There was excitement in the air at FedExForum during on July 29, 2021 for the NBA Draft. The Grizzlies had recently made a trade to move up to select 10th in the draft, and had a multitude of favorite prospects available when it was the Grizzlies turn to make their pick. James Bouknight, Moses Moody, Corey Kispert and Chris Duarte, among others, were all available for Memphis, and Grizzlies fans were excited to see who would be coming to Memphis.
When Adam Silver announced the selection of Ziaire Williams, a then 19-year old out of Stanford, the Forum fell silent. After a brief moment, the MVP’s at the Forum let out a light and confused cheer for the pick, followed by some murmuring. I remember sitting alongside my GBB colleague Parker Fleming with the media at the Forum and the word that comes to mind when thinking about the reaction to that pick was “interesting”. After a couple of years of making the “safe” picks in the NBA Draft, the Memphis Grizzlies went with a project.
It’s been written about a ton at GBB and among others in the Memphis media, but it was no secret that the Grizzlies had long-term goals in mind when drafting Williams. Grizzlies General Manager Zach Kleiman and Head Coach Taylor Jenkins tempered expectations before training camp began, essentially admitting that Williams’ role could be limited and acknowledging the work that would need to be done with him. Kleiman went as far to say that Williams would be a “multi-year process”.
Opportunity came quick for Williams. With Dillon Brooks out to start the year with injury, Ziaire Williams was in the rotation from night one. The early returns weren’t great. A knee injury just 19 games into his rookie season can be seen as a blessing in disguise. Ziaire had to sit, and relied heavily on film to keep up while his body was on the mend. Williams was a different player upon return from his injury and went on to have an inconsistent but solid rookie campaign. Parker Fleming highlighted Williams’ growth back in March.
All the up’s and down’s throughout the regular season led to Ziaire’s biggest moment in Game 2 against the Golden State Warriors. A lot was asked of Ziaire earlier this week in his first game back from knee soreness, with Dillon Brooks ejected 3 minutes into the game for a foul on Gary Payton II. Williams filled in admirably.
In just his 6th postseason game, Williams was the 3rd-best player in a critical game the Grizzlies needed to win. Ja Morant was fantastic, scoring 47 points with 8 rebounds and 8 assists. Jaren Jackson Jr., despite fouling out, had the Warriors defenders timid around the rim and afraid to attack the basket. But it was Ziaire Williams who had some of the biggest plays to swing the game late for the Grizzlies. Williams finished the game with 14 points on 5-9 shooting and 4-8 from beyond the arc while also chipping in 5 rebounds. He has resorted back to mostly being a catch-and-shoot specialist from deep in the postseason, but that hasn’t stopped him from being aggressive and letting it fly. Nearing the midway point of the 4th quarter and Memphis down 3, Ziaire stepped up with two huge triples to give the Grizzlies the lead.
The Warriors were ultimately able to respond to the Williams run and take a slim lead before Ja Morant took over down the stretch, but it was a huge moment for the Grizzlies rookie to shine in the bright lights of the NBA Playoffs. He misses the shot below, but the trust Williams has from his teammates leads into confidence to take big time shots. Sure, the shot clock is winding down and it’s an open look, but Williams could easily be timid and try and make the extra pass to a wide open Desmond Bane in hopes he can get a shot off in time. Instead, Williams’ confidence (and trust from Ja Morant) leads to a great look that was just a bit long.
It wasn’t just offensively though where Williams shined. He was solid on the defensive end as well, where his hustle and heart was on full display. With Dillon out, Ziaire was one of the players tasked with defending Steph Curry. Williams limited Curry to 3-8 shooting from the field and 1-3 from deep. The one make from distance? A banked in shot off a offense tip out from Otto Porter Jr. Williams has a ways to go in the weight department to fill out his frame, but his length caused problems for the Warriors star to get good looks from beyond the arc. Curry attacked Williams off the dribble and into the paint, but you ultimately live with those looks if you can limit the damage Curry does from beyond the arc. Williams used his length to rack up 3 deflections in his 28 minutes, including one on one of the biggest defensive possessions of the game.
What you can’t see in the clip is Ziaire coming up with a deflection and diving for the loose ball in the waning seconds of the game. Williams ultimately doesn’t come up with the ball, but he doesn’t take himself out of the play. He hustles across the court to get in front of Klay Thompson so he doesn’t have an easy catch and shoot triple opportunity. Getting in front of Thompson appeared to make him second guess the shot, resulting in a traveling violation that helped seal the victory.
It was a great game from Williams, but he’s still likely a few years away from being ready to take on a large role with the organization. The experience he’s getting in the meantime, however, will prove invaluable once he is ultimately ready to take on that role as the Grizzlies continue to pursue NBA Championships.
Just 9 months removed from draft night, where his selection had the Forum quiet, Williams played some of the best minutes of his young NBA career. FedExForum sure as hell wasn’t quiet on Tuesday night, and it won’t be the last time Williams makes big plays that brings Grizz Nation to their feet.