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Michael Carter-Williams’ early success in new role has surprised

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After two promising preseason games, Carter-Williams may have found his place playing off-ball.

NBA: Preseason-Indiana Pacers at Houston Rockets Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

Although he was held out of Sunday’s exhibition in San Antonio due to left knee soreness, much of the hoopla surrounding Rockets’ preseason thus far has focused on the previously much-maligned Michael Carter-Williams’ surprisingly fantastic play. Through two games, Carter-Williams is averaging 17 points per game, 4 rebounds, and 3.5 assists with a 71-percent true shooting percentage and a 20.9 Net Rating.

Normally, preseason stats need to be taken with a grain of salt, and considering much of Carter-Williams’ creation has come from attacking non-rotation players and his scoring from Houston’s superlative guards taking advantage of preseason’s typically lazy defense, his performance in Houston’s first two games admittedly may need the whole salt shaker.

Still, in typical fashion, known career rejuvenator Mike D’antoni seems to have found something in moving Carter-WIliams to a previously unexplored role— shifting him off-ball almost entirely. And honestly, considering Carter-Williams’ two best skills are slashing and defense, it’s a shame it took six years for a coach to try him at the wing full-time. Still, better late than never.

Despite his reputation as a solid defender, Carter-Williams has never been exceptional guarding point guards, as he lacks elite speed or lateral quickness. Throughout his career, he’s been best utilized guarding swingmen, as his 6’6”, lanky frame matches up better against the slower-footed two and three positions.

The best example of this came in Chicago in 2016-17, when the backcourt mess created by the “three alphas” forced him to play over 30 percent of his minutes off-ball. That modest 30 percent is by far the most he’s ever played off-ball and resulted in a career year for individual defensive efficiency, as he graded out in the 71st percentile in Synergy Sports tracking data. This past season, defending almost exclusively point guards, he fell in the low 30s.

Carter-Williams’ lengthy frame also makes him a disruptive help defender for the Rockets, clogging passing lanes when they load up on switches. The cascading effects from his ability to shrink the floor when he’s playing off-ball are why he’s consistently graded out well in defensive advanced stats (DBPM, etc) despite his average-at-best on-ball defense.

The switch to defending wings seems to have impressed D’Antoni, as he sung Carter-Williams’ praises in a recent interview on ESPN’s The Jump, insisting that defensively “he’s not just good; he’s very good”.

Conversely, it’s a lot tougher to determine how much of Carter-Williams’ resurgence is sustainable on the offensive end, as he fails to check the big, red “outside shooting” box all D’Antoni wings need. As Rockets fans could probably tell from his egregious airball against the Pacers, it’s the biggest weakness in his game by a considerable margin.

The Rockets’ have a reputation of creating shooters out of thin air, but Carter-Williams’ stroke might be beyond repair. Last season, whenever he hit a three, the Charlotte broadcast crew referred to it as “pennies from heaven”, so his deep ball could be too far gone.

However, despite his glaring absence of spacing provided, Carter-Williams can still have a better impact on the wing with the Rockets than he’s had elsewhere. No longer having to lead the break, he can leak out in transition like never before with two of the league’s best distributors to set him up.

Additionally, although he won’t shoot off kick-outs, he’s excellent at attacking the already ruptured defense to finish at the rim, draw a foul, or create an even better shot for someone else. The spacing provided by the Rockets’ shooters should unclog a paint that was previously filled with the Dwight Howard’s and Cody Zeller’s of the world, allowing him to thrive more than ever as a slasher.

Carter-Williams’ skillset will likely be mitigated come the playoffs, as the extended preparation allows opposing coaching staffs to devise schemes that can capitalize on flat-out ignoring him on the perimeter, but that doesn’t mean he can’t provide welcome depth during the regular season.

D’Antoni is on record as having the philosophy that “the more point guards you have on the floor the better it is”, so Carter-Williams’s prior experience at the one should afford him ample opportunity and tutelage this season. For a player whose steep decline has been at least partly mental, feeling as though the organization “believes in him” should do wonders.

Hopefully, this transition from point guard to the wing is the beginning of a reinvention for Carter-Williams that mitigates his weaknesses and extends his career drastically. Unfortunately, it will take more than just a few preseason games to make that determination. Stay tuned.