"He understands the game. He sees the game. He's got a great feel for the game. When his shooting gets better, he's going to be a great player" -- Jim Boeheim on Michael Carter-Williams
During the lead-up to the NBA Draft, my favorite buzzword spouted by the Jay Bilases of the world is "upside." I believe it aptly captures the uncertainty of the draft process. This guy could be this good, but he might not be.
It's not always the case, but often as a prospect's upside increases, his "downside" goes the other way. This guy could be this good, but if not, he could be this bad. Such a "boom or bust" proposition is more prevalent towards the back end of the lottery, when all of the sure things and safe bets have been scooped up by ping-pong beneficiaries and the league's dregs.
The Philadelphia 76ers have well acquainted themselves with this portion of the draft over the past decade. This year, with the 11th overall pick, they selected Syracuse point guard Michael Carter-Williams, a textbook high-upside (and low-downside) prospect. Carter-Williams has the chance to be very good and end up as the steal of the 2013 Draft. He also has the chance to make little positive impact at all.
Most of the time, only a couple of variables determine whether a high-upside prospect succeeds or fails. When deciding on drafting one of these players, teams are in effect wagering on these variables. Is the crucial part of Player X's game going to remain a weakness or be improved upon?
The most important of the variables is called a player's "swing skill," a term that I completely made up a few days ago (don't get mad if it's already been invented. I plead ignorance). It's pretty self-explanatory: The skill -- whether it's shooting, passing, rebounding, defense, or something else -- that's development is most crucial to a high-upside player's career. It's the skill that can swing a player from boom to bust, or vice versa.
Michael Carter-Williams' jump shot is a cut and dried example of a swing skill. If you removed that particular aspect from the equation, Carter-Williams would probably have been a top-five prospect in this draft. He's a big and athletic point guard with solid court vision and high defensive potential. All of these attributes are important to note, because Carter-Williams is seemingly only a jumper away from adequately replacing Jrue Holiday.
Of course his jumper is currently terrible, and that's almost putting it kindly. In an otherwise breakout sophomore campaign at Syracuse, Carter-Williams shot a frigid 29 percent from distance on exactly three attempts per game. This attribute is equally important to note, because if Carter-Williams doesn't show significant improvement in this one crucial area, he'll struggle to keep employment on this side of the Atlantic Ocean.
As an NBA point guard, it's vitally important to make teams pay for going under on the pick and roll. Rajon Rondo is probably the only top-flight point guard who doesn't do this consistently, and even in Rondo's case, he shot an excellent 48 percent from 16-23 feet this past season, per Hoop Data. If Carter-Williams continues to shoot like Phillip Seymour Hoffman in Along Came Polly, defenses will continue to go under, and the rest of his game will suffer.
Could Carter-Williams find a middle ground? Sure, and his playmaking ability (specifically, making difficult passes for high quality shots without turning the ball over) will certainly have something to do with where he ends up. Still, as far as his floor game is concerned, the best thing Carter-Williams can do for himself is become a respected jump shooter.
How closely teams choose to defend opposing guards is usually based on two common sense factors. First is a player's shooting ability, which if sufficient, forces a defender to press up and take away the player's air space. The second factor is the player's driving ability (first step, explosiveness at the rim, etc.), which if dangerous, forces a defender to play a step off. If a guard is both a proficient shooter and driver, the resulting equilibrium makes defending that player in isolation situations extremely tough.
I believe this proposition best explains the career difficulties encountered by Carter-Williams' potential backcourt partner, Evan Turner. With a below-average jumper and average to below-average quickness, teams can successfully guard both Turner's jumper and drive at the same time. The result is a lot of contested mid-range jumpers, for which Turner has to work extremely hard to even attempt.
The Sixers are banking on Carter-Williams' athletic gifts to change the proposition completely. With better combine numbers in the vertical leap and lane agility drill, Carter-Williams showed more explosiveness than Turner coming out of college. More importantly, he'll also be playing a position where he possesses a size advantage, an opportunity Turner never received because of Holiday's presence.
While teams initially force Carter-Williams to hurt them from the outside, his driving ability will ensure that he'll be taking makeable shots. That's what the Sixers hope, anyway. Sam Hinkie talked about this in Carter-Williams' introductory press conference when he said, "His first step, he can get anywhere he wants." While the jury is out on if that will be the case at the NBA level, Hinkie knows that a quick first step can greatly aid a jumper.
Interestingly, there seems to be little mechanically wrong with Carter-Williams' shot. His form is good, but the basketball simply has a tendency to go all over the place. I said in my draft preview that "As a rookie, he could challenge Jeremy Lin for the league lead in 'Oh my, that shot is going to be three feet off' remarks." I stand by that assertion, but with heavy repetition and increased muscle memory, Carter-Williams theoretically could improve his jumper. Or he might not. Swing skill.
I don't know whether Michael Carter-Williams' will turn into viable point guard on a championship contending team, but I am confident that his jumper will go a long way into deciding where his career ultimately heads.