The Philadelphia 76ers had high expectations for Michael Carter-Williams when they selected him with the 11th overall pick in the 2013 NBA Draft. The 6-foot-5 guard averaged 11.9 points, 7.3 assists, and 5.0 rebounds in his sophomore year at Syracuse, and he had the frame and length to guard multiple positions.
But few could have predicted how quickly Carter-Williams would adapt to the next level.
The Sixers’ first game of the season pitted them against the reigning champion Miami Heat, who were already 1-0. The Heat had brought back their core of LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh, and Ray Allen, though Wade would sit out this game.
Philadelphia, on the other hand, was still in the midst of a years-long rebuild that would eventually win them Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid. As a result, their starting lineup consisted of the rookie Carter-Williams, Evan Turner, James Anderson, Thaddeus Young, and Spencer Hawes. Most of their bench players, such as Daniel Orton, Darius Morris, and Kwame Brown, would soon fall out of the league entirely.
However, even with the deck stacked against him, Carter-Williams had a historic performance in front of a Philadelphia crowd desperate for something to cheer about.
He tore the Heat up on offense, scoring 22 points and making four threes despite being a 31% three-point shooter in college. He also dished out 12 assists, elevating teammates who would have come off the bench or even been cut from other teams.
But it was Carter-Williams’ contributions on defense that made his debut so notable. He wreaked havoc on the best offense in the league, totaling a franchise-record nine steals and adding seven rebounds. Fresh out of college, he frustrated James and co., constantly disrupting Miami’s sets.
James and Bosh combined for 47 points, but Evan Turner and Spencer Hawes scored 50 for Philadelphia to negate the Heat’s duo. A valiant effort from a Sixers team that was used to being out of the game by the fourth quarter saw them up 112-110 with 8.5 seconds left and the ball. Carter-Williams caught the inbound pass from Turner and was immediately fouled.
Then, in the first clutch situation of his career, Carter-Williams rose to the occasion and calmly knocked down both free throws to put the Sixers up by four. James and Mario Chalmers both missed their last-second three-point attempts, and the Sixers secured a 114-110 upset in front of a raucous crowd.
Carter-Williams’ nine steals remain the most ever for an NBA debut, and it’s tied for the third-most in any game in NBA history. He also came close to recording a quadruple-double, an incredible feat only accomplished by four players in league history.
Miami went on to earn a record of 54-28, though they’d eventually fall to the Spurs 4-1 in the Finals. The Sixers fell back to Earth and finished the season 19-63, giving them the second-worst record in the league.
Strangely enough, Carter-Williams’ rookie year would end up being his most productive to date. He averaged an impressive 16.7 points, 6.3 assists, and 6.2 rebounds per game that season, beating out players like Victor Oladipo and Trey Burke for the Rookie of the Year award.
From there, his career entered a downward spiral that he has yet to escape. Carter-Williams has bounced around the league, playing for six teams in nine seasons. Injuries have plagued him, and he hasn’t played more than 54 games in a season since his rookie year. His production declined significantly when he joined the Bulls in 2016, where he made the transition to permanently coming off the bench.
But Carter-Williams seems to have finally found a comfortable role again in Orlando. He appeared in just 12 games for the Magic in the 2018-19 season, but he averaged 7.2 points in 18.4 minutes per game for them last season.
Carter-Williams will probably never have another game like he did that day against the Heat, and he’s one of the last slashing guards in a league that’s slowly replacing them with high-volume perimeter shooters. Yet there will always be hope for someone who’s lasted in the NBA for so long, and Carter-Williams will always be remembered for his record-breaking debut.