Sixers Finish Summer League; Michael Carter-Williams Frustrates But Intrigues

Sixers Finish Summer League; Michael Carter-Williams Frustrates But Intrigues

Orlando is over, and the Sixers will be packing up shop for a couple months now. The Sixers finished their Summer League set with a 1-4 record, their one win coming when they barely beat the Nets on the last day in a battle of the league's two worst teams, in a game that was (perhaps mercifully) untelevised. Needless to say this team was not overflowing with talent; I would be surprised if more than one or two of the players not already signed by the Sixers actually ended up on an NBA team next year. (And even a couple of those might not survive the summer.)

But of course, the team's record itself is of little import compared to how our impact prospects played, namely anointed Point Guard of the Future Michael Carter-Williams, who kicked the league off with a 26/7/8 performance that was actually more up-and-down than that final line would actually indicate. That performance was likely Carter-Williams' best of the week, as his 8-23 shooting night in that game would somehow end up being the highest percentage he shot in any of the five games, which also consisted of 4-20, 5-16 and 3-16 outings, dragging his final FG% for Orlando to a sparkling 27%.

Simply put, MCW has real, real trouble putting ball in basket. This comes as no surprise to Sixers fans, who have long been warned that Carter-Williams' shooting touch was highly lacking in his college career, but the degree of his struggling this week was pretty damn harsh. It's not just that he can't shoot straight--his stroke actually looks OK, though for whatever reason, it doesn't end up going in that much--it's that he doesn't have a particularly stocked arsenal of moves when it comes to getting his shot off. Often times he would drive to the basket, get stopped eight to ten feet out, and just kinda chuck the ball at the basket, with predictably limited success. He doesn't seem to have much in the way of floaters or up-and-under moves, which a guy with his lousy outside shooting results needs badly to be any kind of effective on offense.

Turnovers were also an issue for MCW. Again, nothing unexpected, but Michael was almost pushing double-digits with the giveaways in a couple of these, and it's pretty hard to be effective as a distributor when you're coughing the ball up that much. Many of the TOs were forgivable, but some were just the result of carelessness--being loose with his dribble, leaving his feet before deciding what he was going to do with the ball, wedging passes into spaces that were barely there, if at all. Between the turnovers and the misses, there was a whole lot of sighing and head-shaking to be done watching Carter-Williams this week.

So, a complete disaster, then? Well, I'm not willing to go quite that far. Carter-Williams struggled in predictable areas, and mightily so, but he also impressed in expected areas as well. His near double-digit turnover games were also near double-digit assist games--an unsustainable ratio, but one that shows that he's being aggressive with his play-making, which is generally a good thing. He had a couple lead passes in the half-court (especially to Arsalan Kazemi, who he developed a nice chemistry with) that were impressive in their both vision and their execution, and there were stretches--particularly in the second half of a narrow loss to Orlando--where he was getting into the paint and kicking out to open teammates on virtually every play, creating easy scoring opportunities like a point guard is supposed to, first and foremost.

And though he appears to be currently helpless scoring the ball from most areas of the court, he did show an impressive ability to finish around the basket, as well as the tenacity to drive at it continuously. His size allows him to finish over smaller defenders, and his wiriness allows him to contort his body to get around help defenders in mid-air. Of course, unless you're LeBron James, you can't just attack all the time, as eventually defenders can play you solely to drive and you'll end up getting your shot blocked a whole lot (as MCW certainly did as the week went on), but it's a good instinct, and one which when (hopefully, eventually) paired with an improved outside shot and a decent floater could make him quite a terror on offense.
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-YpP7oKLn0Y
But really, if you want to find value in MCW's Summer League performance, it'd mostly come on the other end of the ball. As raw as he is offensively, Carter-Williams seems likely to be an immmediate contributor on defense, where his length gives smaller point guards real trouble and his athleticism allows him to recover from the pick-and-roll in a way few defenders of his size could. OKC Summer League point guard Dwight Buycks impressed enough in his Orlando audition to get a two-year contract from the Raptors, but he was totally helpless against Carter-Williams, who blanketed him all game and held him to just two points and three assists (with three turnovers) in his limited minutes. In a league being gradually overrun by young, lightning-quick point guards, to have a potential stopper like MCW is really a tremendous asset to the Sixers moving forward.

