BOSTON — Orlando Magic head coach Steve Clifford spoke highly about one particular NBA guard prior to his team’s road game against the Celtics Wednesday evening.
“In 20 years (of coaching), he’s one of the best perimeter defenders I’ve ever been around,” said Clifford. “He can guard primary scorers and both get a decent amount of ball pressure, which is hard to do, and not get beat.”
So who was Clifford referring to? Was it gritty workhouse Marcus Smart, whom the Magic luckily didn’t have to worry about on Wednesday with the Celtic nursing an injury? Nope.
How about 22-year-old Magic swingman Jonathan Isaac, whose 7-foot-1 wingspan can make things extremely difficult for opposing players? Guess again.
The individual Clifford commended was Hamilton’s own Michael Carter-Williams, who recently returned from a shoulder injury and has been a key contributor off the bench for playoff-hopeful Orlando.
Carter-Williams has always been known for his defense, and at this point in his career it’s undoubtedly the biggest reason Clifford loves going to him in a number of different situations.
“He changes our defense,” Clifford said of Carter-Williams. “He plays with an energy level that’s hard to find, and he’s also played very well offensively. But he’s a game changer at the defensive end and doesn’t get nearly his just-due around the league.”
Now on his sixth different team in seven years in the league, Carter-Williams seems to have found a home in Orlando.
The 28-year-old signed with the Magic towards the end of last season, playing in 12 regular season games and five playoff games. His steady contributions impressed Clifford and Co. enough to re-sign him for the 2019-20 campaign, and now he continues to prove them right.
Despite missing a total of 23 games this winter, including a recent 13-game absence, Carter-Williams has posted nightly averages of 6.5 points, 3.0 rebounds, 2.3 assists, 0.9 steals and 0.4 blocks in 17 minutes per contest. Since his return to the court against Golden State on January 18, those numbers are trending upwards.
In his previous eight games heading into Wednesday’s tilt at TD Garden, the shifty playmaker had reached double figures in scoring three times — including a pair of 15-point performances — and shot better than 50 percent six times. He also dished out a season-best eight assists against the Los Angeles Clippers and has regularly contributed on the glass.
Defensively, Carter-Williams has recorded five steals and a pair of blocks during that span while frequently matching up against explosive guards and lengthy forwards.
For him, it’s nothing new, and a challenge he willingly accepts night in and night out.
“I feel confident and I’m just going out there and trying to do whatever the team needs for us to win,” said Carter-Williams, who scored eight first-half points on 2-for-3 shooting from the field and 4-for-4 from the free throw line to go with four assists against the Celtics Wednesday.
“Obviously it starts with defense, so I just try to bring that energy on defense and then get us into sets on the other end and make sure we’re organized. Then, just be aggressive. Whether it’s getting to the lane, knocking down the shot or finding the open man, just go in there and be aggressive.”
Orlando came into Boston as the eighth and final playoff seed in the Eastern Conference with a 22-28 record. Carter-Williams isn’t the only one on the roster who’s battled injuries this season, so it’s certainly been an uphill battle for a group that won 42 games and secured the seventh slot in last year’s playoffs.
“We’re just going to have to keep playing together and focus on putting in a full 48 minutes,” Carter-Williams said of his team’s approach as they pursue a postseason berth. “We’ve hit the injury big a little bit, so getting some guys back healthy and putting everything together will be key.”
Carter-Williams may never get the opportunity to post the type of numbers he did during his Rookie of the Year campaign with Philadelphia back in 2014 (16.7 points, 6.2 rebounds, 6.3 assists, 1.9 steals per game). But he’s unquestionably earned his spot in this league while blossoming into a player who can singlehandedly swing the momentum of a game in his team’s favor.
A basketball family
Carter-Williams isn’t the only talented hoopster in his family. His mother, Mandy, was a star player at Salem State and served as the Ipswich High girls basketball player for years, among other things. His biological father, Earl Williams, also played at Salem State while his stepfather, Zach Zegarowski, played his college ball at UMass Lowell after a stellar four years at Salem High.
In addition, Carter-Williams’ sister, Masey Zegarowski, is a senior on the Bryant University women’s team, while his brothers Marcus and Max Zegarowski currently play at Creighton University and Franklin Pierce University, respectively.
On Tuesday, while back in town for the next day’s game against Boston, Carter-Williams was able to catch one of Max’s games in person.
“He played really well. They have a good team over there at Franklin Pierce, and Max loves it,” said Carter-Williams. “He’s having a good time and playing well, really coming into his own over there. So it was great to see him play.”
After transferring from Lynn University, Max Zegarowski has thrived for his new team at Franklin Pierce. The 6-foot-6 sophomore is averaging 8.9 points and 3.2 rebounds per contest and carries an impressive shooting line of 44.0/41.2/82.4.
Meanwhile, Marcus Zegarowski is an irreplaceable piece for a 17-5 Creighton team who recently upended No. 8 ranked Villanova to bolt into the Top 25. Serving as the starting point guard, he’s averaging 16.1 points, 3.4 rebounds, 5.0 assists and 1.0 steals on 46.5 percent shooting (38.3 from 3-point land). He played the entire 40 minutes in his team’s marquee victory over ‘Nova.
“I haven’t got to see any of his games in person, but I catch them all the time on TV,” said Carter-Williams. “I just tell him to go out there and play hard, be yourself and take what the defense gives you ... nothing too specific. He’s got a good basketball mind, he knows what he’s doing out there and he’s been playing really well.”
Marcus Zegarowski is only a sophomore, but if he continues to impress on the national stage for a nationally ranked program, he could very well join his brother in the NBA at some point in the near future.
Nick Giannino can be reached at NGiannino@salemnews.com. Follow him on Twitter @NickGiannino_SN.