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Walking the line with Ziaire Williams

Well...sort of.

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NBA: Denver Nuggets at Memphis Grizzlies Petre Thomas-USA TODAY Sports

At 7-7, the Memphis Grizzlies have already experienced both the best and worst of times this season. They’ve seen the mountaintop that can come in to your line of sight when you can claim to be the only team to beat the Golden State Warriors. They can say they’ve encountered the darkness of giving the struggling New Orleans Pelicans their second win. From splitting a tough early-season west coast road trip to allowing for teams like the Charlotte Hornets to find ways to “get right”, the roller coaster ride for fans of the bears of Beale Street already has folks begging to get off before they metaphorically hurl. Stability is the hope for a team that at times has the look of a legit playoff contender.

And usually, when you are a playoff contender, you’re not depending on struggling rookies to give meaningful contributions.

But the uncommon reality of the Memphis Grizzlies - a “rebuilding” team that has played in the NBA’s new play-in era “postseason” two straight seasons - has Williams looking like the personification of the good problem General Manager Zach Kleiman, Head Coach Taylor Jenkins, and the entire Grizzlies franchise has on their hands.

On one hand, if Memphis was in the same boat as their opponent this past Monday night - the Houston Rockets - the answer would be simple. You prioritize the play of the rookie, and let him ride all the minutes the 6’8” wing can handle. That’s the freedom that comes with zero expectation - all the misses and mistakes in the world, as long as they’re learned from, can be made away from hope for the playoffs. On the flip side, the team the Grizzlies face this Thursday - the Los Angeles Clippers - have already been beaten by Memphis this season and have higher aspirations than the Rockets do. To defeat teams like the Clippers (or better), steady production should be in place.

And Ziaire Williams, for all his potential, has not provided steady production to this point for the Grizzlies this season. In fact, he is arguably the worst player on the Memphis roster 14 games in to the campaign.

NBA: Phoenix Suns at Memphis Grizzlies Justin Ford-USA TODAY Sports

Six Memphis players have started games this season - Ja Morant, Desmond Bane, De’Anthony Melton, Jaren Jackson Jr., Steven Adams, and Dillon Brooks. Those six players all average more than 25 minutes per game - and understandably so. From their, sixth man front court player Kyle Anderson averages 22 minutes per game in near starter minutes - Anderson has been one of the best Grizzlies players over the last calendar year, so again, it is logical to get Kyle that level of run. 8th on the Memphis Grizzlies in minutes per game?

Ziaire Williams. The rookie #10 pick in the 2021 NBA Draft. More minutes played overall than Brandon Clarke, or Xavier Tillman. Roughly the same amount of time on the floor as Tyus Jones. Ziaire Williams is a key cog of the Memphis rotation...so far.

But now that Dillon Brooks is back for Memphis, should that remain the case?

The answer probably depends on who you think the Grizzlies most resemble in terms of their current state - the Rockets, or the Clippers?

If Memphis is more of a rebuilding team than a playoff one, then the fact that Williams is struggling doesn’t bother you as much. The reality of Williams being in the 16th percentile in point differential per Cleaning the Glass doesn’t faze you because of course Ziaire was going to have issues transitioning - that’s the point of an upside swing of a pick. But Brandon Clarke has scored more points in almost 60 less minutes than Williams and is shooting 54.4% from the field while Ziaire shoots 32.4% - 22% worse. John Konchar has almost doubled Williams in total rebounds (35-18) and assists (11 to 6) in 52 less minutes played. Both Konchar and Clarke possess better net ratings and win share per 48 minutes numbers (per basketball-reference.com) and by both the numbers and historical precedent, Konchar and Clarke in particular would be preferable to Williams if winning was the ultimate goal.

