There was a time when playing more than 10 minutes a game for Syracuse — as a freshman — would have been an acceptable, even encouraging contribution. That time was not 2012, Michael Carter-Williams’s freshman season with the Orange. That spring, Carter-Williams played not a minute in Syracuse’s four NCAA tournament games, the last two in Boston, just 25 miles from his home town of Hamilton, Mass.
Later that spring, eight college freshmen were selected in the first round of the NBA draft. And here was Carter-Williams, feeling every bit a potential star, relegated to being a question mark headed back to Syracuse for what would be his sophomore season.
“He was frustrated,” said Mike Hart, Carter-Williams’s coach at St. Andrew’s School in Barrington, R.I. “He was really frustrated. It took a lot of counseling-type sessions with his parents, some with me. And I just encouraged him: Wait your turn. Take your time.”
That is not the culture of basketball now, and Carter-Williams didn’t prove an easy sell. But after he was named the most outstanding player in the East Region of the NCAA tournament, leading the Orange to its first Final Four in a decade, taking his time might finally seem worth it. It is now Carter-Williams’s turn, and he has taken full advantage.
“He’s come a long way; he’s really gotten better,” Syracuse Coach Jim Boeheim said after the Orange beat Marquette in the East Region final at Verizon Center. “He’s a tremendous, tremendous point guard. He really is. He keys it for our team.”
That was the kind of view Carter-Williams had for himself a year ago, when — even at 6-foot-6, even with arms perfectly suited to harass at the top of Syracuse’s 2-3 zone defense — he sat behind Orange stalwarts Brandon Triche, Scoop Jardine and Dion Waiters, who ended up being selected fourth in the draft. But no matter. He wanted to play.
“I tried not to be frustrated,” Carter-Williams said. “But it wasn’t always easy.”
Particularly because, when he did appear, he didn’t disappoint. Boeheim plays only three guards in his regular rotation, so there wasn’t room. Jardine was a senior, Triche a three-year starter, Waiters an exceptional talent as a sophomore.
“Usually I stick a freshman in there and usually they won’t play well,” Boeheim said. “So you can say, ‘See, you’re not quite ready, but he played well.’”
There is a lesson, though, in the outcome. Carter-Williams ranks third in the nation in assists per game with 7.4, fourth in steals at 2.79. And from late last season, he has tried to make his attitude: Whatever helps the team.
“Michael was a total challenge, but he hung in there,” Hart said. “He became a very good teammate at the end of the year. It was an old-fashioned situation: Don’t be selfish, you have to wait your turn.”
Carter-Williams’s turn came immediately at the start of the 2012-13 season. He scored 17 points in 32 minutes in Syracuse’s opener, and his spot was secure. He never played fewer than 26 minutes in any game this season. But he has taken the attitude forged last year in practice — when he was essentially a practice player — back to workouts this season.
“He goes after it,” said Syracuse assistant coach Gerry McNamara, a former Orange player who occasionally jumps into practice with the team. “When we do defensive drills, I know all about him not wanting me to score. He sees it as a challenge, and he’s good at it. He’s competitive.”
That is something, too, that might not come across. Carter-Williams is 21, but he looks as if shaving is still in his future. But he has a ferocity that belies his face.
“It’s interesting, because it borders on poor sportsmanship when he loses,” Hart said. “He and I had some frank conversations about it, and it wasn’t generated toward the other team. It was mainly generated internally. But he grew quite a bit with it, and I like it. I like the fact that he just doesn’t like to lose.”
Said Triche, his teammate the past two years: “It’s not all about points for him. It’s all about winning. He’s a great example to follow.”
Now, too, he adds focus. Carter-Williams played the two games at Verizon Center — wins over top-seeded Indiana and third-seeded Marquette — with the knowledge that his family home had burned down the previous week. Yet he focused.
“It was difficult at times,” Carter-Williams said. “Then again, my family is supporting me, and I’m trying to do my best to support them and keep a smile on their face.”
That he is doing through basketball, through Saturday’s game against Michigan and perhaps in Monday’s national championship game. He is smiling, because he waited his turn and got his chance.
“I think it’s a lesson for all kids,” Hart said. “There were 500 Division I transfers last year. I think it’s disgusting. They all think, ‘I’m playing right away.’ Well, here’s a kid who said, ‘I’m going to get my turn and make the most of it.’”