Brett Brown was watching the NBA draft last June as an assistant with the Spurs amid speculation that he would soon be leaving San Antonio. There were rumors that he could become the new head coach of the 76ers, but he had yet to interview with Philadelphia's new general manager Sam Hinkie.
"I'm watching from the back and they come out swinging -- they're trading Jrue Holiday," recalled Brown. "What is this? You just traded an All-Star?"
He understood Philadelphia would be looking to rebuild, but this was a little extreme. The 76ers had packaged Holiday, their young team leader, in a trade to New Orleans for 19-year-old center Nerlens Noel, who had undergone recent ACL surgery, and a first-round pick in 2014. With their own pick at No. 11, the Sixers chose Syracuse sophomore Michael Carter-Williams to replace Holiday at point guard.
"I stood in the back of the draft room just watching the thing be decimated, » said Brown of his future team's roster. "It all blew up."
An even bigger surprise has since emerged: Carter-Williams is the consensus favorite to be Rookie of the Year while leading his class in scoring (17.3 points), assists (6.6), rebounds (5.4) and steals (2.3) in 37 starts with Philadelphia. Brown didn't envision that kind of impact as he studied his new guard's game tapes from Syracuse, as well as the first impressions he made in summer league and training camp.
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"When I first judged him, I thought there was an aloofness that would frustrate me, and at times it still does," said Brown. "But it's really camouflaged with a sort of toughness that I didn't think existed in him. He's far more prideful than I thought, more competitive than I thought, with an intellect -- that you don't get a chance to judge when you first see tape -- that exceeds my original expectations."
Brown's skepticism was a reflection of the NBA's ambivalence for Carter-Williams. His failure to crack the top 10 in the draft had a lot to do with his two uneven years at Syracuse, where he played only 10.3 minutes as a freshman, and then shot only 29.4 percent from the three-point line as a sophomore. He developed a reputation (premature, to be sure) for missing big free throws. His potential for man-to-man defense was questioned, as it often is for players who come out of Jim Boeheim's zone-based system.
"People underestimate a zone -- they think you just stand there, you do nothing, » said Carter-Williams. "But you actually work really hard. You've got to slide and cut people off and take angles and fight through screens, so it's definitely helped me."
It so happened that Carter-Williams had his own doubts about visiting the 76ers before the draft. "I even fought it for a little bit because I was like, they have Jrue Holiday -- why should I want to work out for them?" he said. "But my agent (Jeff Schwartz) told me I should, so luckily I did. »
Carter-Williams has found the NBA's open-court style to be better suited for his game than the loaded defenses he faced in college. Brown's insistence that his young team develop an identity for attacking the rim with pace -- they're averaging 101.0 points (after finishing last in NBA scoring last season) and are No. 2 in the league with 51.6 points in the paint -- has taken pressure off his developing jump shot. "I still need some work, » said Carter-Williams, who has been focused on holding his follow-through and developing a consistent rotation.
The only point guard he looks up to, literally, is 6-foot-7 Shaun Livingston; at 6-6 Carter-Williams has a view of the floor and the basket that 6-1 Trey Burke, the No. 10 pick of the Jazz, will never know. Philadelphia and Utah are each 1-11 when their rookie leaders have been unavailable this season, which is a meaningful comparison for Carter-Williams. While Burke was named Player of the Year last season with a renowned killer instinct coming out of Michigan, Carter-Williams entered the draft with a stigma of unreliability.
"His skill package is more complete than I originally guessed," Brown said. "His size enables him to play with a little bit of a different vision line. He's got a point guard mentality, where down deep he understands he's got to run a team and find his teammates, and that's complemented with a balanced ability to score. He plays far too much in a crowd, but sometimes that can be a good thing too -- he's trying to get to the rim and embrace our running style.''
His placid determination was developed over the years in Hamilton, Mass., 30 miles north of Boston, where he wasn't viewed as a future star. His coming-out party was in AAU with the Boston Amateur Basketball Club, coached by former Celtics executive Leo Papile. "I've taken a lot of hits and criticism, and anytime I would do something good it would always be, `Yeah, he did this, but da-da-da-da,'" Carter-Williams said. "It always kept me grounded, really, and kept a chip on my shoulder."
He grew up with the support of his parents and stepparents. "I have four parents,'' he said; three of them played and coached basketball. His $2.2 million rookie salary is going into a trust that he won't be able to access for three years, leaving him to get by on his endorsements. His stepfather, Zach Zegarowski, is living with him this season in Philadelphia.
It's too early to forecast Carter-Williams as a future All-Star. That status will require years of investment, beginning with a hard summer of work to improve his jump shot and develop the strength he will need to impose his length around the basket; at 185 pounds, said Brown, "his weakness is his weakness."
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In the bigger picture, Brown is encouraged not only by Carter-Williams but also by the Sixers' identification of him. They tried to move up to several spots in the top 10, based on Hinkie's doubts that Carter-Williams would be available at No. 11. Now the skepticism of a weak draft and a skinny point guard who couldn't shoot has given way to promise of more good things to come.
"I think this is a reflection of what Sam is going to be able to bring to the franchise in the future," said Brown. "Albeit it's still early days, and I don't want to get overly dramatic and flattering. There's a long way to go -- and Michael knows it, which is the exciting thing."
It isn't what Carter-Williams has done so far that matters. It's that he has a chance to do more than most ever imagined, which has made for a more encouraging first step than Brown might have envisioned that night last June in San Antonio.