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The rise of Ziaire Williams

The evolution of Ziaire Williams’ game can raise the ceiling of the Grizzlies.

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NBA: Memphis Grizzlies-Media Day Petre Thomas-USA TODAY Sports

I will never forget the 2021 NBA Draft. The Memphis Grizzlies traded starting center Jonas Valanciunas and the 17th overall pick to move up to pick #10 and took back Steven Adams and Eric Bledsoe. Of the plethora of options on the board when the time came to make the pick, myself and most of Grizz nation was surprised to hear the name of Ziaire Williams.

My goal for Ziaire going into his rookie year was simply to get playing time and show improvement over the entirety of the season, and that he did. He began his NBA career averaging 5 points per game on 35.7% shooting and 24.6% from three mostly as a corner 3-point shooter in 18 games before being sidelined with an ankle injury in game #19 in early December against the Miami Heat. The game just seemed too fast for him at that time and that’s understandable for a rookie his age with untapped potential.

Washington Wizards and the Memphis Grizzlies Photo by John McDonnell/The Washington Post via Getty Images

However, Ziaire returned as a completely different player upon his return to the court in January after missing 14 games. After scoring in double figures only once in the first 18 games of his career, Ziaire Williams scored in double figures in back-to-back games including a start in his second game back. He would go on to score in double figures in 19 of his final 43 games. including 21 starts at Small Forward. He and the team played so well in Dillon Brooks’ absence that some fans were questioning bringing Dillon off the bench as the 6th man upon his return.

Ziaire seemed to hit a rookie wall to start his career and then take off from there. That time off due to injury gave him time to look at film and find his groove which showed when he returned. Also, Taylor Jenkins’ trust in him to continue to play him in the rotation had to be a big boost as well for a team that was winning at a high level.

I remember me and my guys on The Starting 5 podcast having a question-and-answer segment on the show late last season and being asked about playoff rotations and how Ziaire Williams would factor in it. I was unsure about a rookie playing much when the season was truly on the line come playoff time, and am glad I was wrong.

Although his stats were not the greatest in the playoffs, his impact was felt especially at moments during the Golden State series. His shooting and defense were pivotal in the 4th quarter of Game 2 to help the Grizzlies tie the series 1-1. During that game, nearly everyone not named Ja Morant was struggling offensively but when Ziaire was left open for 3 in the 4th quarter of that game, he took and made the shots with confidence.

NBA: Playoffs-Golden State Warriors at Memphis Grizzlies Petre Thomas-USA TODAY Sports

After a rookie season that showed promise, Ziaire Williams embarked on an off-season around improving his ball handling, playmaking, and shooting. Similar to Desmond Bane last season, the Grizzlies put the ball in Ziaire Williams’ hands during summer league as the primary ball handler to mixed results. The playmaking side improved as evidenced by his 4.40 assists per game average in 5 games compared to his 1 assist per game average during the regular season. Also, his defensive ability flashed with him using his 6’11” wingspan to cause deflections and create transition opportunities.

However, his shooting and actual ball-handling left a lot to be desired. He continued to hover around the 30% mark shooting from 3 and averaged 3.6 turnovers per game over those 5 summer league games. Overall, his Summer League performance was full of trial and error but he played decently for the most part. Each player develops at their own pace, so I would tell the crowd that expects a Desmond Bane type of leap to temper their expectations and enjoy the process and maturation.

NBA: Summer League-Memphis Grizzlies at Brooklyn Nets Stephen R. Sylvanie-USA TODAY Sports

So for this upcoming season, I am expecting another year of continued progression from Ziaire Williams. On our recent episode of the Starting 5 podcast, we previewed what we would like to see from Ziaire Williams this season and I stated that I would like for him to challenge for a starting spot. What I meant by that statement was that I would like to see him force coach Jenkins' hand by making it a hard decision to bring him off the bench. Of course with Dillon Brooks still on the roster and De’Anthony Melton not on the roster that would be very hard to accomplish but with Jaren Jackson Jr’s absence to start the season I thought he could potentially force a small lineup to start.

That seems increasingly unlikely due to Taylor Jenkins' comments at media day about who is competing for the starting Power Forward spot while Jaren Jackson Jr. is out and rumors of the Grizzlies being interested in a potential Jae Crowder trade with the Phoenix Suns. However, I am interested in how the season will go with Dillon Brooks’ contract expiring after this season and Ziaire Williams’ continued development potentially playing a part in how the Grizzlies move forward with that situation.

On the court, Ziaire Williams’ rebounding numbers caught my attention. Averaging 2 rebounds per game at his height (6’9” with a 6’11” wingspan) is not ideal even for a mostly perimeter-oriented player. He averaged 4.8 rebounds per game in 5 summer league games so my hope is that translates to the regular season. His slim frame plays a part in that too but as time goes on and he develops I expect his rebounding to improve.

Shooting is still a huge need in Memphis and Ziaire can help quiet those doubts. Although his 3-point shooting improved over his rookie season his averages still amounted to 31.4% in the regular season, 30.6% in the playoffs, and 33.3% in the summer league. I would like to see that get up to around the 35% range and we have evidence, albeit a small sample size, that can happen as he shot 36.4% from 3 in the Grizzlies’ 3 Las Vegas summer league games.

Another thing I would like to see from Ziaire this season is improved scoring off the dribble and continuing the solid playmaking trend he displayed in the Summer League. Ziaire stated the plan is for him to be on the ball more this season so that speaks to the confidence that the coaching has in him and their commitment to developing him despite now being in contention mode among the league’s elite.

In conclusion, Ziaire Williams has shown more flashes up to this point than originally thought when he was drafted (to most of the fan base at least). Rather it is coming off the bench or in a full-time starting role, Ziaire is a big part of this team’s present and future as his development will be key for this team to take the next step of becoming a true championship contender for years to come. I am excited to continue to see his development and just want to let Grizzlies Nation know to appreciate the growth that Ziaire has shown and will likely continue to show as he continues to gain valuable experience.

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