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April 14, 2015

Sixers catch up with an old friend as Michael Carter-Williams puts on a show

The team's former point guard dropped 30 points on his old running mates, which is the most he has ever scored in Wells Fargo Center

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I have seen the same exact scene end a bunch of romantic comedies, but let’s use “Annie Hall” as an example here: After a relationship filled with what seems like countless ups and downs, two people (Alvy Singer, Annie Hall) finally break up and each individually end up in a decent place (Alvy writes his play, Annie continues to happily date). But just before the credits roll, there’s one final piece of business: The two people have a chance encounter, usually on the street, and basically tell each other that it’s great to see you doing well, something they both genuinely mean:

Roughly, that scene captures the mood at Wells Fargo Center for Michael Carter-Williams’ first game back in Philadelphia on Monday night. MCW’s 111-game Sixer tenure had its ups (opening night against Miami, Rookie of the Year Award) and downs (27-game losing streak, plenty more losses). Both parties have done fine without each other (Carter-Williams will suit up in the playoffs, Sixers will continue building armed with the Lakers pick they received in return for their former point guard). And in a nothing game late in the season that approximated a chance encounter on an Upper West Side street, both parties had nothing but nice things to say about each other.

Carter-Williams wasn’t just the best player on the floor last night. He was the best player on the floor by a mile.

“I haven’t been able to watch or keep up really, but I always check the score to see how guys are doing,” Carter-Williams said. “They’ve been playing well. They’ve been in a lot of games. Coach [Brown] has them playing hard. Nerlens has been playing exceptionally, he’s been playing really good. I wish them the best and have nothing but faith and good hopes for them.”

“We wish him well,” Brett Brown said. “He came in and had a hell of a game. We wish him well for the playoffs. It was good to see him.” 

Brown wasn’t kidding about the “helluva game” part. In fact, it might’ve been the best offensive performance Carter-Williams ever had in the Wells Fargo Center with the possible exception of his spectacular rookie debut against LeBron James and the Miami Heat last year. MCW was on fleek!

After finishing with 30 points, 11-17 shooting from the field, 8-13 from the line, five assists, and only two turnovers, Carter-Williams wasn’t just the best player on the floor last night. He was the best player on the floor by a mile.

“I was in a little bit of a groove and rhythm, and I was just feeling it,” Carter-Williams said afterward. 

Even with all of the positive vibes emanating from his quotes before and after the game, there was a noticeably cathartic element to Carter-Williams’ performance once he stepped onto the hardwood. Make no mistake: Even though Sam Hinkie made very clear the day after trading the reigning Rookie of the Year that Carter-Williams didn’t do anything wrong, he would still be a Sixer if the front office viewed him as a viable building block for a championship contender. Carter-Williams is aware of that, which is why he showed more emotion than we’re accustomed to seeing from him on multiple occasions last night. The 23-year-old point guard might be content, but he played angry.

Carter-Williams had almost the whole offensive repertoire working, too. Early on in the game, he used his 6-foot-6 frame to play bully ball against the smaller Ish Smith in the post, and he scored multiple times when the double never came. Then he utilized those long Olympic-quality strides to get to the rim on drives, and he consistently finished through contact when he got there. He even splashed a few pull-up jumpers off the dribble for [redacted] and giggles. 

The one missing element of Carter-Williams’ game was the three-point shot, of which he didn’t attempt any. I wrote about the jumper being his “swing skill” (what ultimately will make or break him as a pro) two years ago, and his ceiling is still pretty low for such a talented player due to his subpar outside shooting. The Bucks have almost cut down his attempts from deep by two-thirds, and as Tom Moore noted on Twitter, his shots are generally coming from closer to the basket:

Carter-Williams has been a little more efficient since joining Milwaukee, but he’s still under the Mendoza Line for all intents and purposes. His shooting is still a major question mark moving forward. 

“The statistics always showed that he was a low-percentage player when you started looking at the distance from the rim,” Brown said. “But I think that all of us, and Milwaukee obviously did, you can look past that and think what he’s got a chance to do and become. You know, he had a shoulder operation. He didn’t spend a second in the summer working on [his shot].”

Brown is an optimist by nature, which is why he has been the perfect fit for this job. He can look past Carter-Williams’ deficiencies in order to coach him up, but the front office decided at some point that they couldn’t do that anymore. Now the Bucks, owners of a 41-40 record and the sixth seed in the upcoming Eastern Conference Playoffs, have decided to look past the shooting. We’ll see what happens, but for one night, Carter-Williams put the whole tantalizing package together. 

“I was in the same seat as him, being a Rookie of the Year and traded early in your career,” Bucks head coach (and soon-to-be Hall of Fame player) Jason Kidd said. “So, it’s just understanding that continuing to keep working no matter what jersey you put on. If you want to be good in this league, it takes hard work and he’s put in the time. And not just at practice, but coming back at night and working on his game.”

Milwaukee feels like the right situation for Carter-Williams, which isn’t to say that the Sixers hindered his development. I think the popular narrative is Philadelphia was his Shawshank, and that he crawled to freedom through 500 yards of foulness we can't even imagine. Judging from his answers last night and genuine shock to getting traded, I really do think he liked it here. Was it perfect? No. Did he enjoy all of the losing? No. Did he have to grow up really fast? You bet. Still, on balance, MCW could take a lot of positives from his brief time as a Sixer. 

That’s why last night’s game was the equivalent of Alvy and Annie shaking hands at the end of the movie. To the Sixers, “It was great seeing Michael Carter-Williams again and they realized what a great person he is and how much fun it was just knowing him.“