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Ten days of Michael Carter-Williams in Orlando

MCW made some critical rebounds in the Magic’s latest win. But his overall impact on the team goes beyond the box score

NBA: New Orleans Pelicans at Orlando Magic Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

The Magic thought they had solved their backup point guard conundrum.

Isaiah Briscoe, the 22-year-old rookie who only last year had been playing in Estonia, recently forced his way into the rotation and was providing the team with everything they needed from the position: high effort, stout defense, and capable playmaking. Case closed, right?

Well, wrong. Unfortunately for both Briscoe and Orlando a torn meniscus in his right knee requiring surgery prematurely ended his season, and the search for competent reserve play began again. Limited options on the roster saw the front office turn their attention elsewhere, but what were the chances of bringing in a difference maker at this late juncture?

Enter Michael Carter-Williams.

The 11th overall pick in 2013 and former Rookie of the Year was on the outside of the league looking in, the result of a 16-game stint in Houston that flamed out thanks to poor shooting and an inability to make an impact elsewhere on the court. It was a familiar outcome, if an accelerated one. Traded to and subsequently cut by the Chicago Bulls, he’d been sitting at home since early-January waiting for a chance that was guaranteed to come.

As a fan it’s easy to be optimistic, so for many, the signing of MCW to a ten-day contract seemed like the right move. But it’s reasonable to question why a player is effectively out of the league, and why a multitude of teams had all moved on from him relatively quickly throughout his career. Would the Magic just be trading one set of problems for another?

10 days in review

Pleasingly, Carter-Williams has been able to make an immediate impact in his three games with the Magic. He walked straight into the backup role in game one, bumping an uninspiring Jerian Grant from the rotation. He played 16 minutes in the contests against the Hawks, and although he failed to convert from the field his boxscore contributions were still noticeable: 5 points, 4 rebounds and an assist, along with zero turnovers. Solid, if unspectacular.

The game tape, however, revealed a little more. MCW’s effort and hustle throughout the game was huge, as he played like someone whose career was on the line. He threw himself to the floor for loose balls, raced back to shut down fast break opportunities, and did a largely competent job defending in the pick and roll. He even picked up a technical foul yapping with Trae Young, which might not be a positive stat but was at least reflective of the intensity he brought to proceedings.

It was a slightly more sedate affair against the Pelicans, on account of it being a game that had lost its competitive juice by halftime. Still, Carter-Williams racked up 4 points, 5 rebounds, 2 assist and a block in another pleasing performance. He wasn’t quite as aggressive in attacking the hoop, but he did enough to keep the ball moving and the scoreboard ticking over when the reserves where on the court. Two-for-two in his time with the Magic.

In his third game with the club, MCW found himself playing some incredibly important minutes in a surprisingly competitive game against the Grizzlies. Although he was held scoreless he was still able to find a way to make a positive contribution on offense. With the ball in the hand he regularly drove into the lane, attacking the heart of the Memphis zone defense and helping the Magic stretch a scheme they were struggling with. He kept the ball moving, limited his turnovers, and generally stayed active when off the ball.

Where his game shone brightest, however, was on defense. Carter-Williams was solid throughout the contest in terms of his individual match up, including a spectacular deflection, steal and save that found Ross for an uncontested dunk, as well as a perfectly timed rejection after becoming detached from his man but not giving up on the possession.

Yet his most important contributions were to be found in the waning moments. MCW was a defensive substitution during the game’s final minute and again during the overtime period, and his inclusions for these key sequences paid immediate dividends. He ripped down two incredibly important defensive rebounds in the final 22 seconds of the fourth quarter, including one amidst a forest of outstretched limbs that he tracked from close to the perimeter. He topped this by then pulling in an effectively game-sealing rebound off a missed Tyler Dorsey free throw attempt, again coming from beyond the arc to snatch the contested ball.

In each of these three games he’s shown a real knack to read the play defensively, often putting himself in the right position to make a positive impact. He’ll effectively track the movement of the ball from the weakside wing, looking for an opportunity to inject himself disruptively or to crash the boards. It speaks to a high level of both effort and engagement.

It’s an incredibly small sample size, but Carter-Williams has been a part of the team’s most productive five-man units over these last three games. He features in two of the top three lineups that have played at least six minutes together, bench-heavy units that have built their effectiveness on the back of dominant defensive ratings (67.7 and 69.2, respectively). Individually he’s also a +21 across his 49 total minutes. These figures are obviously susceptible to wild fluctuation in the immediate future, but we can only work with what we currently have. At the moment, the numbers paint a pretty positive picture.

Three games, three wins. It’s not like he has singlehandedly carried the team to its recent success, but he has certainly shored up a position of need and provided the necessary effort and execution for the playoff hopefuls.

What does this mean going forward?

Carter-Williams has been everything the Magic hoped for when they signed him to this ten-day contract. It’s impossible to fault the enthusiasm and effort he has given the team, while his play-to-play contributions have almost exclusively been a net positive. He’s also shown a poise and composure that probably goes beyond what you would expect from someone on such a limited opportunity.

On the back of a four-game winning streak it’s almost a certainty that the Magic will keep MCW around for at least one more ten-day stretch. His play has warranted that, and to move on from him at this point could be interpreted as criminal negligence while the playoff push still sports a heartbeat.

But the very real flaws in his game remain, and it’s a distinct possibility that they could cause some problems for Orlando in meaningful games to come. His field goal percentage with the club has tumbled south of 25% and he remains without a make from distance in his time in pinstripes. On a team that already struggles with opposing defenses that stay home and clog the lane this is a point that should not be overlooked. There’s also an awkward unfamiliarity with the offensive system that can occasionally reduce the Magic to what is effectively a 4-on-5 match-up. He’s also proven to be a limited playmaker at each of his previous stops, with a propensity for poor decisions and turnovers.

Still, the argument in favor of his return considerably outweighs any worries about his limitations, particularly at this point of the season. If Carter-Williams can give the Magic a solid 16 to 20 minutes each night, he might just be the thing that gets them over the line in the playoff race. In return, he might secure himself a sustainable second chance in the league.

It feels like a no-brainer for both sides.