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The expanding game of Ziaire Williams

Ziaire Williams’ growth as an offensive player has expanded beyond the corner 3.

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Memphis Grizzlies v New Orleans Pelicans Photo by Ned Dishman/NBAE via Getty Images

The Memphis Grizzlies have been quite blessed with player development over the past several years.

Since 2018, they’ve had 4 rookies make an All-Rookie team. Jaren Jackson Jr., Ja Morant, and Brandon Clarke all made 1st team, and Desmond Bane was on second team last season. And that doesn't even include Dillon Brooks in 2017, who had a rock-solid rookie season and was snubbed from the All-Rookie team.

They’ve experienced rapid developments among a multitude of players — between Morant’s rise to being an MVP candidate in his 3rd season, Bane’s big sophomore leap, and Jackson’s defensive surge as well among others.

Those developments could often hide the real high’s and low’s of player development, and hide how it’s a process that requires patience. Ziaire Williams is a reminder of that reality.

On draft night, Zach Kleiman did say it was going to be a multi-year process with him. We had no reason to doubt him. Williams was coming into the league as a skinny 6’9” wing that has a lot of raw skills and had just gone through a rough season at Stanford.

With that, there needs to be a reminder of the process for what it is. There are going to some rough patches. Earlier this season, our Site Manager Joe Mullinax dove into his struggles and the line the Grizzlies are having to walk the line with his development and winning.

He did a great job of illustrating the areas in which Williams struggled. I won't repeat them — read him instead.

While the tough areas are fair and important to point out, it’s equally important to point out the flashes, especially when dealing with a prospect this young. We’re entering March, and they’re still walking the line of his development and winning. It’s paying off. The Grizzlies are 16-6 when he’s in the starting lineup as he’s been replacing the injured Dillon Brooks.

While he’s not the primary reason behind that surge, he’s not hurting the team like he was before his own injury either - and he’s providing flashes. Where he’s showing those bright aspects of his game is through his skill set beyond the corner 3.

Ziaire Williams loves that corner 3 — as expected from a player whose emoji for highlights is the “8-ball” - basically a corner pocket of the basketball court. However, he’s beginning to expand his game beyond that. It’s most noticeable with shot frequency from the rim and from the “long” mid-range (greater than 14 feet).

Since his return from injury in early January, his shot distribution has shifted, and it’s helped his efficiency as well.

  • Pre-injury (19 games): 36% of shots from corner 3 (99th percentile), 13% at the rim (14th percentile), 5% on long mid-range shots (34th percentile), field goal percentage of 35.7%, true shooting percentage of 44.7%, and effective field goal percentage of 43.9%.
  • Since return (24 games): 26% of shots from corner 3 (81st percentile), 27% at the rim (61st percentile), 10% on long mid-range jumpers (66th percentile), field goal percentage of 49.7%, true shooting percentage of 59.8%, and effective field goal percentage of 57.9%. — all per Cleaning the Glass.

I point out those 2 specific areas — shots at the rim and from the long mid-range — because those are areas on the floor where he’s thrived this season. Per Cleaning the Glass, he’s in the 98th percentile in field goal percentage at the rim (82% — 46/56) and in the 97th percentile on shots between 14 feet and the 3-point line (82% — 18/22).

Seeing Ziaire Williams achieve in these areas in this way is a positive sign for his growth as an offensive player. Through his production here, he’s creating strengths that guide the coaching staff and his players towards where he’s at his best on that side of the floor.

“The number 1 thing we want to play to his strengths,” Taylor Jenkins said. “The way he can run the floor. He has a great connection with his guards, especially Ja, all those transition lobs and easy looks in transitions.”

The transition game has definitely been a big boost for his offensive numbers, especially Ziaire’s efficiency at the rim. As the Grizzlies strive to succeed in transition, Williams has become an asset for them in these situations. He’s a 6’9” wing that runs the floor like a track star and has the vertical pop to finish off plays. Players with those traits are great to have for a team that likes to run. He’s also converted those tools into production, as he scores 1.35 points per transition possessions — in the 88th percentile overall.

After he was drafted, Ziaire Williams did say that he was ready to catch lobs from Ja. That wish has been delivered, and it can get electric.

