With Dillon Brooks out for the time being, the Memphis Grizzlies needed to be a new primary stopper on Stephen Curry Tuesday night against the Golden State Warriors. The answer seemed unclear prior to tipoff. Would they risk fatiguing Desmond Bane on offense by giving him that defensive responsibility? Or would they alter the starting lineup by slotting De’Anthony Melton in this role? Or do the Grizzlies give Kyle Anderson this job?
The man that ended up with the tall task of slowing down Stephen Curry was rookie Ziaire Williams.
Just 25 games in his career, with a good cast of solid wing defenders on the roster, Williams had the challenge of slowing down the future Hall of Famer. And to be fair he did well, especially considering his experience compared to Curry’s prowess.
Curry finished shooting an inefficient 8-21 from the field and 2-9 from 3 — well off from his 42% and 38.4% clips for this season. Though he did finish with a triple-double line of 27 points, 10 rebounds, and 10 assists — as great players typically find a way to bust out stats like that even in “off” shooting nights — the Grizzlies had a gameplan to slow him down, and it worked.
A good portion of that performance is on Ziaire Williams’ defensive efforts.
“I think he did well. I gave him a lot of credit just now. Besides those fouls on the three, I felt like he did a great job at trying to make his shots as tough as possible,” Ja Morant said of the rookie’s performance. “I think he was really locked in tonight. He delivered for us and got us a big win.”
Before really diving into Williams’ defense from Tuesday’s win, I want you to see what Morant said of his pregame regime to prepare for this matchup.
He was in the recovery boots, had heat packs, he was doing balance tests. I had never seen him do that before.
Side-note: Very positive development to see your 20 year-old rookie take these measures to prepare for a big assignment.
Going into the contest, the primary objective was to run Steph Curry off the 3-point line. By surrendering only 9 three-point attempts compared to his average of 14, the Grizzlies accomplished just that, while also making shots difficult for him.
“Obviously, (Stephen) Curry is an amazing scorer and shooter. He did a really good job of chasing him to get inside the 3-point line,” assistant coach Darko Rajakovic said. “We made him to lead in the paint. That was the game plan from the start and Ziaire did a really good job.”
This strategy is important in terms of the outcome of the game. Even if Curry gets to 14 attempts and hits at the 22% clip he shot last night, that’s an extra 3 that could’ve changed some variables within the game flow, even if the margin still reflects a Grizzlies win. However, taking away those 5 attempts cuts down extra opportunities for Curry to get to his 38% clip — which is 3 more 3’s he’d convert, and that means a Grizzlies loss.
This is the main example of Ziaire Williams being the one running Curry off the 3-point line and forcing him inside the arc. Curry tries to get the rookie to bite on a combination of moves to generate more separation from downtown. However, Williams holds his ground to force Curry to find a new attacking point inside the arc. Williams doesn’t have the best positioning on the drive, but he still avoided a foul, and forced Curry into a scooping layup with a contest from Brandon Clarke.
All part of the plan.
Speaking of Curry trying to get Williams to bite on his handles, the rookie did a great job of holding his own in the middle of dance moves that once turned Defensive Player of the Year Rudy Gobert into a human helicopter.
On this sequence, Williams does well to identify Curry in transition. Once Curry settles, he tries to hit him with moves that many defenders have fallen prey to over the past decade. However, Williams maintains an active contest, with a hand up at all times and shifting his feet in directions to prevent any downhill momentum. As a result, it forces him into a deep, contested fadeaway 3. As great of a shooter Steph is, that type of shot is not an ideal source of offense that early in the shot clock.
As it does with rookies defending high-level offense players, there are going to be good and rough moments. There’s this one particular sequence here is one that stood out as rough.
Here, Williams stuck to Curry’s hips a bit too much, getting leveraged into a bad deny position. Because he’s not between Curry and the basket, all it takes is a slip towards the rim for an easy layup.
