Grant Williams’ two-way ability should make him a top-10 pick

COLUMBUS, OHIO - MARCH 22: Grant Williams #2 of the Tennessee Volunteers reacts during the first half against the Colgate Raiders in the first round of the 2019 NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament at Nationwide Arena on March 22, 2019 in Columbus, Ohio. (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)
COLUMBUS, OHIO - MARCH 22: Grant Williams #2 of the Tennessee Volunteers reacts during the first half against the Colgate Raiders in the first round of the 2019 NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament at Nationwide Arena on March 22, 2019 in Columbus, Ohio. (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images) /

Grant Williams makes me chuckle. Not because his style of play is funny. Not because his on-court demeanor is humorous. Simply because, whenever I watch him, I find myself laughing at how ridiculously good he is at the game of basketball. He’s a two-time SEC Player of the Year and a 2018-19 First Team All-American. All of that is well and good but it’s not necessarily conducive to becoming an impactful NBA player. With Williams, who currently sits fifth on my personal Big Board, I don’t have many concerns about his game at the next level — a rarity among top prospects in this class.

Williams’ detractors will point to his size (6-feet-7.5 inches) as a reason for worry. They’ll say he’s not quite fluid enough to be a wing nor he is tall enough to be a 4-man. Consider, though, some NBA Draft Combine measurements for starting power forwards around the league. Tobias Harris and Jerami Grant were marked at 6 feet-7.75 inches. Thaddeus Young? 6 feet-7.5 inches. Paul Millsap? 6 feet-7.25 inches. Now, I’m not comparing Williams to any of these guys ceiling-wise or stylistically. All of them also boaster longer wingspans than his 6-foot-9.75 (some by a substantial margin). The point is that there are legitimate avenues to becoming a well-above-average power forward in the NBA at his height — especially when it’s blended with Williams’ practical skill set. To solely focus on his height is to miss the forest for the trees and ignore all that he offers to compensate for the somewhat discouraging physical profile.

The easiest way to describe Williams’ game is to begin with two overarching traits, ones that serve as outliers to his peers: his IQ and strength. The dude is just incredibly smart. He exists one pass, one rotation and one move ahead of his opponent on both ends of the floor.

He’s a brilliant passer from all the areas big men need to be: the post, the elbows and on the short roll. Send a double, he’d find a shooter; shade help, he’d expose the opening wherever it was; zone out, he’d capitalize on that lapse in focus.

Williams won’t command that same degree of attention in the pros from the outset but he’s the type of cerebral player whose playmaking can remain valuable even in a scaled down role. He’s too sharp and reads the floor too well for his passing instincts and talent to be completely mitigated.

Beyond just being the best player every time he took the floor, the primary reason defenses keyed in on Williams so heavily was his perpetual threat as an interior scorer. It’s the result of incredibly functional strength — particularly in his lower body — and deft touch from roughly the foul line and in. Virtually nobody in the NCAA could match him down low and he regularly sealed off defenders, corralled entry passes and scored with ease, leaning on model footwork and positioning.

Per Synergy, he ranked in the 97th percentile on post-ups (1.173 points per possession), powered by those quick duck-ins, baseline spins past defenders and turnaround jumpers. He also harnesses a skilled face-up game, as he shot 52.3 percent on 2-point jumpers this season, per hoop-math.

While he only converted 29.1 percent of his 103 3-point attempts (30 makes) in three years at Tennessee, I’m fairly confident he’ll become an effective deep threat on moderate volume. His soft touch near the rim and efficiency on jumpers/free throws (81.9 percent this year) provide hope. Offering another reason for optimism is the fact he ranked in the 89th percentile (1.28 PPP) in pick-and-pops (25 possessions). It’s a limited sample but one that I think speaks to his decision-making, outside shot and viability as a pick-and-pop big in the NBA — a better way to utilize his on-ball screening than making him a roller/finisher, given his limitations as a vertical leaper and struggles scoring against length. Although, his short roll passing should be unlocked, too.

Since Williams was so reliant on that strength advantage, it’s understandable to be hesitant of it translating to the NBA. But it wasn’t just the typical advantage upperclassmen hold over underclassmen. He has legitimately outlier functional strength that, more or less, will remain quite useful moving forward.

