 points per game and 1.1 steals per game.

Obviously these offensive numbers are not groundbreaking, but a 47/34/89 shooting line during that stretch is a step up from his 40/26/71 career line.

During these 23 games, almost all of Carter-Williams’ minutes have been with sharpshooter Ross also on the court (18 minutes per game played with Ross, 2.2 without).

Ross’ 3-point shooting seems to be the perfect complement to Carter-Williams’ limited range, while Carter-Williams can cover for Ross on defense and cover the opposing team’s best wing/guard.

A needed edge

When looking at the Orlando Magic’s best three-player lineups in terms of net rating for the season (minimum 50 minutes) on NBA.com, Michael Carter-Williams is a part of five of the top six trios.

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Five players signed past their prime in the second Hornets era
Five players signed past their prime in the second Hornets era /

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  • The best three-man team — Michael Carter-Williams, D.J. Augustin and Nikola Vucevic — have played together for 110 minutes this season with a net rating of 25.7 points per 100 possessions, a number somehow higher than any LeBron James, Anthony Davis-led three-man lineup for the Los Angeles Lakers.

    Carter-Williams is part of a big winning factor for the Magic.

    "“He brings an edge on the floor that we need, he is an elite defender, he can guard multiple positions,” Steve Clifford said after practice Saturday. “He’s coming off a stretch since the All-Star game where if you look at his offensive efficiency, it’s terrific. He plays the one, plays the two. In my opinion, he’s a high-quality elite defender, he can guard primary scorers and he competes hard every night.”"

    Carter-Williams’ 2.6-percent steal rate, which is what percentage of team defensive plays does the player get a steal on, is in the 100th percentile for his position according to Cleaning the Glass.

    As Carter-Williams said before a game in March, he lets his defense lead his offense.

    That is ultimately where Carter-Williams provides the most value to the team.

    On offense, Carter-Williams is not the lead distributor he once was but he has found a way to be much more efficient.

    From Cleaning the Glass’ shot distribution stats, Carter-Williams is shooting a career-high 48 percent of his shots at the rim and only five percent from deep mid-range (more than 14 feet but not a 3-pointer), by far his career-low. In a 20-point performance in Memphis on March 10th, you can see below how Carter-Williams has aggressively gone to the rim and drawn fouls in the halfcourt, and also created points with his defense.

    Throughout his career, Carter-Williams has not exactly been known as efficient, but eschewing long mid-rangers in favor of shots at the rim has allowed Carter-Williams to have a 53.9 percent true shooting percentage, breaking his previous career-high of 49.7 percent.

    Carter-Williams has proven to be a valuable part of the rotation, setting the tone defensively for the second team while not forcing things on offense. No matter if Jonathan Isaac comes back or not, Michael Carter-Williams deserves to play in every game as the Magic attempt to gain momentum toward an expected playoff appearance.

    Looking past this season, there seem to be other teams across the league who have noticed the improvements Carter-Williams has made, as there was recent speculation the Golden State Warriors might have their eye on Carter-Williams in the offseason.

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    There has been no reason to believe the Magic do not want him back — and they have their own questions at backup point guard to answer. But it may take more than a minimum contract this time to do so as Carter-Williams has effectively rejuvenated a career that was on the brink of extinction just a bit over a year ago.