What's more, Carter-Williams impressed with his ability to anticipate passing lanes and reach in for steals. Now, steals is often an overrated statistic when evaluating defense, since a high steal tally often means a predilection towards gambling, lunging for swipes that don't come to fruition and leave you (and subsequently, your whole team) out of defensive position, but MCW didn't guess wrong a whole lot, and when he did get hands on the ball, he excelled at transitioning into the fast break, with the speed and handling to finish himself and the smarts to kick ahead or cross-court to open teammates. On a team that's going to struggle in the half court like the Sixers invariably will next year (and maybe a couple years after), being able to get those easy points off turnovers will be tremendously key for them to stay in games.

On the whole? I'd be lying if I said I came away from the Sixers' week in Orlando convinced that Michael Carter-Williams was absolutely the guy to quarterback the next good 76ers team. If he can't score--like, at all--that's a pretty tough problem to get around, regardless of how much he contributes elsewhere on the floor, and there's a lot of feel-for-the-game stuff that he still needs to learn about leading a team and directing an offense and all that stuff. But Rich Hoffman of Liberty Ballers has done a good job of putting MCW's shooting and scoring in perspective as his "swing skill"--the area in which the degree of his improvement will determine the degree of his ability to be effective as an NBA player. You'd rather know for a fact that he can do it, but the fact that being able to do it is pretty much all that's keeping him from being a good pro is cause for optimism, since it's a partially learnable skill, and you'd rather have a super-talented guy with one gaping hole in his game than someone who's just across-the-board mediocre.

For some additional perspective, I'd advise you to look at the Summer League case of Utah's Trey Burke, taken two spots ahead of Michael Carter-Williams in the 2013 draft, the highest-picked point guard of the whole class. Burke's struggles in Orlando arguably eclipsed even Carter-Williams', with the rookie point also finishing with a final FG% in the 20s, as well as a disturbingly arid 1-19 mark from three over the week. (Even MCW managed to hit four total from deep over five games.) Burke did not impress terribly with his playmaking or defense, and seemed to struggle to get any kind of easy baskets--the few shots he made seemed to all come off tough fadeaways and long catch-and-shoots, which, cool, but when playing against the weak competition of Summer League, making it look easy is always a better sign for a player's pro prospects than making it look hard.

Now if I was a Jazz fan, I'd be pretty f'ing scared right now about that pick. Unlike Carter-Williams, Burke wasn't an offensively raw product in college--he averaged nearly 19 a game at Michigan, shooting 46% from the field and 38% from deep, sweeping the Player of the Year honors and was supposed to step in right away as the Jazz's starting point guard and best perimeter scorer and playmaker. And what's more, if Burke isn't scoring and distributing with ease, he's not contributing a whole lot on the court, as he's undersized as a defender and rebounder and not terribly effective in those areas. The situation with Burke reminds me (to my eternal chagrin) of our own Evan Turner, another consensus Player of the Year whose Summer League difficulties before his rookie season were indicative of the very real issues he was going to have adapting his college-dominating game to the pro level. It's not a death sentence for Burke, exactly--anybody can have a bad stretch of games, and I'm sure there's no shortage of excuses the Jazz camp have for their #9 pick's poor play, likely with varying degrees of credibility--but again, if I was a Utah fan, I'd be tempering my expectations considerably for what could be a pretty rough rookie season for Burke.

I'm not trying to pick on poor Trey Burke here--I'm sure there are Jazz blogs out there doing that well enough already--but I'm just trying to illustrate why you'd ultimately rather have a Summer League performance like that of Michael Carter-Williams, whose difficulties were very real and very problematic, but were also expected to a degree, and were tempered with similarly expected contributions in other areas. The issues with MCW are fixable, the issues with Burke, I wouldn't be so sure. Now, that's not to say that Carter-Williams will definitely (or even probably) fix said issues--it's entirely possible his scoring and shooting difficulties will remain such a problem that he will ultimately prove unplayable. But that's the gamble that Sam Hinkie took all along with our #11 pick, and if he's willing to bet long-term on Carter-Williams, then the young point guard deserves our faith and patience as well.