Maybe it isn’t though. Perhaps the struggles of Williams - the fact he’s shooting a miserable 28.6% from three, that he is the worst among players that have played at least 20 minutes in both assist percentage (a measly 3.6%) and rebound percentage (4.3%, not much better), that he is almost a non-factor in terms of doing anything driving to the basket given his current role in the Grizzlies offense (he has attempted only 2 free throws in over 200 minutes played...but the same can be said of the much more active off the dribble Tyus Jones, in fairness) - aren’t as important as giving him a chance in-game to develop his game. The 6’8” 215 wing is taking over half his shots from the corner (34.6% from that area) and isn’t being asked to do much beyond basic ball movement offensively at the moment.

Defensively, the potential he provides as a versatile switchable guard/forward is worthy of investment when the focus isn’t on his current level of play as much as what his level COULD be. And he has shown flashes there - Williams is in the 91st percentile in block percentage. He needs space to learn and grow. That’s what upside swings are all about.

But upside doesn’t get you out of the play-in. And potential has never won a basketball game.

NBA: Denver Nuggets at Memphis Grizzlies Petre Thomas-USA TODAY Sports

As the Memphis Grizzlies figure out who they are in the days and weeks ahead, the way they deploy Ziaire Williams will provide a window in to their vision for themselves this season. Certain players are locks to be in the rotation - the seven guys currently ahead of Ziaire for playing time, for example. But beyond those names, there has been variance. Konchar, Clarke, even Tillman...multiple end of rotation players have been played - and to this point, all of them have performed better in a variety of ways than Williams. If Memphis hopes to compete and get better from their current .500 reality, playing Williams less is likely the way. A Tyus Jones/De’Anthony Melton/Anderson/Clarke/Tillman reserve unit gets you there (although Head Coach Taylor Jenkins has been hesitant to play Kyle at the small forward spot and would seemingly rather play him at Center - 31% of his minutes have come there, per basketball-reference.com, as opposed to 2% at SF), as does one where you replace Clarke or Tillman with Konchar and go smaller. All three of those players have more experience, and have given more in terms of production, than Ziaire.

But none of those three were 10th overall picks. And while Kleiman and company have preached patience with Williams (understandably so) the only sure way to see progress is through gaining the experience that the likes of Konchar - far from the same level of physical ability of Ziaire - possess. And as mentioned above, playing Ziaire instead of a Tillman or Clarke allows for Kyle Anderson to be a “4” or a “5” more, his strength at this stage of his career.

So that means continuing to play Williams, even as he actively goes against winning basketball at the moment. The hope of course is that Ziaire gets more comfortable, finds his footing, improves and does indeed earn the time he’s currently seeing. That’s surely the goal of the Grizzlies coaches and front office at this stage. But as November becomes December, if Memphis hangs around .500 and Ziaire does not improve...when do you concede that he isn’t ready to help this team get needed victories and move him to a reserve/practice development role where he perhaps gets more run with the G-League Memphis Hustle than the Grizzlies?

There’s still time to make these decisions. Yet with each passing day, urgency should be slightly increasing. Memphis has tough decisions ahead of them regarding their future. If they want to win more now, staying the course roster-wise seems to be their way given how they’ve used their assets to this point, perhaps looking to a busy Summer of 2022. If the team struggles and falls out of playoff contention - or Kleiman leans in to the win-later mindset - moving on from the expiring deals of Jones or Anderson for assets/young players from contenders would make a lot of sense. The role of Ziaire Williams likely will be altered along all those lines of possibility for the Grizzlies.

In the here and now, though, how Williams is utilized is a window in to what Memphis values. And where they may be heading as 2021 ends. Are they worried about winning first with the roster on hand? Ziaire should be playing less, or not at all, if that is the case at this stage of his process. Is the focus on developing the young talent first and foremost? Then Williams should keep being force fed minutes, warts and all.

The line between playoff dreams and lottery ones is currently being walked by the Grizzlies, and they’re 7-7 in part because of it. How much longer can Ziaire Williams and Memphis keep their balance?

Only time will tell.

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