Coming into this season, there were a number of questions marks surrounding this team, but when I spoke to friends about the Orange, they seemed largely concerned with just one: how good would Michael Carter-Williams be? The thinking was, everything else was immaterial if the answer was, “not very.” Now three games into this very young season, we still can’t answer just how good he’ll be, but after watching MCW shred Princeton’s defense last night, I’m certain the answer won’t be “not very.”
While James Southerland’s scintillating shooting and 22 point effort grabbed most of the headlines, it was MCW’s patient and persistent play-making that stood out to me most. His stat-line, 10 points, 9 assists, 6 rebounds, and 4 steals, was impressive in of itself, but it was the way in which he got them that wowed me. Unlike in the San Diego State game, MCW was under control throughout the game.
He wasn’t trying to force shots or passes; he took what the defense gave him and made plays for his teammates. When Princeton zoned Syracuse, he sliced through the top two defenders, penetrated into the lane, drew help defenders, and then got the ball to his guys for some easy hoops.
It was that type of play that earned some high praise from Jim Boeheim, who said, “he’s playing well and getting the ball in the right places. He’s called a couple great plays out there when we needed him. He set James up for a three. Got two buckets for us in the lane when they pulled within six. You know he’s playing extremely well. His defense has been really good.”
MCW seemed to struggle in the first two games a bit more when he faced aggressive man to man defenses, but expertly dissected Princeton’s zone with ease last night. His eyes lit up as he explained how he managed to attack it so successfully, “I just try to get in the gaps, make them collapse on me and find my teammates for open shots.”
But it wasn’t just his ability to run the Syracuse offense in half-court sets that had me so excited about his potential. He finished around the hoop, chased down loose balls, keeping possessions alive with his extra effort, and wreaked havoc on Princeton’s guards with his tenacious defense. Late in the second half, with Princeton still hanging around, MCW followed up two offensive possessions where he assisted made baskets, by picking T.J. Bray’s pocket in the open court and throwing down a thunderous two-handed dunk on the other end. Suddenly Syracuse was up by 15, Princeton was forced to call a timeout, and for intents and purposes the game was over. Just like that.
While there are elements of his game that he still needs to work on, including lowering his dribble, becoming a more consistent outside shooter, and remaining patient on offense, last night’s game showed that MCW is more than capable of running this team—of being the floor general and all-around player that allows this squad to be special. How good he’ll end up being and how far he’ll take this team remain to be seen, but after last night and MCW’s continued improvement, the future looks bright.