The big man is back in style in the NBA once again. Nikola Jokic, Joel Embiid and Giannis Antetokounmpo battled for this year’s MVP. The Warriors and Celtics had versatile defensive pitches to defeat them, with Al Horford and Robert Williams III leaving for Boston, and Kevon Looney and Draymond Green at Golden State. While pace, space and the small ball continue to define the league, the big guys have now also migrated to the perimeter, just like the smaller players first did years ago.
More big men with perimeter skills are on the way. Two could hear their names called in the top three of Thursday’s 2022 NBA Draft. Gonzaga’s Chet Holmgren has been one of the best shot blockers to come into the league in years – and he can drain 3s. Duke’s Paolo Banchero is an advanced shot-maker for his age as a playmaker and goalscorer. Even 6-foot-10 forward Jabari Smith Jr. could play about 5 in his future. The steady increase in bigs stars also requires a response from teams to find bigs that can fight against the inside size and move to perimeter markers.
“It shows how far basketball has come,” said Mark Williams, a 7-foot, 242-pound center expected to play midway through the first round. “There was a time when small was the thing, and before that you had more of a traditional 5. Now it’s a combination with guys who can do a bit of everything.”
Williams, who played alongside Banchero, averaged 11.2 points, 7.4 rebounds and 2.8 blocks in his second year at Duke. At his core, he’s a high-flying shot blocker who can fulfill his duties as a big forward by running on the ground, rolling hard to the edge, finishing inside, and ripping off offensive boards.
It fits more of a throwback mold with a wingspan of 7ft 7in and a standing span of 9ft 9in, the second largest in recorded history behind Tacko Fall. Players like him are doing what they can to adapt to a changing league where defending a 7-footer who can create shots from the perimeter is the norm.
When asked which game last season best showcased his all-around skills, Williams pointed to an early-season Duke win over Gonzaga. “We were both undefeated at the time. It was in Vegas, a real big scene. And obviously there was a lot of hype in the game beforehand,” Williams said. impression that in this match, I was able to show everything. I also simplified things in this game. I defended flawlessly, I caught lobs, I just did a bit of everything.
Williams blocked six shots, showing the ability to raise his arms to challenge shots from effective college post scorers like Drew Timme. His assist defense was excellent, turning in the paint to contest shots to the rim. He looked to the role of an inside enforcer, but also showed the switchability that makes Time Lord an All-Defensive Team player for the Celtics and not just a weakside shot blocker. The same goes for Looney, who went from planting the boards to passing to Luka Doncic in the West Final. The big ones must at least be able to survive outside.
At Duke, Williams was inconsistent when trying to move laterally with outside markers. But he improved after his first season to become competent in his second year. It jostles and displays an ability to execute different patterns, whether it be the fall or a hurdle. While training in Miami this summer, he says he is working on his mobility to be as versatile as possible.
The team writing it will help him take a significant step in that department, just like the Nets did with Jarrett Allen or the Jazz with Rudy Gobert. With players in Williams’ mold in demand, especially on affordable contracts, the second Duke has solidified itself as a potential lottery pick. Memphis center Jalen Duren is also expected to be drafted, while three other centers (Walker Kessler, Christian Koloko and Ismael Kamagate) are all expected to leave late in the first round or early in the second. But Duren or Williams will be the first center selected after Holmgren and Banchero.
“Obviously, it would be pretty cool to be drafted in the lottery. It’s definitely something I want,” Williams said. “But at the end of the day, form is going to be the most important thing.”
Last week in Washington, Williams told reporters his pre-draft workouts included the Wizards, Spurs, Knicks, Hornets and Bulls. All select between ninth and 18th.
Williams has a sister, Elizabeth, a Duke graduate and fourth in the 2015 WNBA Draft. She won Most Improved Player in 2016 and became a star in 2017. Mark watched his sister achieve her dreams as he was still in ninth grade, watching basketball change before his eyes. That same year, Roy Hibbert will play his last season in the NBA at age 30 just three years after being named All-Star. Gobert was turned into a meme by Steph Curry. And a post scorer in Brook Lopez suddenly turned into a sniper. The league was changing. The big ones had to defend on the perimeter and hopefully shoot 3s. Throughout his career, Williams hasn’t been forced to shoot. But it’s something he’s been working on in preparation for the NBA.
“I get to the point where if a defender backs up, I have the confidence to shoot,” Williams said. “I’m going to continue to develop and be confident to shoot, but I think right now it’s definitely seen as more of a cherry on top than a foundation for my game.”
As a sophomore, he hit five of his nine jumpers, according to Synergy. It’s a small sample, but he also went from 53.7 to 72.7 percent of the line after making it a priority in his training the summer before. Williams went from a projected pick in his 20s to his mid-teens in part because of his progress. In college, he had some impressive shots, including a straight baseline turnover against Michigan State. In the pros, he will just have to shoot stationary 3s like Lopez, Jonas Valancinuas or one of the many great players who have stretched their game behind the line to play with anyone in the frontcourt.
“I work the way I want immediately,” Williams said of his NBA success. “Obviously, that will not be the case. But I have to keep working on my game even if I don’t have the opportunity to do things right away.
If Williams is drafted by a team that includes a more used pick-and-roll creator like LaMelo Ball in Charlotte or DeMar DeRozan in Chicago, his primary role would be to screen and finish with the power to the edge. Against Gonzaga, he put Holmgren on a poster.
As appealing as Williams’ highlights are, he says he gets just as much satisfaction from doing the little things a center is asked to do, like tipping for an offensive tip.
“It might not be cute, but it helps you win,” he says.
The NBA has changed, but the great man never died. A wave of superstars and stars in their roles has just entered the league. The team drafting Williams hopes he can be another great who does a bit of everything.