If you look at Michael Carter-Williams’s minutes this season, you might notice a trend. In blowout victories against the kinds of teams Syracuse routinely chews through in the early season—the Colgates and George Washingtons of the world—the freshman averages 19 minutes per game.
Against Stanford, Virginia Tech, and then-no. 9 Florida, SU’s lone close contests of the year?
Two minutes, two minutes, and a DNP-CD.
Couple that with his modest per-game averages of 2.7 points, 2.1 rebounds and 3.1 assists, and you might conclude that the heavily hyped freshman isn’t living up to expectations.
If you did, though, you’d be wrong.
“He’s playing behind three really good guards,” coach Jim Boeheim said after the Orange’s 85-50 victory over George Washington last Saturday. “When he gets his opportunities—that he will get—I think he’s comfortable enough to go in there and help us.”
That was the case Saturday, when Carter-Williams had his best game of the season, tallying five points and eight assists in 18 minutes as the Orange dominated a thoroughly overmatched Colonial squad.
“I’m just feeling more confident in myself,” Carter-Williams said, “just continuing to improve every day.”
Rail-thin and gawkily athletic, Carter-Williams has had his fair share of offensive struggles this season. But from the start, he’s made a big impact on the defensive end.
His length and quickness are a potent combination at the top of the zone, and he’s shown an ability to aggressively gamble for steals without having the defense break down.
“He’s a very good defensive player,” Boeheim said. “He really helps us in our defense. He’s very active.”
Like many freshmen playing at high-profile colleges, Carter-Williams has had to make serious adjustments to his game and role on the team.
Chief among those is the transition from ball-dominating, scoring combo guard to a more traditional point guard.
That transition hasn’t been easy. He’s had some difficulty getting the Orange into their offensive sets, and he has yet to really find his touch in the college game, shooting just 28 percent on the season. He also had problems turning the ball over early in the season.
“In high school, I was the main scorer on my team,” he said. “But we have a lot of scorers on this team, a lot of great players, a lot of great shooters. So I just try and come in there and distribute the ball, just get us easy baskets. I know I can do that. Just play defense and find the open man.”
His game-to-game improvement is obvious.
His turnovers have steadily decreased all season. His eight assists against the Colonials came without a single turnover.
He’s also quickly learning to run the Orange offense. Many of his assists against George Washington came in the flow of the offense, with the freshman making the right pass to the open man.
Several also came in transition, including a nifty bounce pass through traffic to forward James Southerland.
“He’s running the team and being a good point guard,” Boeheim said. “That’s what we need him to do.”
Carter-Williams talks like a point guard, too. Ask him about playing the role, and he’ll talk about figuring out where his teammates like the ball.
It helps having upperclassmen around like Scoop Jardine. The fifth-year senior, who has emerged this season as the vocal leader of this Orange team, acts as a mentor to the freshman.
“He reminds me of myself,” Jardine said after an early season victory over Colgate where Carter-Williams tallied five assists. “Play the right way, get guys involved, and when your shot comes be there to knock it down. That’s what a point guard’s supposed to do. He’s learning that early. He’s going to be a great player when the time comes.”
Carter-Williams, for his part, has welcomed the instruction.
“I look at Scoop like a big brother,” he said. “He’s pretty much gone through everything.”
Carter-Williams isn’t there yet. After all, he’s only a freshman, and he’s still figuring out how to be a point guard on top of adjusting to the college game. He’s the fourth guard in Jim Boeheim’s rotation, and finding minutes against good teams is going to be difficult.
But it’s equally clear that he wants to improve and is going to put in the work to do so.
And when he gets on the court, more often than not, good things are going to happen.
“Michael’s a great kid,” Jardine said. “He’s going to continue to get better. He’s getting better every game. He’s another key guy to our bench that could start anywhere in the country, that could play with anybody in the country, and we’ve got him on our bench coming off, making electrifying plays.”