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2021 NBA Draft Profiles: Can Ziaire Williams fight through his college struggles?

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Evaluating Stanford wing Ziaire Williams and his potential fit with the Denver Nuggets

Stanford v USC Photo by John McCoy/Getty Images

All NBA Draft prospect profiles require nuance. As writers not directly covering a player we are just learning about, it’s important not to make unyielding assessments when only seeing a player for a short amount of time. It’s why the NBA Draft is a difficult evaluation for so many NBA writers.

And yet, Ziaire Williams may require the most nuance of them all.

Williams and the rest of the Stanford basketball team were forced to stay in hotels without returning home for a large portion of their season due to a quarantine order by Santa Clara county in California. Their season was extremely weird for awhile, as was the pandemic season in general. On top of that, Williams stepped away from the team after a death in his family during the middle of the season. When he returned, he came off the bench and was far less effective.

The reason Williams already needs some justifying at this stage: his college numbers were really bad. He shot 37.4% from the field in 20 games. It’s a small sample size, but it’s the only college sample size scouts and NBA folks have to go on. Players that shoot that poorly from the field rarely succeed in the NBA. There are some young players drafted lately that appear to be better than their initial shooting percentages though: Cole Anthony, Cam Reddish, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, and others stand out in that regard.

Will teams be willing to make that bet on Williams this time around? Let’s talk about it.

Ziaire Williams - Stanford

Vitals

Age: 19 (born September 12, 2001)

Height: 6’9”

Weight: 188 pounds

Wingspan: 6’10”

Per game Stats (Age-19 season)

Williams put together a relatively bad statistical season for an NBA caliber prospect, averaging 10.9 points, 4.7 rebounds, and 2.2 assists compared to 2.9 turnovers per game. He shot 42.7% on two-pointers, 29.1% on three-pointers, and 79.6% at the free throw line. The lack of efficiency at the college level is startling and rarely translates to the NBA level; however, as a former top high school recruit, Williams has had great play at lower levels that certainly justify his draft-ability.

Strengths

Combination of size and fluidity

The first aspect of Williams’ game that stands out is how athletic, quick, and agile he is. Measuring at 6’9.75” in shoes at the NBA Draft combine last month, Williams doesn’t move like a 6’10” scoring forward, but instead like someone much smaller. He handles the ball well, can put together complex dribble moves, and moves very well in the open court.

That may feel like a “whatever” skill to some, but having the ability to attack closeouts, remain shifty, and move with ease against players both smaller and larger than him could make Williams a weapon on both ends of the floor at the next level. He displayed that functional athleticism using escape dribbles and bursts to the rim on offense while also shadowing smaller players than himself at the point of attack defensively. Functional athletes are incredibly important at the NBA level, and Williams has that rare foundation at a young age.

Scoring/shooting potential

The shooting numbers in his lone season don’t really scream “elite shooter” but the mechanics, shooting motion, and free throw percentage all offer some confidence that Williams will be better than his college numbers. It’s a rare case, but the film is the film. Williams has the shooting form of a very good shooter and the free throw percentage of a good shooter, but for some reason it hasn’t translated to this point.

Williams honestly reminds me of Michael Porter Jr. with some of his moves off the dribble. Porter is more stiff, but at 6’10” it’s hard to unsee Williams generating a massive stepback going to his left and hitting a jumper while not thinking of the elite scoring forward already on Denver’s roster. Porter is a historic shooting talent though. Williams isn’t that, but he has a wide variety of moves he can go to that can create space for a jump shot that is silky smooth.

Point of attack defense

The least ambiguous trait that will help Ziaire Williams out immediately is his ability to guard on the perimeter. He’s long, athletic, and tenacious at the point of attack, consistently poking at the ball while moving his feet well when his man has the ball.

Often, inefficient shooters that were high level high school recruits don’t sit down and guard the way Ziaire Williams did. The statistics on his defense aren’t the most impressive (0.9 steals and 0.6 blocks in 27.9 minutes per game) but Williams played his part well at Stanford while he was there. At 6’9” it certainly seems that Williams could have an impact defending tall guards and some big wings at the next level.

Weaknesses

Frame/Strength

The biggest question mark for Williams is the frame in my eyes. Most will point to the inefficient shooting, but give many young prospects space to operate and a stable role and they can generally figure that aspect out.

What Williams may never be able to figure out is how to deal with the physicality of the NBA. Though he already stands at 6’9” and will tower over many wings, he weighed in at just 188 pounds at the combine and also clocked in at 4.4% body fat. There are questions about how much bigger and stronger Williams can become with his frame, which makes a big difference in a league as switch heavy as the NBA.

Brandon Ingram is listed at 6’8” and 190 pounds on ESPN and just finished up a season averaging 24 points, five rebounds, and five assists, so it may not matter if Williams can become a more efficient shooter. To that...

Efficiency and Shot Selection

There’s no way around it: Williams shot poorly at Stanford. 29% from three-point range isn’t an encouraging number for a player with his reputation as a shooter, though Williams also struggled to shoot efficiently in high school on the major circuits.

Part of his problems with shot selection go hand in hand with his frame/strength. He can’t get all the way to the rim and shoots inefficiently on drives because he gets bumped off his spots consistently, fading away from the rim instead. He then resorts to tough shots off the dribble, some that he makes but most that he doesn’t.

Williams will have to show that he can make spot up jumpers in the NBA at the start of his career, and most of his workload will surround attacking the three-point line rather than attacking the rim. Still, even if he shoots 35% from three, that might not be enough to justify poor shooting numbers everywhere else. He has a long way to go.

Raw Prospect

Only 20 games played at the college level. An offensive game centered more on his bag rather than skills that will help win basketball games. A thin frame that will need the help of a strength and conditioning program at the NBA level. Williams will need some time before he can be consistently trusted on the court. Imagining him switching onto LeBron James or Kawhi Leonard or Luka Doncic or one of the other premier wing players at the NBA level is a painful thing.

Whichever team selects Williams will need to give him time to work on his game whle also adding strength to his body. Getting up to 195 to 200 pounds of functional NBA muscle will go a long way, and it will offer him more avenues onto the court if he can consistently match up with 2’s, 3’s, and 4’s in a switching system. He has the skill set and the length to do that.


Verdict

As mentioned above, Ziaire Williams reminds me of Michael Porter Jr. in a number of ways. Big, athletic forward, high quality high school prospect, reputation of an elite shooter, needs to add strength to his frame to be the best he can be at the next level. It’s very possible that Porter is just a completely different caliber of shooter and the comparison is insulting, but if Williams ever figures out how to shoot efficiently in games, his foundation as a prospect changes.

As for the Nuggets specifically, Williams would be an interesting gamble. On one hand, his defensive skills and possibilities as a jump shooting wing are intriguing when placed next to Porter, Jamal Murray, and Nikola Jokić. The Nuggets have very few capable point of attack defenders on their roster, and if Williams developed into that player, he could change Denver’s fortunes considerably.

However, this is a gamble I would probably stay away from. There are other safer prospects that offer a more realistic ceiling that would still help the Nuggets achieve their goals. Though Williams has a tantalizing skill set if he can put it all together, very few players that shot the way he did in college make it at the NBA level, and fewer still offer a legitimate level of impact.

There’s something to be said about a Stanford player though. You’re no idiot if you can get into Stanford, even as an athlete. Something to think about if the Nuggets are looking for players with a high basketball IQ as the draft comes ever closer.