I specifically use the term “functional strength” to differentiate from strength itself. Too many players — both collegiately and professionally — don’t maximize their raw strength to make the game easier. They shy away from contact; they don’t leverage it on screens, in the post or on rebounds; they play smaller than their physical gifts enable them to. With Williams, that isn’t an issue. Any situation where his strength could prove resourceful, he maximizes its application. Rebounds. Screens. Post-ups. Sometimes, he’ll even clear the runway for teammates by planting into a defender and creating driving lanes — a la Steven Adams for Russell Westbrook — which is another sign of an astute basketball mind merging with top-tier physicality.

At Tennessee, Williams was primarily deployed as a post-up and face-up big. His skeptics might point to that archaic usage and wonder how he remains valuable offensively (at least early on, before teams potentially ramp up his involvement), especially when he’s no longer the focal point of a scheme. Unlike some prospects, however, Williams excels on the margins, too. He’s a textbook screener, holding picks long enough to make contact and manufacture separation for ball-handlers; drafting him means your initiators have it easier in pick-and-rolls while shooters are sprung free for better looks off the ball. His short-roll playmaking is largely untapped but certainly a weapon. His physicality and ability to track rebounds will lead to extra possessions. Broadly speaking, his sharp decision-making, general court awareness and smarts are rare for any basketball player, not just those in the collegiate ranks.

So, that’s a lot of words on all that Grant Williams does at a high level offensively and explains why I’m confident in those parts of his game moving forward. None of it touches on his defense, which is exceptional and a significant factor in his placement as a top-five prospect in my mind.

In an age where one-on-one defense has grown less vital as schemes increasingly call upon players to coordinate switches, stunt on drives and execute other off-ball duties, Williams is practically tailor-made to succeed. His  awareness and verticality breed for a unique combination on that end of the floor:

Sure, players are more explosive in the NBA, so his sub-7-foot wingspan could cause some issues. But, again, Williams’ strength is an underlying cog in those help rotations. When guys approach him near the rim — even with a head of steam — they can’t create space to get up a shot because Williams is simply too strong to move or bounce off his spot. That isn’t likely to change much at the next level. Length is a boon when protecting the rim because it makes attempts more difficult. Williams’ base strength does the same. If players’ forward momentum is completely countered when they meet Williams inside, it, to a degree, offsets the middling length he possesses.

I don’t expect him to be the poster boy for switchable 4s but he flashed enough capability with light-on-his-feet agility to suggest it won’t be a value-plummeting flaw. It probably won’t be a strength, as he was generally inconsistent defending on the perimeter and burned by stark changes of direction or hesitation moves, but there’s a foundation for survival.

One of the prevailing critiques of Williams is that he’s not athletic enough to be worthy of such a high draft slot. I take exception to that sentiment, though. If athleticism is simply viewed as vertical leaping or dynamic lateral quickness, then, yeah, he doesn’t meet the threshold of other projected lottery picks. But functional strength is part of being athletic and Williams races past that threshold for an NBA player. His lower body strength enables some impressive horizontal force.

Look how quickly he covers ground on this move because of the power generated by his lower half:

He gets lower than Kentucky’s Nick Richards, leverages that angle to find the edge and bounces back up — all thanks to outlier leg strength. That is a rare ability, just not the type that most associate with the popular phrase “NBA-caliber athleticism” because it didn’t occur above the rim or in the open floor.

Grant Williams is a basketball genius. His IQ, awareness and court vision aren’t something that come around very often. When those traits coalesce with top-notch functional strength and high-level skill, they breed a player who I’m confident will greatly impact the game for any team. It’s easy to point to his lack of vertical pop, ideal size or condor-like wingspan as reasons for hesitancy. None of them positively stand out among NBA crowds. But those are far from the only factors in determining who thrives in the league.

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Williams’ marriage of smarts and functional strength are matched by only a handful of professionals today. They don’t merely meet an NBA standard. Rather, they’re exceptional for an NBA player. Mix in his playmaking, help-side defense and interior scoring, and you’re left with a player worthy of a top-10 selection.