Last summer, the Memphis Grizzlies signaled a ringing endorsement of faith in Ziaire Williams. Shortly before the 2021 NBA Draft, they dealt Jonas Valanciunas — the anchor in the middle and arguably their best player of the past two years — and the No. 17 pick to the New Orleans Pelicans, in exchange for the 10th pick.
With that selection, Memphis nabbed the 19-year-old Williams, who struggled for a few different reasons during his lone year at Stanford, but ultimately holstered enough intrigue to remain a top-10 draftee. Despite his slender, 215-pound frame and the expectation he’d take some time to assimilate to the NBA, Williams carved out a rotational spot in year one for the Grizzlies.
Across 62 regular season outings (31 starts), he averaged 8.1 points, 2.1 rebounds, and one assist on 55.9 percent true shooting. In the playoffs, he generally held a spot off the bench, seeing action in 10 games and averaging 6.9 points on 59.8 percent true shooting.
Much like his Southwestern Division and Southern California buddy Josh Christopher, Williams’ inaugural NBA campaign did not warrant an All-Rookie spot because his contemporaries were simply so splendid. But he, his proponents, and the Grizzlies organization should be optimistic about where he stands heading into year two. The silhouette of a rangy, multifaceted, 6’8 wing who fits long-term alongside the dazzling core of Ja Morant, Jaren Jackson Jr., and Desmond Bane is peering out from under the sun.
Perhaps the most impressive part of Williams’ game as a rookie is the fluidity with which he avoided screens. There were instances where his lack of strength proved detrimental and he’d be caught in the spider’s web of a pick. He’s not a Herb Jones-esque screen navigator. Regardless, he displayed distinct ease and comfort flowing around screens to capably handle some of the heralded point-of-attack assignments Memphis often bestowed upon him.
With how the Grizzlies prefer to send help from the wings and at the nail, Williams achieved success closing down space via his size and coordination. He skinnies over screens and weaponizes his length as an irritant for opposing ball-handlers. There aren’t a ton of 6’8 dudes, let alone rookies, gliding around picks like Williams could last season.
If he improves his lateral mobility — his hips are a bit stiff for changes of direction and he struggles to crouch low and slide at the moment — the makings of a fearsome on-ball defender awaits. Even so, he’s already a pretty useful wing to deploy against screens and handoffs. Instead of sliding or flipping his hips, Williams has a tendency to extend his arms out when initially responding to movement defensively. Cleaning up that habit, while discovering a path to improved core strength and flexibility, would significantly expand the impact of his on-ball chops.
Currently, he’s rather slow and leaves himself susceptible to initiators rejecting screens to explode downhill because he can’t react quickly enough to cut off driving angles. Williams’ physical shortcomings of strength and rigidity are glaring, so monitoring how or if he blots those out could factor heavily into his defensive ceiling. He’s already willing to embrace physicality, which is an encouraging indicator for what may happen if that physicality is reinforced by functional strength.
On-ball equity is not the lone area where Williams bulking up would behoove him defensively. He exhibited keen awareness as a weak-side helper on the interior, applying his length and size to alter shots around the rim. Yet on many occasions, he was dislodged by brawny finishers, with his rotations rendered frivolous. The baseline appeal of his off-ball feel in the paint was evident throughout 2021-22, though.
Given the pre-draft assumption Williams’ path to legitimate minutes might require a year or two of patience, possessions like these accelerated his timeline and heightened the promise of what he will provide at his peak.
Williams isn’t a particularly anticipatory defender. Memphis adhered to a pretty aggressive defensive scheme and ranked fourth in opposing turnover rate (per Cleaning The Glass), yet his steal and block rates didn’t eclipse the 30th percentile. His recognition of where to be wasn’t always ideal, and he proved prone to hastily succumb against shot fakes.
But he routinely aimed to do something, delighted with his on-ball stifles and typically ended up in the proper spots. His rookie year defense crafted a bouncy launching pad from which to travel moving forward.
I’m quite rosy about the long-term hopes of Williams’ defense and how he expands its utility as his prime approaches. The offense leaves me a little more dubious about how high he climbs the hierarchy and increases his usage. Then again, there are discernible bright spots and ways he grows into sizable responsibilities within the Grizzlies’ context.
Williams’ duties last season were overwhelmingly straightforward: space to the corners, launch spot-up threes, leak out in transition, attack closeouts, and cut when the option arises. While the long ball didn’t materialize much (31.4 percent overall, 32.5 percent from the corners), his performance in the latter three realms was promising.
By bolting down the floor, he earned a bevy of easy transition buckets to augment Memphis’ breakneck brigade. In the half-court, when he sensed a time to dart inside, he pounced. According to Cleaning The Glass, he shot 82 percent at the rim (97th percentile among wings). Over 80 percent of those makes were assisted, but he regularly parlayed his headiness for seamless finishes.
Interior scoring, beyond solely around the basket, emerged as a somewhat surprising strong-suit. After converting 42.7 percent of his twos at Stanford, Williams buried 63.2 percent of them last season. His midrange touch sparkled, where he utilized a high release point to comfortably fire over outstretched contests.
On jumpers between 14 feet and the arc, he shot a ridiculous 61 percent (20 of 33), so some regression will presumably confront him next year. The touch was evident, however, and helped him viably puncture closeouts. Between that skill and his bounding strides to generate paint pressure off the catch, Williams ensured his long-range foibles didn’t inhibit him from fashioning value as a release valve scorer.
Williams’ willingness to hoist a high volume of triples (.571 three-point rate) and do so amid timely contests induced consistent closeouts to open these chances inside the arc. His 31 percent (NBA) and 29 percent clip from deep (Stanford) the last couple years are suboptimal, yet I’m of the belief the results will soon succeed the inclination. His release is streamlined, he’s notched nearly 80 percent of his free throws the past two years and the midrange comfort indicates a baseline of positivity.
A paramount factor, as I see it, is building core strength to extend his range. The free throws and two-point jumpers are relevant data points, but he seemingly lacks the requisite strength from three to regularly knock those shots down. Strength really does look like a skeleton key for him on both ends.
Contact aversion is not a problem. If necessary, he’ll battle through the ringer, an endearing and worthwhile quality for any player. He’s merely not equipped to reliably handle it at this juncture and it impedes upon his two-way contributions. Scorers will plow through or coast by him, and pressure flusters most endeavors with the ball in his hands.
Asking him to operate against an organized defense overextends him. The immediate and future allure of him burning tilted defenses is enticing. However, scaling into a creation role wasn’t in the cards during his first season. It may warrant hefty strides to change that.
Addressing his limitations, both as it pertains to ball control and functional strength, could have wide-ranging implications for the depths of Williams’ skill-set. I like his projection as someone who functions as the third-best defender and fourth-best offensive player in a starting lineup. The specific scenarios of the units will influence those determinations, it’s just a broad outline for how good he can be.
Strength leaps could shift him up a peg (or more?) in each regard and establish him as a premier starter. He’d see material gains as an on- and off-ball defender, and potentially invoke pathways to second-side creation. If the latter percolated, he could leverage his shot-making and interior passing to further diversify Memphis’ perimeter offense behind Morant and Bane (and maybe Dillon Brooks is still around).
The Grizzlies continue to ace draft pick and draft pick, all the while accentuating their maturation. After 72 games, Williams stands in line to maintain that tradition and embed himself into the Grizzlies’ roadmap ahead. Based on merit, he closed certain games for a 56-win ball club and stayed in the rotation all season. Between that and the film he produced, he’s absolutely the sort of 20-year-old wing worth being jazzed about.