Drop 18.5 points per game to pace your team? Check. Drop 70 points in a two-game span, courtesy of 26 made baskets and 14 free throws? Check. Win ACC Player of the Year for, in large part, those aforementioned scoring abilities? Check.
So it’s intriguing, then, that when Wake Forest coach Steve Forbes is asked which part of Williams’ game will most readily translate to the NBAhe doesn’t focus on any specific instance of Williams scoring.
Instead, he focuses on one time Williams didn’t.
This was back in December, as part of that two-game, 70-point stretch where Williams went scorched earth. The 6-foot-5 graduate transfer was at his best in the second of those two contests, against Charlotte, dropping 34 points with a dizzying array of shot-making magic. But with seconds left to play, the game was still tied at 79 — and Williams had the ball in his hands. “Scorers a lot of the time go in there,” Forbes recalls, “put up a tough shot, and try to win it.” And as Williams drove left to the rim, with multiple defenders collapsing on him, that exact scenario seemed to be playing itself out … until the last second, when Williams swung a left-handed hammer pass to the opposite corner, where a wide-open teammate drained the game-winning 3. “He was very willing to give up the ball to win the game,” Forbes says. “He had that trust level.”
That exact combination of scoring and playmaking made Williams such a dynamic college guard — and why the Brooklyn Nets signed him to a two-way deal after he went undrafted.
It’s just the culmination in Williams’ rapid rise from junior college to role player at Oklahoma to full-blown star in the ACC.
And, frankly, not even Forbes knew just how special a player he was getting when he landed Williams out of the transfer portal last offseason. That makes sense when you consider that, in two seasons at Oklahoma, Williams averaged a measurer 6.3 points per game and not even one assist. Compare that to this season’s stat line — 18.5 points, 6.4 rebounds, and 5.2 assists per game — and it’s almost like you’re talking about two different players.
Forbes asked — or rather, required — Williams to do different things than he previously had. Given Forbes’ own junior college background, he knew Williams’ former coach at Triton College, Steve Christiansen, and found out that Williams had played frequently with the ball in his hands. So while that wasn’t the case with the Sooners, it was still something Williams had done before and had some level of comfort with. “I didn’t anticipate him playing the one a lot until I really got him, and the first passing thing that jumped out to me in practice was his extraordinary,” Forbes says. “Man, the first couple of weeks of practice, I’m like, holy s***. He can really pass — and he likes to.”
That second part turned out to be as important, if not more so, than the first, as was evident on that game-winning assist against Charlotte. And it ended up carrying throughout the season, too; Williams posted the ACC’s best assist rate, per KenPom, and was No. 54 nationally in the same respect. He maintained his efficiency as a scorer simultaneously, averaging 0.946 points per possession (PPP) overall, per Synergy, but that number shot up to 1.258 PPP when you factor in assists as well.
“His passing is gonna translate, because in space, he’s hard to guard off the dribble and he’ll either get to the rim or find open people,” Forbes says. “I mean, he’s really good at that.”
The trick for Williams, who just turned 23, to make it at the next level is maintaining that same offensive pop with a lower usage rate… and by to take steps as a shooter continuing. That Williams scored as well as he did despite only making 28.2 percent of his 3s speaking to his ability to finish at the rim, but his shot-making has to improve if he’s going to become a reliable backcourt option. Here, Forbes points to the case of someone like Al Horford — whom he coached against as an assistant at Tennessee when Horford was at Florida — as proof that 3-point improvement is absolutely attainable under NBA coaching. Aside from lacking consistency on his 3-point shot, turnovers are something else to monitor with Williams; even taking his high usage into consideration, he averaged 3.6 giveaways per game, and in Wake Forest’s losses, a whopping 4.5.
Still, the selling point here is clear. Williams is a grown, physical guard with scoring chops, court vision, and a willingness to share the ball. How much he improves his relative shortcomings will determine what type of role he has at the next level, but one thing is certain: Twice now in college, Williams has taken his game to a whole new level, surprising folks in the process.
(Photo: Jim Dedmon / USA Today)