While there are some exceptions, most good films follow a consistent three-act structure. The first act serves as an introduction to the main character as well their circumstances. We as an audience get to know their strengths and weaknesses, virtues and vices, as they develop into a fully-formed person for us to appreciate.
It’s the second act, however, when the main character often becomes consumed by the central conflict of the story. Whether it’s a problem caused by outside circumstances or a personal weakness that they have to overcome, the second act often involves the main character being inevitably brought to their lowest point.
Call it a second act, call it a sophomore slump, or call it whatever you like. But Ziaire Williams is currently in the midst of the lowest point of his young NBA career. Through 9games, he has a 76.0 offensive rating; the lowest individual offensive rating among qualifying players is Kendrick Nunn at 83.0, and the lowest in NBA history for an entire season is DeSagana Diop’s 74.0 for the 2002-03 season. He is currently shooting 11% from three, just making 3 of his 26 attempts so far this season.
Of course, none of this is to say that Williams is a bust. He (seemingly) developed into a solid rotation player during his rookie season, and even if he hadn’t, it’s still entirely too early in his career to be making bold proclamations about his future one way or the other. But still, the numbers back up what your eyes have been undoubtedly been telling you: He has been playing at a historically bad level even over a limited sample size this season.
Now there are a few factors that could be potentially contributing to his struggles. He missed nearly the first two months of the season, so he has had to get re-acclimated on a team that had been thriving without him. His minutes are down from last year, and his role is somewhat odd and undefined.
During his rookie season, he was in a perfect situation designed to empower him to succeed. He spent much of his time in the starting lineup playing off of Ja Morant and Desmond Bane, and he served as an effective 3-and-D wing especially after the All-Star break. But now that he’s consistently coming off the bench and being asked to handle more playmaking responsibility in those lineups, his game is suffering. It also doesn’t help that he’s hardly playing any minutes with Steven Adams anymore, who was a safety valve for him and formed the other half of his most successful two-man pairing last year.
Granted, these factors don’t fully excuse his struggles. The organization utilized him in Summer Leagur as a point guard and primary playmaker for the sole purpose of preparing him to become an impactful playmaker and creator this season. They even cleared the runway for him to do so by trading De’Anthony Melton — who, to add insult to injury, is having a career year in Philadelphia — on draft night. To be sure, the Memphis Grizzlies need Ziaire Williams to progress toward the vision of what they hope he will be — a jumbo scoring wing that can defend multiple positions.
However, the fact remains that growth and player development are not always linear; President of Basketball Operations Zach Kleiman has even said as much when it comes to the overall trajectory of the franchise. Even outside of basketball, life has its ebbs and flows. 20th century writer C.S. Lewis called this reality the Law of Undulation — our lives undulate between a series of peaks and valleys. We are never quite as great as we seem to be at our peaks, but we don’t have to be defined by our valleys either, especially the ones we go through at 21-years-old.
No matter what Ziaire Williams becomes in his NBA career, he will play better than he has through the first nine games of his sophomore season. One of the ways that the Memphis Grizzlies can empower him to do so is to fully commit to his envisioned role. They should put the ball in his hands more in the second unit and simply let work through his struggles until he figures them out. Anyone who’s ever played basketball at any competitive level knows that simply having the ball in your hands consistently can help you find a rhythm.
Also, utilizing Williams heavily as a secondary playmaker plays more to his current strengths. Despite his struggles, he has quietly developed into an undeniably solid passer, demonstrating some neat chemistry with Brandon Clarke in particular. His AST% (12.2) is nearly twice what it was last year (6.3).
Of course, the Memphis Grizzlies, losers of four of their last five games, have bigger issues than just Ziaire Williams. But if they are to get to where they want to go — both now and in the future — they will need him to progress past his unfortunate second act.