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Prospect Breakdown: Grant Williams

In a sport that has become increasingly perimeter oriented, Grant Williams is a throwback. The back-to-the-basket forward will need to rely on his facilitating, off-ball activity and developing jump shot in order to find his way at the next level.

Purdue v Tennessee Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images

Tweener — a phrase that, not long ago, was used regularly in NBA circles to describe a player who was capable of playing two positions, but not an ideal fit at either one — feels increasingly outdated as the modern NBA transitions further away from a rigid positional system to a free-flowing, do-it-all hybridization. The Swiss army knife player, one who is capable of initiating offense, shooting from the perimeter, scoring inside, etc., has continued to increase in quantity this decade. Its ideal model is a 6-foot-8-inch wing (think: LeBron James, Paul George, Kawhi Leonard, Jimmy Butler, etc.). On offense, they are perimeter initiators, spot-up shooters, off-ball screeners, post scorers, and transition ball-handlers — the quintessential do-it-all hybrids.

However, wings are not the only players who have seen their roles expand beyond positional boundaries in recent years. Power forward, a position that was once post-dominant, has seen its range extend beyond the three-point arc and its role extend, in some cases, to primary offensive initiator. The same can be said for the center position. Denver Nuggets center Nikola Jokic is his team’s primary facilitator, shot 3.4 threes per game this season, and even functions as a pick-and-roll ball-handler on occasion, all while maintaining a low-post presence.

As the NBA evolves, so, too, does its players.

Grant Williams, the 6-foot-7.5-inch, 240-pound Tennessee forward and two-time SEC Player of the Year, is perhaps the closest this draft has to a tweener. His post skills are often best utilized by players of larger stature. His size fits the mold of combo forward, a positional hybrid that requires a level of athleticism and perimeter skills that he doesn’t quite possess. Because of this, his NBA fit is less clear than some of his fellow draft prospects.

The Sixers have five picks in the 2019 NBA draft, the first being the 24th selection in the first-round. ESPN’s mock draft currently has the Sixers selecting Williams with that pick. To better understand how Williams’ offensive game can translate to the NBA, I will break down the skills he possesses in the half-court and transition.

In Williams’ three seasons at the University of Tennessee, he was a consistent scoring threat in the post. His combination of deft footwork and upper and lower-body strength made him a handful around the basket, as he could finish through or around most defenders. Williams has an effective face-up game, but he’s at his best with his back to the basket where he can make an initial move before the defender is set:

Here, he spins away from the double team toward the baseline for the strong, two-handed flush. This not only highlights Williams’ nimble feet, but also his spatial awareness. He quickly turns his head toward the help defender before making his move. When he’s unable to fully shake his defender on the initial move, Williams relies on his strength and body control to finish through contact:

After spinning baseline, he absorbs contact and finishes with the layup and foul. To avoid a potential shot contest, he uses his body to initiate the contact and carve out space under the basket. Plays like this display Williams’ craftiness and brute force around the rim. Although he lacks the size and length — his wingspan was measured at a shade under 6-foot-10-inches during last Thursday’s NBA Draft Combine — needed to score inside against some NBA bigs, he’ll still be able to use his post skills to attack like-sized defenders and take advantage of mismatches versus smaller defenders.

Williams is also a fantastic passer. In his final season at Tennessee, he averaged 3.2 assists per game, per Sports Reference. That is an impressive number for a secondary facilitator at the college level. He found his teammates within the flow of the offense, passing to spot-up shooters when doubled in the post and cutters when handling the ball at the top of the key. However, it is his facilitating on short rolls that will translate best at the next level:

As Williams rolls toward the basket, a group of Kentucky defenders converge on him. Rather than forcing up a contested shot, he readjusts midair and fires a pass to a spot-up shooter on the wing. Rim-running bigs are a commodity in the NBA, which has allowed players such as Clippers forward Montrezl Harrell to provide value in a half-court offense. Williams doesn’t possess the athleticism nor leaping ability that Harrell does, but his passing instincts will help him manufacture offense for others.

Williams will occasionally pick-and-pop, too. Though outside shooting isn’t a consistent part of his offensive game (more on this later), his ability to set an effective screen and relocate beyond the arc forces his defender to account for his movement:

After he sets the screen, his defender hedges for a moment to cut off the ball-handler before recovering. Williams jab steps to throw his defender off-balance before taking the three. This play is encouraging, but also exemplifies Williams’ slight hesitancy as a three-point shooter (he would have been better off shooting immediately off the catch). During his junior season at Tennessee, he shot 32.6 percent from three on 1.2 attempts per game, most of which came on wide-open looks. Williams will need to develop as a shooter off pick-and-pops at the next level in order to take full advantage of his skill as a screener.

Although his range doesn’t quite extend to NBA three-point distance yet, his solid shooting mechanics suggest it can get there over time. He has a fairly high release which allows him to shoot over outstretched hands, and a consistent follow through. Per Sports Reference, he shot 82 percent from the foul line on seven attempts per game last season, which is also an indicator that his outside shot can develop. If it does, Williams will have more opportunities to attack closeouts and finish at the rim or find open teammates.

When he’s not screening or creating offense for himself and others, he is tenaciously attacking the offensive glass. Per Sports Reference, he averaged 2.2 offensive rebounds per game last season. Williams uses his instincts and positioning to pull down rebounds, even when he’s surrounded by larger players:

After Williams comes across the lane to secure the offensive board, he resets the offense and begins to back his defender into the post. Once he senses the double team, he kicks it out to the open shooter and chases down the long rebound off the miss for another Tennessee possession. Sequences like this can earn a young player minutes in the NBA. Luckily for Williams, this level of effort rarely wanes. In live-ball scenarios, he likes ducking in behind the opposing big to put himself in position to box out. Once he has inside position, his lower-body strength enables him to maintain it. This will come in handy when he is matched up against bigger NBA bodies.

For the most part, Tennessee’s coaching staff did a good job finding ways to best utilize Williams’ skill set. However, their reluctance to use him as a transition ball-handler was perplexing, given his passing abilities. Williams usually trailed the break, occasionally filling the lane after the initial wave. When he was given the opportunity to lead the break, he dazzled:

Williams takes advantage of a live-ball turnover and delivers a perfect lob to his teammate for the slam. Unfortunately, he was rarely given the opportunity to grab the rebound and go in college. The team who drafts Williams should give him ample opportunity to showcase his transition playmaking abilities, whether that be in the NBA or the G League. If anything, it will help him become more comfortable as a ball-handler.

If the Sixers draft Williams, he will need to lean on his passing acumen, screening and rebounding tenacity to earn minutes. The outside shot will take time to develop, and he may not have many post-up opportunities early on. The majority of his offensive skills should translate, but it could take time for them to mature. Once they do, Williams will likely be a very effective NBA player.