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The most important skill Michael Carter-Williams learned as a freshman? Work ethic

Jun 17, 2013, 2:25 PM EDT

Syracuse Orange Carter-Williams reacts as the official signals a three-point shot against the Indiana Hoosiers during the second half in their East Regional NCAA men's basketball game in Washington

All things considered, Michael Carter-Williams had a pretty great sophomore campaign as the point guard for the Syracuse Orange.

He averaged 11.9 points, 7.3 assists, 4.9 boards and 2.8 steals, which was impressive enough to get him into consideration as a lottery pick for next week’s NBA Draft once you taken into account the potential his length and athleticism gives him. It was more than just individual success as well, as Carter-Williams played an integral role in Syracuse making a run to the Big East tournament title and the Final Four.

Those numbers become even more impressive when you think about the fact that Carter-Williams spent his freshman season buried on the bench behind the veteran back court of Scoop Jardine, Brandon Triche and Dion Waiters.

It was a humbling experience for the former McDonald’s All-American. A native of Hamilton, MA, and a product of St. Andrew’s (RI), Carter-Williams was anything but accustomed to sitting on the bench. He knew there was a risk that he wouldn’t play as much as he wanted to his first year, but he didn’t expect that he’d take the dreaded DNP-CD (Did Not Play, Coach’s Decision) 11 times. He didn’t think that he wouldn’t get a second of playing time in seven of Cuse’s last 11 games, including all four NCAA tournament games. It never crossed his mind that over the course of the final seven weeks of the regular season, he would take all of two field goals in a game.

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“I learned to re-appreciate the game, knowing what it’s like to not be out there playing,” Carter-Williams told NBCSports.com in a phone interview last week. It was more than just an appreciation, however. Carter-Williams learned that it would take more than a nice pass here and there or a soaring dunk from a 6-foot-6 guy that can play the point to further his career.

He learned that potential will only get you so far if you don’t put in the hours in the gym trying to reach that potential.

“It helped my work ethic,” Carter-Williams said, “because I was working out before and after practice everything day. I took my frustration out during those times.”

“When I wasn’t playing, [assistant coach Gerry McNamara] still had me come to games on gameday and workout before the games. I would get something in. It motivated me a lot. I wanted to be out there playing,” not doing drills prior to tip-off.

According to McNamara, the work with Carter-Williams went beyond the obvious. They weren’t simply doing two-ball dribbling drills for hours. It was more than just working on his jump shot or developing his crossover or lifting weights. With Carter-Williams, the Syracuse coaching staff went to work teaching him proper reads and developing his understanding of the game.

“A lot of pick and roll,” McNamara told NBCSports.com of what he worked on with Carter-Williams the most. “Every single read you could go through from every position. Every different scenario. His development, from an IQ standpoint, he took the next step.”

One of the first things that you learn covering college basketball is that every kid at every level of the game has a ‘great work ethic’ and is ‘always in the gym’ and is just trying to get better. Every kid watches film through all hours of the night. It’s about typical as you can get when it comes to sports cliches.

But it’s also pretty simple to pick out the players that simply say they put in the work and those that do. According to Eric Mussellman, who is currently as assistant coach at Arizona State but who has spent his entire life around the professional game, it’s that work ethic and level of commitment that is the biggest difference for players making the jump to the next level.

“Players that aren’t in the NBA have no idea what great work ethic is and how hard guys work on their own,” he told NBCSports.com, “and how they work on their craft and their game when they’re not in practice. The time commitment to develop yourself on your own time, be it the weight room, shot repetitions, studying your own game on film, studying your opponent’s game on film.”

As the saying goes, hard work beats talent that doesn’t work hard.

And perhaps that’s the greatest benefit that Carter-Williams will get out of his time picking splinters as a freshman.

It was a wake-up call.

“You know, I’m not sure,” Carter-Williams said when asked if he’d be in this position — coming off a Final Four, headed for the first round of the NBA Draft — had he played more minutes has a freshman. “I think I would have been successful during my sophomore year, I played through a lot of mistakes. I don’t think that I would be the player that I am this quickly without going through some adversity, and it really helped me not only on the basketball court but off the basketball court.”

Carter-Williams has plenty of work left to do. He needs to continue to cut down on his turnovers. He needs to become a better perimeter shooter. He needs to become a more consistent scorer and improve his on-ball defense. He needs to add some weight to his frame.

In short, he needs to put in the work to reach his potential.

He’ll be the one that determines whether or not that happens.

You can find Rob on twitter @RobDauster.