A quartet of intriguing 22-year-olds
Four role players whose teams need more
Patrick Williams, Chicago Bulls
Patrick Williams is 22 years old and entering his fourth season, but the Bulls need bigger things from him.
In a vacuum, Williams’ stats in his third year weren’t terrible: 10 points, four rebounds, a steal, and a block per game. Eyebrow-raising 41.5% three-point shooting on 3.4 attempts each night.
But Williams has been critical to the Bulls’ hopes for the last two seasons and hasn’t yet emerged beyond his 3-and-D role. The team has been banking on him becoming a star; is that dream still alive?
Williams is a tantalizing, frustrating player whose various skills flow and ebb like the tides. He’s increased his three-point volume, but he’s shooting fewer than a third of his shots at the rim. His defense has improved, but his finishing has drastically declined (and he completely stopped drawing fouls). He was given more minutes than ever before, but he played his top ball coming off the bench toward the end of the season.
If Williams can put together the best parts of his game from all three seasons, he’d be an above-average starter with a promising trajectory. But Williams’ consistency is a wild goose, and the Bulls are running out of patience for the chase.
Here’s a crazy stat: according to the preseason broadcast team from the Bulls’ game Sunday, Patrick Williams missed 22 dunks last season. According to some calculations I immediately ran from Basketball-Reference’s data, 22 was the second-most in the league behind only KJ Martin’s 25. Martin attempted 198 dunks; Williams only attempted 80. Williams attempts to dunk on anyone and everyone, which is admirable, but I have no idea how someone can miss so many dunks and yet draw so few free throws.
Williams’ woes around the rim extend to glass cleaning. He needs to improve his rebounding, which has worsened every year even as he plays more power forward and center. It’s perplexing.
So that’s a lot of sadness; what signs are there for hope?
The three-point shooting improvement is real and promising. Williams is almost entirely a stationary catch-and-shoot player, but he isn’t limited to the corners (although he shot 55% from the left side!). He was at or above the league average from both shoulders and dead-ahead. That’s a more versatile shot profile than most catch-and-shoot specialists, and it allows him to be involved in a variety of actions from all over the court.
Despite his poor finishing abilities, Williams is a decent ballhandler for his size (although he relies too heavily on his pull-up jumper instead of getting to the rim). The framework is there for him to be even more aggressive in attacking closeouts and pushing in transition:
Per Synergy, Williams was surprisingly successful as a pick-and-roll ballhandler in tiny doses, lending credence to the idea that he could become a secondary creator (although his passing vision still leaves something to be desired).
Williams has also become a stifling defender. He has excellent block and steal rates for a power forward and almost never fouls. That ability to avoid whistles when guarding premier opponents is an underrated attribute of being a great defender, and he truly does match up with the best of the best: his top four assignments by minutes were Julius Randle, Kevin Durant, Jayson Tatum, and Giannis Antetokounmpo.
Williams has both the strength to hold up against bullying drives and the nimbleness to flit around screens, active hands always high. I love this play from an early game against the Celtics last year. Watch him in the top corner of the screen here as he rides Tatum’s hip. He knows the play that is coming (Williams’ defensive intelligence is underrated), and his legs start churning for position before Tatum even moves. He gets through two screens and beats Tatum to the spot, forcing a difficult running hook that Tatum misses:
Per Synergy, Williams also held opponents to just .731 points per isolation possession, one of the best marks in the league. It’s even more impressive considering that Williams missed nearly his entire second season with a wrist injury, which derailed his development on both ends.
Perhaps that missed time explains why there are nights when he looks a step slow. Is it mental? I’m not sure, but it’s not trenchant analysis to say that Williams needs to bring it on both ends every game. He knows it:
“Consistency is going to be a big factor of it,’’ Williams said. “Being more consistent rebounding, pushing the ball, being aggressive in transition, creating off the dribble, catch-and-shoots. Just a more forceful me. I’ve shown it all. Now I think it’s time to put the puzzle together.”
The picture of a really good player is on the box. The corner jigsaw pieces are set; it’s time to fill in the rest.
Josh Green, Dallas Mavericks
Josh Green is 22 years old and entering his fourth season, but the Mavericks need bigger things from him.
The Mavericks are worth a long-form feature in their own right, but there are too many questions swirling around them for me even to know where to start.
But I know where my questions end: with Josh Green.
That’s a weird spot, I admit. My basketball hipsterdom is showing (how scandalous!). But for this team to leap, someone must play perimeter defense and be a secondary ballhandler when Luka and/or Kyrie are eating orange slices on the sideline. It sure looks like the Mavs want that person to be Green.
Green is a freaky athlete despite his lack of highlight-reel dunks (only 25 on the season last year; since I looked up all those dunk stats for Patrick Williams, I have to force them in somehow!). He is a burgeoning three-point shooter and instinctual passer. The flies in his soup, however, are the turnovers. His turnover rate of 15.5% was appalling for a relatively low-usage wing. Many of his TOs fell into two related categories: poor ballhandling and a lack of decisiveness.
He gained confidence as the year went on but too often looked to pass or drive when he was open on the perimeter. With just a handful of seconds on the shot clock and the Mavs up four in a tight game, this can’t be a turnover. Instead, he acts like my cat and barfs this up:
Luckily, Green makes up for it on the other end. Defensively, Green is a bit unusual; he’s an athletic, long wing who can easily defend point guards but almost never defends power forwards. Of course, the latter ability is what Dallas now has Grant Williams for; the former is what may elevate Green to the closing lineup.
Kyrie has rarely been a plus defender in his career, even when he was younger. At 31 years old and with a lengthy injury history, he’s better off being hidden. Seth Curry can’t guard anyone, much less quick point guards. Dante Exum is likely a fringe rotation player, and Jaden Hardy’s defense is feast-or-famine at the best of times. That leaves only Green to take on the more dangerous guard assignments.
He’s well-equipped to do so. Green doesn’t have lateral quickness as much as he has lateral teleportation. He cuts off driving lanes and invades personal space in uncomfortable ways, and smart ballhandlers eventually throw their hands up in exasperation and get off the ball.
His twitchiness manifests itself menacingly as a help defender, pinching in on dribblers who thought they had a lane, only to have Green scuttle over, claws waving and swiping in a blur:
You’ve heard of chase-down blocks, but Green might be the league leader in chase-down steals:
And Green still has room to improve. He doesn’t play as big as his 6’6”, 210-lb frame suggests he should; he has zero vertical defensive abilities despite copious physical tools. He’s handsy, leading to a high foul rate, and doesn’t always know where he’s supposed to be. He takes really aggressive angles to force players away from picks and/or to their weak hand, which is part of Dallas’ scheme, but he sometimes overcommits and gives up layups with little resistance.
But these are areas for improvement, not death knells. Don’t let that list distract from the main point: Green is difficult for guards to dribble past or shoot against, which is the whole point of perimeter defense. He is Dallas’ best chance at slowing the armada of talented Western Conference guards, and while he’s already a good defender, he has the potential to be a great one.
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