Ultimately, Michael Carter-Williams and the Philadelphia 76ers just might be the perfect fit for one another next season. Carter-Williams will undoubtedly struggle from the field tremendously all season--if he shot even 35% from the field, that might be considerable as a win for the Sixers--and the offense will suffer for it. But he'll learn, and in the meantime, the Sixers will lose, and hopefully by the time MCW gets enough of a feel for the pro game to be effective on both ends of the court, we'll have a couple high draft picks with which to give him the help on offense that he needs--considering his current go-to guy on offense is Thaddeus Young, who's only once averaged over 15 points a game and may not even be on the team at this point next year. Hell, Ricky Rubio has yet to score 11 a game or shoot over 36% from the field, but he's still looked at as a cornerstone of the Timberwolves' rebuilding process for his ability to contribute in all other facets of the game--passing, defending, even rebounding--and his remaining upside at age 22. No reason to think MCW couldn't turn out similarly, and on the Sixers, he'll get the chance to do so.

As he often does, my dad summed it up perfectly while we were watching MCW's up-and-down performance in his Summer League debut: "Well, he's going to stink this year, but that's OK." Sounds about right on all accounts.

Let the bidding begin for Mike Trout, who Angels must move at some point

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Let the bidding begin for Mike Trout, who Angels must move at some point

Yes, the Angels are going to trade Mike Trout.

It may not happen this year or even next year, but eventually Angels GM Billy Eppler will accept the reality of the bleak future ahead for his franchise. Albert Pujols, who has five years and $140 million remaining on his contract after this season, has taken the baton from Ryan Howard for the worst contract in baseball. Good luck getting out of that deal. Other than the increasingly rare Pujols hot streak, they have nobody equipped to protect Trout in the lineup. 

The starting rotation has been patched together, with both Garrett Richards and Andrew Heaney going down with elbow injuries early this season. Unless one of those guys comes back healthy, there isn’t a No. 1 or No. 2 starter on the roster. Theoretically, the Angels will have money to spend on the free-agent market with both C.J. Wilson and Jered Weaver coming off the books after the season. But with Andrew Cashner and Jeremy Hellickson the likely headliners on the pitching market, a quick fix for the rotation seems unlikely. 

The 2017 free-agent market for hitters isn’t much better. Should Yoenis Cespedes opt out of his contract with the Mets, he could provide a potent presence behind Trout, but there will be stiff competition for his services and he’ll be in line for a massive payday. 

Toronto’s once-dynamic duo of Edwin Encarnacion and Jose Bautista should be available, but both appear to be trending downward. Giving either player a long-term deal is a risky investment at best. 

Building around the young players in the organization isn’t a viable option. By all accounts, the Angels have the worst farm system in baseball. You can check out those rankings here or here. This is a franchise in dire need of an infusion of young talent. 

We’ve seen the Phillies in a similar situation with Cole Hamels. Once there was no way forward to win with him, the only reasonable option was to trade him. Even the most ardent Hamels supporters have to admit now that moving him made sense.  

Yes, Trout is only 24 years old and is the best all-around player in baseball. The Angels should certainly explore every possible option to build a winner around the South Jersey native, who is in the second season of a six-year deal that will pay him $119 million from 2017 through 2020. But the franchise is trending in the wrong direction. If they cannot honestly see a path to contending with him, they should look to move him and jump-start a rebuild. There will be no shortage of suitors. 

So ignore the notion that you never trade an “inner-circle Hall of Famer,” which Trout certainly is on track to become. He is signed through 2019 and the clock is ticking. 

Let the bidding begin. 

Josh Hart discusses NBA draft process, returning to Villanova

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Josh Hart discusses NBA draft process, returning to Villanova

Josh Hart said the decision wasn’t easy.

But he’s happy with it.

After withdrawing his name from the NBA draft to return to school (see story), Hart is excited to focus on Villanova, graduation and then the NBA dream.

“I love the school, I love the teachers, the student body, the support, my teammates that we have coming back,” the 6-foot-5 guard said Wednesday on Comcast SportsNet’s Philly Sports Talk. “So it was a tough one and I just thought at the end of the day, I think going back for my senior year would be in the best interest of my parents and myself.”

As a junior, Hart helped Villanova win its second national championship in program history by leading the Wildcats in scoring with 15.5 points per game while shooting 51.3 percent from the field.

Hart received plenty of feedback from NBA teams. He said shooting and ball handling are what he hopes to improve.

As far as his draft stock …

“There were teams interested maybe in the first [round], and then there were teams that said they would take me in the second,” Hart said. “But there’s a whole month before the draft, a lot of teams didn’t know exactly what they were doing with their picks — whether they were trying to trade up for a pick, trying to trade down, trying to trade a pick for a player. Several teams said that they would take me.”