And those are just the alley oops. He’s also a good target for Steven Adams, who has pulled off some absolutely wicked outlet passes over the past several games:

Through his rising transition game, his growing on-floor chemistry is growing with his guards. Per PBP Stats, Ja Morant has dished 37 assists to Ziaire Williams this season, 6th among all assist combinations on the team. It’s evident through their show-stopping alley-oop’s. Morant and Williams are a great basketball match. Passing savant point guard with a rangy wing that’s a vertical threat is usually a good recipe for winning basketball. We’re seeing the dividends of that archetype pay off too, as these two are developing a good sense of awareness for where to expect and deliver the basketball.

“We all know what he can do out there on the floor, as far as scoring the ball,” Morant said. “He knows that, and we just put him in situations where he excels.”

Morant demands a lot of attention on offense, rightfully so. He’s a big feature in scouting reports, and most also indicate Williams loves the corner 3, so the rookie can take advantage of the defense keying in on Morant to catch them sleeping backdoor.

The most enticing part of this development has been his promise in the mid-range.

“His ability to shoot off the bounce is at a really high level, we knew that coming out of college,” Jenkins said of Williams. “He’s just expanding his game, not just being a guy that stands in the corner.”

His size and shot mechanics benefit him here, as he gets a good lift on his jumper and keeps the ball high, making it tough for the defense to get a hand on. As he continues growing as an offensive weapon, this area of his game is the main swing factor that can alter his ultimate outcome as a player.

The outside shot is going to be important for his trajectory as a player and role on this team. While he favors the corner 3, his percentages there still could grow beyond 36% this season (roughly the same in this stretch of play as well). He’s also shooting 28.9% overall on 3’s, and 31.9% since the new year. That has to improve for him to grow beyond being a role player — you can’t really be much of a “3-and-D” guy without the 3. There’s still optimism he grows in that of course, as his shot isn’t mechanically broken and he has 7 games of 2+ three’s since the new year (24 games).

Nonetheless, Williams’ superb play at the rim and from the long mid-range can serve as a good foundation while he grows as an offensive player.

Portland Trail Blazers v Memphis Grizzlies Photo by Joe Murphy/NBAE via Getty Images

The biggest key in his recent development was that time away. He received some time in the middle of the season for the game to slow down for him, and he capitalized on that to dive into the film and identify where he could grow. That time away has not only benefited his on-court development, but it’s helped how he’s mentally approaching games as well.

“It all starts off with my mental approach. I’ve kind of been able to find a rhythm in pregame, and in the game, I’ve been a lot more confident,” Williams said, after his 21-point outing in Minnesota. “I just try to approach everyday like it’s a new game. Watching film and learning from my mistakes. Just taking mental notes like that, and finding any aspects I can get better at to help my team win.”

The off-court matters — the film and mental preparation — are quite noticeable, as he simply looks more comfortable and in the flow than before his injury. While he’ll still make rookie mistakes (see: defense on D’Angelo Russell last Thursday), the difference in comfort level and confidence is night and day between the beginning of the season and now.

The key for all this going forward: trust. And it looks like the Grizzlies have that in Ziaire Williams.

“My teammates feed me an unlimited amount of trust, so that’s where it starts,” Williams said.

“We all know what he can do out there on the floor, as far as scoring the ball,” Morant said of the rookie.

That trust has been on display over the past 2 months. It may hit another level, as we enter this last quarter of the season into the postseason. The trust just might heighten — and the fact that we’re having the “is Ziaire Williams in the playoff rotation” conversation is a positive sign for his game this season, given the expectation of a gradual process.

Regardless of what happens from April to the end of the playoffs (whenever that may be for the Memphis Grizzlies), Williams has grown a lot as an offensive player over the course of the season. He’s expanding the horizons of his game beyond the comfortable corner 3. In the process, he and the team are finding his spots where he can excel — and he is excelling — while impacting winning. He’s also building a foundation for his offensive skillset.

It’s going to be a multi-year journey with Ziaire Williams, but this stretch of play and this excellence in these zones of the floor are steps in the right direction.

Stats and clips found on NBA.com and basketball-reference.

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