By Matt Jenkins
---- — BOSTON — The list is a virtual who’s who of NBA greats both current and former, containing a couple of Hall of Famers and several sure-fire future Hall of Famers.
Magic Johnson. Oscar Robertson. Shaquille O’Neal. Dwyane Wade. Chris Paul. Allen Iverson.
Somehow, through one statistical avenue or another, Hamilton’s Michael Carter-Williams has found his place on that list only 35 games into his NBA career.
Last night Carter-Williams enjoyed the first homecoming of his rookie season as the Philadelphia 76ers handed the Boston Celtics their fourth straight loss with a 95-94 decision.
Carter-Williams may not have had his best statistical game, shooting just 4-of-14 from the floor. But many of his diverse talents were on display last night as he finished with 10 points, seven assists and five rebounds, none bigger than the carom he corralled with less than 15 seconds to play.
Carter-Williams ripped the ball down in traffic, pushed the ball upcourt and handed off to Evan Turner, who drove to the hoop for the game-winning basket.
A successful homecoming, indeed.
“First, I wanted to get the rebound. That’s the biggest part of it. The whole possession was us getting the rebound and getting a chance to get a shot,” Carter-Williams said.
“It was great playing in front of (family and friends). I hope they come out here and support me whenever I come down here and play. I’m thankful for it and had a great time.”
The 6-foot-6 point guard out of Syracuse has taken the NBA by storm since the 76ers scooped him up with the 11th pick of the 2013 NBA Draft last June.
Carter-Williams’ draft class was considered to be weak by experts, with very few players projected to become league stars. Carter-Williams’ early performance has clearly suggested otherwise. He leads all rookies in per game averages for points (17.4), rebounds (5.6), assists (6.7), steals (2.41) and minutes (34.8). He’s third in the entire NBA in steals, and was invited to All-Star Weekend as part of the Rising Stars showcase.
Robertson, Johnson and Steve Francis are the only rookies in the history of the league to average 17 points, six assists and five rebounds per game. Perhaps more impressive is the fact that the two players who most recently finished a season with those averages, plus two steals per game, were Paul and Wade.
Carter-Williams has high expectations for himself, but even he wasn’t expecting his red-hot start.
“I worked real hard this past summer and I’m still working hard,” Carter-Williams said. “I just try to go out and play my best. I’ve surprised almost everybody, and myself also.”
The 22-year-old Carter-Williams made a statement in his first game, dropping 22 points, 12 assists, nine steals and seven rebounds in a win over the defending champion Miami Heat.
He was named the Eastern Conference Rookie of the Month for October/November, becoming the first Philadelphia 76er to earn the award since Iverson. He was also named the Eastern Conference Player of the Week after his first week, joining elite company in that department as O’Neal is the only other rookie to ever record that accomplishment.
Carter-Williams is one of 18 first or second-year players selected by the league’s assistant coaches to play in the game that will take place Feb. 14 during the NBA’s All-Star Weekend in New Orleans.
“Every coach thinks their player is special — and I think his numbers confirm that he is special,” Sixers first-year coach Brett Brown said. “He’s prideful in studying other point guards, and to be selected by assistant coaches around the league and having it not entirely be a popularity fan-based thing, I think speaks a lot in regard to what other coaches think about him.”
Of course, it’s not as easy as Carter-Williams has made it seem.
“I just try to stay consistent through good and bad. I try to learn and keep going onto the next game,” Carter-Williams said.
There have been big adjustments, both on and off the court.
“Just probably the speed of the game and how many games we play. You have to make decisions faster. My coaches always help me and I watch a lot of basketball with my stepfather (Zach Zegarowski) and we talk about the game,” Carter-Williams said.
“It’s been tough. Of course I miss my family, but I’ve gotten used to it a little bit.”
Brown knows Carter-Williams is capable of much more, and he knows the Hamilton product is hungry.
“Coaches get greedy; we all want more. I’m no different; I want more from a competitive standpoint to staying off referees, to being more physical navigating through a pick-and-roll league,” Brown said. “I feel I’m demanding of him, and I feel he’s exceeded what I expected when I first started coaching him.”
Carter-Williams shares an apartment with Zegarowski in Philadelphia, which has helped get him acclimated to living as an NBA player.
Returning to Boston, where Carter-Williams played in front of roughly 150 friends and family members, was an enjoyable stop.
“It’s going to be a special thing,” Carter-Williams said before the game. “I’m excited to play in front of family and friends. I’m sure my mom (Mandy Zegarowski) told me (how many people). I know a lot of people she knows are coming.”
After an unexpected quick start (Philly won its first three games), the rebuilding 76ers have come back to earth. They’re now 6-10 in January and 12th overall in the Eastern Conference.
Carter-Williams is enjoying his time playing for Brown and is optimistic about the 76ers future.
“Coach Brown is awesome. We have similar goals; we like to work hard every day. He’s been great,” Carter-Williams said. “We just go out and try to play hard every single night. For a team that was only supposed to win 14-15 games all season, we’re doing pretty well. We’ll stick with it and keep pushing.
“I think we have a bright future. We’re coming close and I think we all know we’ll be in the playoffs soon.”