When Zach Kleiman spoke to the media after the 2021 NBA Draft, he said Ziaire Williams’ development will be a multi-year process.
While fans may moan and groan about this notion, we have to remember that everyone was clamoring for an upside swing in this NBA Draft — after leaning towards older prospects in the past 2 drafts. Sometimes, those upside swings do take some time to reach that version of themselves, if it ever happens.
So now, we await to see what Ziaire Williams’ rookie season will look like as they set sail on this process. What are some expectations for the Grizzlies’ lottery pick in his first year?
Let’s start with the question that will determine the rest a lot of it: is Ziaire Williams going to be in the rotation?
If the coaching staff decided to go 11 players deep, something we saw a bit in Grizzlies Head Coach Taylor Jenkins’ 1st season, then Ziaire Williams will easily be the 11th guy. However, they didn’t seem too inclined to entertain the idea of that deep of a rotation last season, as they rolled out a 10-man crew most games.
With that said, there are two choices they have for a 10-man rotation.
If they opted go with their 10 best players, it’d look something like: Morant/Bane/Brooks/Jackson/Adams, Jones/Melton/Anderson/Clarke/Tillman. It’s not inconceivable for them to do this, as the Grizzlies did run Anderson at the 3 some last season, and all 10 of those players are proven NBA rotation players on winning teams. However, Taylor Jenkins seems inclined to run Anderson at the 4, where he’s been at his best in this system.
If Jenkins decides to make Anderson the backup 4, one of Clarke or Tillman will be pushed out of the rotation. That’s where Ziaire Williams likely comes in. Theoretically, they’d be deciding between Williams and John Konchar. Though I suspect they would lean with Williams, given the investment in him and the higher level of upside.
With the ebbs and flows of a NBA season, Williams will surely get the opportunities to learn and grow throughout the year. And as it does with most rookies, there will be times where they look rough out there. It’s expected, and it’ll likely happen with Williams too. However, there could be some good to come out of his rookie season.
For starters, role simplification could help him this year. Even in the second unit, he shouldn’t have the burden to take on too much creation or go-to scoring responsibilities in his rookie year. He’ll likely be in a 3-and-D role, and he’ll sprinkle in a little extra here and there as he taps into his upside.
To make best use of his role and to continue to earn minutes, he’ll need to hit a good portion of his outside shots. His shot creation at his size is one of the most enticing elements of his upside, but at the end of the day, he has to convert on them — something he struggled with at Stanford.
If he could hit a respectable percentage of his outside shots (let’s say 33-35% for the sake of the point), he would add more spacing, but it could allow him to get to his other strengths. In hand with his shot creation abilities, he could get to different sweet spots on the floor from inside the arc. He’s also displayed good feel as a passer at Stanford and in short stints with Memphis so far. If defenders have to respect his jumper, he could attack closeouts to get to better angles to find open teammates.
Ziaire Williams quick, pretty left hand pass to Ben Moore who finishes under the contest pic.twitter.com/cXF8dM7yNn— Aram Cannuscio (@AC__Hoops) August 14, 2021
Defensively, there will be times he’ll get overpowered, and his inexperience will show at times too. He also has a good foundation to be a neutral defender even as soon as this year. It’s been clear thus far that he has a good motor on that end. And for young players, showing defensive activity is a good first step. He’s a long wing that uses it to hound perimeter players. He also has good timing on getting into passing lanes. He’ll have to learn the nuances of NBA defenses, primarily on perimeter defense and finding out what is and isn’t a hand-check foul.
The more simple they can make the game for Ziaire Williams, the better. He will have a chance to get his feet wet, and to sink or swim, over the course of his rookie season. If the coaching staff keeps his expectations to bringing energy and hitting shots, he could build confidence that could follow with him tapping into more elements of his skillset at a higher frequency.
It’s hard to gauge Ziaire Williams’ expectations through averages. There are so many other players that demand shots, have the ball in their hands more often, and have a leg up on experience.
From a numbers standpoint though, it’ll come down to efficiency over the course of the season. His percentages may not be pretty at times, but can he put together stretches of good efficiency on decent volume? Gradual progression in this area will be something to monitor, and it could be a good measuring stick of expectations.
His flashes could also be a good barometer of expectations, mainly with the steadily rising frequency of them. Everybody would probably want to see it with his shot creation, but most rookies on playoff teams don’t have those sort of responsibilities. I’d love to see it with his passing. He already shows good connectivity and passing creation off the dribble. It’d be fun to see how the game slows down for him, and if he could make more advanced reads as that occurs.
The same goes for his defense as well. The defensive playmaking will stand out — steals, deflections, blocks — but the team and individual defense elements are going to be interesting to monitor as well. NBA defenses could get complicated for rookies, learning rotations, schemes, switching, and such. As Ziaire Williams gets more reps in NBA defenses, he could tap into his potential in those areas more often.
Ziaire Williams will require patience, but there are a lot of great players that needed that time as well. Giannis Antetokounmpo is the biggest example, but even All-Star wings like Paul George, Jimmy Butler, and Khris Middleton needed time to grow into who they are today.
Am I saying that he’s going to become one of those players? No, but don’t write him off if he doesn’t look like a perennial All-Star in year one.
Growing pains are going to happen. There will be nights where he looks like the big shot-creating wing that could be that 3rd guy between Ja Morant and Jaren Jackson Jr. And there will also be games where he’s going to struggle mightily.
It’s the part of the process with most young draft picks, something that Grizzlies fans have been quite spoiled with recently with the superb play of Ja Morant, Jaren Jackson Jr., Brandon Clarke, Desmond Bane, and Xavier Tillman.
Patience will be required here, and it’s something the front office and the coaching staff is willing to do. When you’re watching the high’s and the low’s of Williams’ rookie year, just remember that. And with his tools, potential, his willingness to learn, and the culture infrastructure here for him to develop, it could be worth the wait with Ziaire Williams.