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Measuring a sophomore leap for Ziaire Williams

How can Ziaire Williams continue to grow in year 2?

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2022 NBA Playoffs - Golden State Warriors v Memphis Grizzlies Photo by Joe Murphy/NBAE via Getty Images

When the Memphis Grizzlies drafted Ziaire Williams with the 10th overall pick last offseason, it caught most people by surprise — because everyone loves to gauge prospect draft range by mock drafts. In the presser after the draft, Grizzlies EVP of Basketball Operations Zach Kleiman expressed that the development of Williams was going to be a multi-year process.

So when that proclamation was made, there were several questions that started to swirl:

Does he play a lot of minutes in Southaven with the Memphis Hustle?

When does he begin to look like a contributor on a winning team?

Will it be before he’s due for a rookie extension?

Is this project going to work?

Ziaire Williams looked more ready than many people expected as a rookie. Instead of spending a lot of time in the G League or at the end of the bench, he was closing games in the playoffs last season. When Dillon Brooks went down with his ankle injury in early January, Taylor Jenkins decided to roll with Williams as the starting 3. From there, he began to look more comfortable and played a part in the Grizzlies’ success this past season.

Though it didn’t parlay into making an All-Rookie team, Williams impacted winning basketball and set a solid foundation to get his career rolling. Throughout the offseason, many people have been tantalized by the leap Williams could take in year 2.

That thought jumps into people’s minds because of the jump Desmond Bane took in year 2 — more on that in a moment.

Also, Ziaire Williams has a fascinating skillset. He’s a 6’9” wing that has a feathery touch in the mid-range, can run the floor, finds cutting angles to soar above the rim on backdoor cuts, and flashed potential as a defensive stopper. Going into year 2, it’s going to be interesting to see how his games progresses.

First thing people will look at is his scoring average. People will compare it to the leap Bane made last season. To tamper expectations, year-over-year improvement like Bane’s is an impressively challenging feat — nearly doubling his scoring average from 9.2 points to 18.2 points per game. The only recent players to do something similar while playing for a playoff-contending team are Pascal Siakam and CJ McCollum.

Don’t expect Ziaire Williams to do this, not because of the magnitude of that sort of jump, but also because of the team’s pecking order. Ja Morant and Desmond Bane are going to average 20 points per game each. Dillon Brooks and Jaren Jackson Jr. will hover around 15-18 points per game. As basic as it sounds, there’s only one basketball.

However, it’s fair to claim and expect Ziaire Williams to improve as a scorer. Without De’Anthony Melton in the mix now, the Grizzlies lost their main perimeter scorer off the bench. While there are rumors of Jordan Clarkson out there, the Grizzlies may be totally content with giving Williams the opportunity to be the bench unit’s primary scorer — if the price isn’t right. It would be a similar situation to last years when the Grizzlies traded away Grayson Allen to free up the starting shooting guard spot to enable Desmond Bane’s growth.

Growth as a creator will follow with scoring improvements. Last year, he flashed upside as a mid-range shooter. He was 20-33 (61%) on “long” mid-range shots — between 15 feet and the free throw line — which fell into the 95th percentile among wings, per Cleaning the Glass. He possesses great elevation on his jump shot, which bodes well for a wing with his size, and he has shown good footwork on getting separation in those spots. As he becomes more comfortable with his ball-handling, we should see him deploy that mid-range jump shot more often.

With the loss of Melton and Anderson, the Grizzlies will lose secondary playmaking off the bench to take on some of that responsibility from Ja Morant and Tyus Jones. The Grizzlies may expect Williams to fill in the void to an extent, and they’ll need him to do as well. Last season, he was in the 15th percentile in assist percentage (6.2%), per Cleaning the Glass. He also averaged 1 assist per game last season. If they’re expecting him to be a “3-and-D+” guy, live-dribble creation will be important.

The Grizzlies have also made the preparations for him to grow in this area. He took on more primary creation responsibilities in the Summer League; in the process, he made some legitimate reads and had multiple games with 5 or more assists. He won’t have the ball in his hands as much as Morant or Bane, but his improvement as a live-dribble creator could help Taylor Jenkins’ playmaking-centric system continue to hum with the departure of two key reserves.

Another key component to monitor in his offensive repertoire is his 3-point shooting. Projecting as a 3-and-D guy at the moment, his outside shot should experience some sort of progression next season. Last year, he connected on 31.4% of his 3-point shots on 3.9 attempts per game. There’s optimism he could take a sizable leap in this area, because of how he closed last season. From his breakout game in Madison Square Garden to the end of the season (29 games), Williams made 38.8% of his 3-pointers on 4.0 attempts per game.

If Ziaire Williams continues finding his consistency from downtown, it’d be a big boost for the Grizzlies’ halfcourt and perimeter offense — both ranked towards the bottom-half in the league last year.

Defensively, it’s going to be harder to quantify a leap. It’s going to be more about building upon the flashes from the eye-test from last season — while also cutting down on his rookie mistakes — when taking on the more challenging defensive assignments. Granted, he won't be the primary perimeter stopper, as that responsibility goes to Dillon Brooks. I’d be in favor of a scenario where Brooks takes a bigger wing and Williams guards the ball-handler — against teams with stars in these archetypes (Phoenix with Paul and Booker, New Orleans with McCollum and Ingram, or Brooklyn with Kyrie and Durant).

If you wanted to use statistical benchmarks to gauge a defensive leap, defensive event creation could be a possibility — steals and deflections, primarily. Melton and Anderson were agents of chaos defensively, using their defensive playmaking to feed into transition offense. Williams could make improvements here to make up for the loss (28th percentile in steal percentage, 1.1%, per Cleaning the Glass).

However, I’m monitoring his growth as a point-of-attack defender and as a perimeter stopper. With Dillon Brooks possibly entering unrestricted free agency next offseason, they’ll need to have an incumbent player on the roster who could fulfill his defensive responsibilities, and Ziaire Williams might be the most equipped Grizzly to step into that role.

2022 NBA Playoffs - Minnesota Timberwolves v Memphis Grizzlies Photo by Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE via Getty Images

Ziaire Williams is the most likely — and most popular — candidate to make big strides in his game next season. It may not be a massive boost in points per game, and that’s totally okay. He needs to continue building upon the foundation he laid this past season to impact winning for a team with eyes for contention.

From the events of this offseason, the Grizzlies are banking on his development as well. In Summer League, they put him in a position where he served as a primary creator as a scorer and facilitator. Furthermore, the Grizzlies brought in no veteran replacements for De’Anthony Melton and Kyle Anderson. They’re relying on their development, and Williams is a heavy focus of it.

The Memphis Grizzlies pushed chips in on Ziaire Williams taking a sizable leap. Here soon, we’ll see if another one of their bets will pay off.

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