Ziaire Williams got his biggest lesson in screen navigation in this game. The Golden State Warriors have developed one of the best — if not the best — screening systems in the NBA over the past decade. Even without Draymond Green, the Warriors have Kevon Looney and Andre Iguodala, two players that set sturdy screens and understand Curry’s off-ball movements. While Curry’s ranginess off the ball creates a whirlwind of gravity, the screens really free him up from outside, which sends opposing defenses into a panic.
The Grizzlies deployed a solid strategy in defending this, as they switched well to keep the pressure on Curry from deep. Williams, in particular, showed both flashes and areas of improvement in his defense off screens.
Ziaire starts in good deny position on Curry, though I’m surprised this wasn’t called a foul — given the level of physicality in relation to the rookie’s whistle. He manages to fight over the Wiggins screens to maintain a vertical contest without fouling. It would’ve been easy to foul, with the momentum Williams closed out and with Curry kicking his leg out a bit. Nonetheless, the Grizzlies got an optimal contest that led to an uncharacteristic airball.
On the ball, Williams fell for the light cross to find his way into the screen. As a result, Curry goes opposite the screen — avoiding the hard hedge from Clarke — and finds an easy pathway to a layup. So the area of improvement here comes with the on-ball pick-and-roll defense, and not falling so hard for ball fakes. If Curry happened to go on the side of the screen, there’s a switch from Clarke. Williams could’ve held his ground a little more to put Curry in a bind 30-feet from the basket, as his only point of navigation would’ve been towards the sideline and corner.
Ziaire Williams showed some flashes of solid defending in these actions. He navigates the staggered screens quite well, forcing Curry into a wing trap with Morant. Though it leads to a Klay Thompson 3, resulted from a rugged pick from Looney, Williams flew through the screens to force the ball out of Curry’s hands.
On the flip side, this action here highlights Williams’ need to add strength as he got caught dying on a screen. He recovers on the first screen well to get the ball out of Curry’s hands. However, he runs right into the Looney screen that leads to an open 3. Obviously, adding more strength to fight through the screen looms as an avenue of improvement here, but he could also use this here as a way to identify in which ways to navigate this screen.
Is the move going over to go for more of a contest on the ball — with the downside that there’s a better likelihood a 3-shot fall occurs? Or does he go under to get a contest between the shooter and the basket? Obviously, it’s tough to judge from here, as we cannot even compute the processing speed of the NBA game on the floor. However, these are questions and areas Williams will figure out once the game slows down for him.
Finally, Williams doesn’t do anything flashy here, nor does he get credit for the steal. However, I do like some of the subtle stuff he does. The switch is soft — not a bad soft, like it’s soft in that he doesn't bite too hard on a switch — so he and Clarke double Curry. While that’s going on, Ziaire is between Curry and Porter. With the little separation between him and Curry, as well as him and Porter, Clarke is free to roam to come away with a deflection and steal into transition offense.
Ziaire Williams wasn’t necessarily peak Tony Allen in this defense outing against Steph Curry. He had some bright spots, and he also had some miscues, which I didn’t include fouling on Curry 3’s — something the whole team frankly struggled with. There are also some looks he gave up that are simply chalked up to Stephen Curry being a top-15 all-time talent in his prime.
However, the biggest takeaway from this outing for Ziaire is Williams didn’t struggle too much to the point where Rajakovic needed to make an adjustment. He didn’t need to try out a new primary defender, nor did he have to cut Williams’ minutes (30 minutes played Tuesday night for the rookie).
Ziaire Williams performed well enough on that side of the ball to successfully execute the gameplan: run Curry off the line and force him into tough shots.
Though this defensive showing wasn’t perfect, this game will serve as a solid reference point for Williams throughout his development this season. He sees the moments in which he maintains good defensive discipline in on and off-ball situations, and he can identify areas of improvement in screen navigation and gambling.
All in all though, this game is a positive development for the “long view” — shameless podcast plug, by the way — of Ziaire Williams. He’s a 6’9-6’10” wing with quick feet and long arms that can bother perimeter players with his size. As he continues to pick up on NBA defensive principles, he could become a plus asset on defense. And performances like Tuesday night serve as evidence of the intriguing upside of a player with Ziaire Williams’ tools and skillset.