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Ziaire Williams remains on the line

The playoffs aren’t changing a thing.

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

Entering the 2021-2022 NBA season, every member of the Memphis Grizzlies franchise made it clear that Ziaire Williams was the organization’s first foray in to the “upside swing” draft pick. Williams was raw, young, and had been fairly disrupted by the COVID-19 pandemic in his one season at Stanford. They challenged Grizzlies fans and media to see past the poor numbers from college and see the frame (6’8”, 215), see the potential of a 3 and D wing that could play positions 2-4 on the floor, and accept that he won’t be as depended on at an early age as the likes of Desmond Bane and Brandon Clarke were before him.

And yet, entering the season’s final two games, Williams has logged more minutes for the Grizzlies than Clarke despite playing 3 less games. He has seen more playing time than fan favorite John Konchar and “veteran” (comparatively speaking, he is 3 years older) Xavier Tillman Sr. And he has seen his role evolve throughout the season, from struggling reserve to solid starter, all the way now to closing games in the clutch the final week of the season while playing “power forward”.

Quite the swath of opportunity for Ziaire. And considering how he is not even listed as an option to bet on for Rookie of the Year for DraftKings, it isn’t like his production (7.7 points on 45% shooting, limited rebounds and assists per game) warrants these looks on a consistent basis. But here Williams stands as the playoffs approach, on the 2nd best team in terms of record in the entire NBA, staring down the stark reality that he may be in a playoff rotation for a championship contender.

NBA: Memphis Grizzlies at San Antonio Spurs Daniel Dunn-USA TODAY Sports

No offense to Evan Mobley (the betting favorite at DraftKings at -225 as of this writing) or Scottie Barnes (+175), but while their squads (the Cleveland Cavaliers and Toronto Raptors, respectively) are also going to the postseason and figure to be bigger parts of their teams’ successes, neither Toronto nor Cleveland are expected to do much in the playoffs. While the Grizzlies are very young, being the #2 seed out west carries with it the burden of expectation. Memphis losing in the 1st round would be a failure. The Raptors likely are playing Joel Embiid and the Philadelphia 76ers in the first round. Cleveland is dealing with injuries, including to Mobley himself, and may not make it out of the play-in tournament.

Meanwhile, there stands Ziaire Williams, whose playing time flies in the face of the words of the Grizzlies organization back in October when compared to more established players. In fairness to Williams, he has earned these opportunities to an extent - as poorly as he played early in the season (and he was really, really bad) he has looked that good at times since his return from the ankle injury. The frame comes in to play when switching defensively and being able to stick guards and bigger wings on that end of the floor. The offensive game has expanded beyond just the corner three, including more attempts off the dribble in the midrange as well as at the rim. He is expanding and evolving before our eyes, and Grizzlies Head Coach Taylor Jenkins and Williams’ teammates clearly believe in what Ziaire can be.

But the postseason is a different animal. And the Memphis reserve unit of Tyus Jones/De’Anthony Melton/Kyle Anderson/Brandon Clarke is battle tested. Their skill sets theoretically enable any of the Memphis starters (Ja Morant/Desmond Bane/Dillon Brooks/Jaren Jackson Jr./Steven Adams) to play alongside them. Size is a concern in spots, scoring in others. But for what makes the Grizzlies great - transition basketball, rebounding, and defensive intensity - those nine in theory are the best players for Memphis as the playoffs approach.

Yet Williams’ regular season minutes and continued experimentation of role make you pause. Is it simply maximizing development for a young player before the weight of the postseason takes hold, pushing him to the bench? Maybe - perhaps Jenkins and company are taking this run of games that mean basically nothing for Memphis thanks to their earlier success this season and trying to get Williams the run they know he won’t be receiving in 10 days. And to be fair, the assumption that Ziaire is the 10th man and therefore won’t see playing time in the playoffs may be off base. The lineup of Jones/Melton/Williams/Anderson/Clarke had played together for 61 possessions entering Thursday’s thumping by the Nuggets and have been a +18.1 in those possessions, per Cleaning the Glass. Maybe Memphis shocks the system and decides a 10 man rotation is the way to go, playoff prioritization be damned.

Precedent tells us that’d probably be a mistake - most rookies do not make that much of a difference in the postseason, give or take an exception, especially ones that are nowhere near the Rookie of the Year conversation. But Memphis has been bucking trends and overachieving for three years now. Ziaire’s possible role in helping the Grizzlies chase a title could just be the next step in that continued endeavor.

NBA: Memphis Grizzlies at Houston Rockets Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

Ziaire Williams entered the game Thursday night against Denver before both Kyle Anderson and Brandon Clarke. The only sure-fire rotation player that missed this game was Ja Morant - Memphis is as close to full strength as one can hope this time of year, assuming Ja will be near 100% after this two-week absence to rest his knee. Combine that reality with the fact he’s played in more minutes in less games than Clarke, asking whether Williams will be a part of this playoff rotation is a fair question to ponder. Ziaire has improved, and deserves credit for that. Should that growth connect to replacing more veteran, more skilled at this stage, players in the most important playoff run since the height of Grit and Grind?

When framed in that way, the query is much more difficult to answer than it was to ask. Anderson can handle, rebound, and facilitate offense better than Ziaire at this time. Clarke is versatile in the front court defensively with the capacity to defend bigs and wings on switches, and provides athleticism in a different way than Williams. Both have NBA Playoff experience and have logged more time with the best player for the Grizzlies in Ja Morant, who will be knocking off rust in the days ahead in preparations for the Memphis postseason run. To theoretically choose Ziaire Williams, a rookie who again is nowhere near the Rookie of the Year award race, over players that have both the experience and effectiveness needed to maximize playoff success would be a bold choice at best, a possibly disastrous one at worst.

It is possible it doesn’t come to that. But the conversations being possible serves as a reminder that Memphis is ahead of schedule. So is Ziaire Williams...but how ahead of his timeline as a “project” from this past Fall is he? Should that translate to the future being now, despite the “veteran” depth this reserve unit possesses?

For better or worse, we will soon find out.

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