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This is just the beginning for Ziaire Williams

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

Point of view: It is July 29, the night of the 2021 NBA draft, and I am sitting nervously awaiting the Memphis Grizzlies’ selection. Three days earlier, the Grizzlies traded away Jonas Valančiūnas to move up seven spots. JV had been vital to the Grizzlies’ recent success and Memphis was taking on two big contracts in order to move up to the 10th pick. I am frustrated but intrigued. Trusting Memphis’s front office, I talk myself into the trade, hoping the Grizzlies will take, James Bouknight, an NBA Twitter darling.

The Grizzlies are on the clock. Bouknight is still on the board. Zach Kleiman and co. have done it again. NBA Commissioner Adam Silver is on stage to make it official and… the pick is Ziaire Williams? I fall to my knees in confusion and frustration. From almost everything I had read, Williams was an incredibly raw prospect that would have been on the board at pick 17, the Grizzlies’ original draft spot.

NBA: NBA-Draft Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

With every passing day, I disapproved of the Valančiūnas trade more and more. Steven Adams was on a bad contract and from all accounts well out of his prime. Williams was a long-term project who was not going to help out Memphis for the upcoming season. The Grizzlies had taken a step back…

Well, what do I know, anyway? I, along with many Grizzlies fans, was dead wrong on all accounts. Turns out Adams was not washed. Bouknight was not the elite scorer Twitter built him up to be. Memphis certainly did not take a step back, and Williams showed everyone he was more than a raw 20-year-old.

Coming out of the draft, expectations for Williams were relatively low for a 10th pick. His college numbers were miserable, but Memphis was willing to overlook his shortcomings because of Williams’s difficult circumstances. He was forced to stay in hotels, unable to return home for a large portion of the season due to Covid-19. Midway through the season, Williams stepped away from the team after a death in his family. His college experience was anything but normal so it was clear Williams was going to need time to find his groove.

And he took his time. Williams’s first 19 NBA games were a mess. He averaged 4.7 points and 1.5 rebounds on 35.4% shooting and 24.6% from three, before being sidelined with an ankle injury in December. Williams missed nearly a month of action but came back a different player.

Before his injury, Williams looked lost on defense and was frequently relegated to the corner on offense. On January 4, he returned from health and safety protocols with an improved basketball IQ and incredible chemistry with Ja Morant and the rest of the team. He finished with 10 points, drilling two threes.

NBA: Phoenix Suns at Memphis Grizzlies Justin Ford-USA TODAY Sports

Williams gained the hearts of fans as he became an exciting lob threat with breathtaking athleticism. With Dillon Brooks sidelined for much of the year, Williams filled in, starting 31 games. In March, he dropped a career-high 21 points, drilling three triples against the New York Knicks. With Williams getting the starting nod, he began to get reps with Morant, Desmond Bane, and Jaren Jackson Jr., and as he played with the franchise cornerstones, he found his role.

Williams used his size and length to become a good defender while expanding his offensive game beyond just three-pointers. Finally comfortable, Williams finished the season on a tear. In his final five games, he averaged 15.4 points on 44.1% shooting and 37.5% from three.

Ziaire earned the trust of his teammates and the coaching staff, playing huge playoff minutes against the Minnesota Timberwolves and Golden State Warriors. While Morant’s heroics were the story from Memphis’s Game 2 win over the Warriors, Williams was vital to the Grizzlies evening the series. Williams played 28 minutes after Brooks was ejected, dropping 14 points and sinking four threes.

Ziaire’s numbers do not show the strides he made throughout his rookie season. He went from being a legitimate liability on both sides of the ball, to playing crunch time in the second round of the NBA Playoffs. This turnaround would be impressive for a fourth-year player, never mind a rookie.

It is hard to not feel excited about Williams’s future in Memphis. He has all of the physical gifts to excel in the NBA. At 6’9” with a 6’11” wingspan, Williams’s size and agility make him the perfect forward next to Bane and Morant. The development of Williams’s three-point shot and basketball IQ in his rookie year is encouraging for the future as the Grizzlies look to contend for years to come.

Williams accepted the Grizzlies’ culture with open arms, and his teammates embraced him immediately. If he puts in the work, he truly does not have a ceiling.

The sky is the limit for Ziaire Williams.

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