For more from Hart on the draft and Villanova, watch the video above.

NHL Playoffs: Sharks win to reach 1st Stanley Cup Final

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NHL Playoffs: Sharks win to reach 1st Stanley Cup Final

BOX SCORE

SAN JOSE, Calif. -- Joe Thornton, Patrick Marleau and the rest of the San Jose Sharks gathered around the Campbell Bowl for a celebratory picture after winning the Western Conference final.

In that moment, all those past playoff disappointments and collapses were forgotten. It will take four more wins to put to rest those questions about if they had the fortitude to win it all.

Captain Joe Pavelski scored an early goal, Joel Ward added two more and the Sharks advanced to their first Stanley Cup final in franchise history by beating the St. Louis Blues 5-2 on Wednesday night in Game 6 of the Western Conference final.

"It's a pretty cool feeling," Thornton said. "Obviously it's our first time. It was pretty neat to get this done at home. The fans here have waited so long, 25 years. We've waited 18 years or so. So it's a great feeling."

Joonas Donskoi also scored, Logan Couture had an empty-netter and Martin Jones made 24 saves as a Sharks team notorious for postseason letdowns will play for the championship that has eluded Thornton and Marleau since they entered the league as the top two picks in 1997.

Thornton assisted on Pavelski's goal less than four minutes into the game to set the tone and Marleau had two assists in the third period that set off chants of "We Want The Cup! We Want The Cup!"

"We're just enjoying the ride right now," Marleau said. "We've had some really good teams over the years."

Despite making the playoffs 16 times in 18 seasons and winning the second-most games in the NHL since the start of the 2003-04 season, the Sharks have been known for their soul-crushing playoff disappointments.

They won just three games in three previous trips to the conference final, were knocked out twice in four seasons by a No. 8 seed and most notably blew a 3-0 series lead to lose in the first round to Los Angeles in 2014.

The impact of that loss lasted for a while as San Jose missed the playoffs entirely last season. But led by first-year coach Peter DeBoer and bolstered by some key acquisitions by general manager Doug Wilson, the Sharks recovered this year and are now only four wins from a championship.

Game 1 of the Stanley Cup final will be Monday night. The Sharks will either host Tampa Bay or visit Pittsburgh, depending on which team wins Game 7 of the Eastern Conference final Thursday night.

"It's a great moment for those guys who have put in a lot of work but we still have another series to go," Couture said. "We still have four more wins to try to get. It's another step. This is the third one now. We're ready for that next challenge."

With the loss, the Blues' postseason woes continue as the franchise still seeks its first championship and first trip to the Cup final since 1970. Coach Ken Hitchcock's second goalie change of the series did not work as Brian Elliott allowed four goals on 26 shots in his return to the net.

Vladimir Tarasenko, a 40-goal scorer in the regular season, got his first points of the series when he scored twice in the third period but it was too late for the Blues, who still trailed 4-2.

"It stings right now," captain David Backes said. "Six more wins and we're having parades on Market Street. Right now ... not enough."

This was the first time in San Jose's history that the team played with a trip to the Stanley Cup final on the line. The atmosphere in the Shark Tank reflected the high stakes with the fans at a frenzy during pregame introductions and the "Let's Go Sharks!" chants starting soon after the puck dropped.

The Sharks fed off that energy and were buzzing early as Hitchcock predicted before the game. St. Louis nearly silenced the crowd when Alexander Steen got a chance in the slot early in the period but Jones robbed him with a glove save.

That led to a breakaway for Thornton, who missed the net on his chance. But Pavelski recovered the puck behind the net and before Elliott knew what was happening, Pavelski tucked the puck in on a wraparound for his NHL-leading 13th goal of the playoffs.

San Jose added to the lead early in the second when Ward tipped a point shot from Brent Burns past Elliott to make it 2-0.

Ward's second goal and another by Donskoi in the third period removed any drama and allowed the fans to celebrate and the Blues to ponder their missed opportunity.

"They're hurting right now," Hitchcock said. "We're all hurting. "You don't want this to be our best opportunity. You want this to be a building block."

Notes
Marleau played his 165th career playoff game, the most ever for someone who never played in the finals. Thornton is next on the list with 150 games, followed by Curtis Joseph with 133. ... The only franchise that has played longer than San Jose without going to a Cup final is Arizona, which began NHL play as the Winnipeg Jets in 1979-80.