Don’t miss NBC Sports Boston's coverage of Celtics-Bucks, which tips off Wednesday at 6:30 p.m. ET with Celtics Pregame Live, and then Mike & Tommy have the call of the game at 7:30 p.m. You can also stream the game through the MyTeams App.
ORLANDO, Fla. — The Orlando Magic locker room is near-empty now, save for a couple of players waiting to get on the floor and begin their pre-game routine.
Michael Carter-Williams is done with his, and has a few minutes to chat before he heads off to Chapel.
His pre-game routine isn’t all that unusual compared to other NBA players.
But Carter-Williams’ journey to where he is now is about as atypical as you’ll come across for a player whose NBA career began with such promise, only to be derailed by injuries, inconsistent play and inopportune circumstances that heavily factored into him being on the move over and over and over again.
“I didn’t have the easiest road here,” Carter-Williams told NBC Sports Boston. “Nothing in this league was ever given to me. I’ve earned everything I have; that’s the attitude. That’s the role that I go with in the season. Whatever I have, I earned. A lot of people just see, he was Rookie of the Year and things kind of declined. But nothing was given to me. A lot of people haven’t gone through what I’ve gone through, and I’m still here.”
And one of the keys to him still being in the NBA?
KEMBA WITH THE ASSIST
To come out from a vortex of circumstances that would have easily derailed many, often requires some assistance.
Carter-Williams got just that from current Celtic Kemba Walker, who while in Charlotte successfully lobbied his then-coach Steve Clifford to push for bringing Carter-Williams to Charlotte.
And that connection would lead the Hamilton, Mass., native to a stint with the Hornets that paved the way for him to be where he is now: playing for Clifford, who now coaches the Orlando Magic.
Carter-Williams has never forgotten what Walker did for him a couple years ago when his future in the NBA was uncertain.
“Him taking the time out and asking for me was big,” said Carter-Williams. “He knows I appreciate it. We built a friendship, a bond and that translates on and off the court.”
Walker added, “that’s my brother. We talk all the time. He’s been through a lot, especially with injuries, stuff like that. He had a great rookie year and things kind of shifted for him.”
That first year in the NBA was both the best and worst of times for Carter-Williams. He was getting to play a ton of minutes for the Philadelphia 76ers, which is what all rookies want. But that team was terrible, finishing with a 19-63 record.
And Carter-Williams’ play, while statistically good in several areas, would set a standard of production that Carter-Williams has never been able to replicate or exceed since then.
Now in his seventh NBA season, Carter-Williams averaged 16.2 points per game as a rookie but has not averaged double figures scoring since 2016.
Much of what he did back then was out of necessity as opposed to what came naturally or what he would need to do in order to stay in the NBA.
“That Philly team his first year didn’t care about winning,” an Eastern Conference scout told NBC Sports Boston. “You look at what he does now and look at what they were asking him to do back then in Philly … He really didn’t get the kind of coaching to develop into the player that he really is. He’s not a 16-point per game scorer on a good team. That’s just not who he is. But does that mean he doesn’t belong in the NBA? No. It means whatever his strengths are, he needs to be coached to those strengths and given a chance to grow. It looks like he’s getting that opportunity in Orlando.”
FINDING HIS NICHE
Carter-Williams is a 6-foot-6, multi-positional wing who has above-average defensives skills with good court vision — skills that weren’t maximized during his early years in the NBA.
But that all changed when he got to Charlotte in 2017.
Under Clifford, Carter-Williams’ defensive acumen began to shine and he was looking more and more like a player who could fit in well with the franchise going forward. But a torn labrum injury suffered in March of 2017 ended his season with the Hornets, who did not look to re-sign him in the offseason.
A short stint afterwards with Houston was supposed to revitalize his career, but Carter-Williams quickly fell out of their plans going forward after just 16 games.
The biggest knock on Carter-Williams has been his shooting. But in those 16 games with the Rockets, he shot 41 percent from the field and 36.8 percent on 3’s, which are both career-highs to this day.
So when the Rockets unloaded him to Chicago — who waived him immediately — Carter-Williams acknowledged that was the low point in his basketball career.
“That was really tough for me,” Carter-Williams said. “The first time being released, for me I didn’t get a chance to show what I could do. I felt I had a really good summer, that summer. Going in (to Houston) I felt I was ready. Things happened there and they made moves. That was a time where I hit ground zero; I had to reform my life and build things back up.”
He leaned even more on family and close friends, as well as a close-knit group of former teammates who provided words of encouragement, a group that included Walker.
ONE MORE CHANCE
Despite being out of the league after the Bulls waived him, Carter-Williams remained hopeful he would get at least one more shot at proving his worth in the NBA. That opportunity came last year when Orlando’s Isaiah Briscoe went down with a season-ending torn meniscus injury to his right knee.
For Carter-Williams, who was working out in California and playing pick-up at an L.A. Fitness center at that time, Orlando was just the opportunity he needed.
In head coach Steve Clifford, he would be playing with a coach who knew how best to utilize his skills. And the Magic’s General Manager John Hammond was the GM in Milwaukee when the Bucks traded for him in 2015.
“He can guard (point guards), (shooting guards) and many (small forwards), contain the ball, pressure the ball without getting beat and steal the ball,” Clifford told reporters recently. “There’s just not many guys who can do that.”
And as the Magic saw last season, good things tend to happen when Carter-Williams is on the floor.
After signing with the Magic last year, Orlando went 10-2 in games Carter-Williams appeared in. And when he was on the floor they were plus-14.
That made the decision to waive Briscoe and sign Carter-Williams for the rest of the season after a pair of 10-day contracts an easy call.
“He’s been a huge part of what we’re doing,’’ Magic guard Evan Fournier told reporters during the playoffs last season. “When (Carter-Williams) comes into the game, the level of play doesn’t go any lower. We’re able to maintain everything we do offensively and defensively with him in there. He just does so many little things like rebounding, steals and (block-out) seals, and he gives us energy. He’s big-time, man.’’
This season, the Magic are plus-6 when Carter-Williams is on the court.
And he’s playing in large part due to being able to do the little things that he has learned are necessary to successfully survive in the NBA.
While Carter-Williams isn’t playing as much as he would want, that’s not something he can control or something he gives much thought to these days.
“I just go out there and do my best,” he said. “Some teams I’ve had big roles, some teams I’ve had not so big roles. Whatever my role is I try to do it to the best of my ability."
Carter-Williams added, “I’ve overcome a lot of things. People down on me, slander my name. It’s been a long road. But now, it’s almost like I’m bullet-proof.”
Now Carter-Williams is off to Chapel, although many of his prayers — the basketball ones at least — have already been answered.
Click here to download the new MyTeams App by NBC Sports! Receive comprehensive coverage of your teams and stream the Celtics easily on your device.