When it was announced that second overall pick Chet Holmgren would miss the entire 2022-23 campaign with a foot injury, many folks around the league speculated about whether this would lead to a trade request from star guard Shai Gilgeous-Alexander by season’s end.
After all, no Holmgren would surely mean another tanking year for the Oklahoma City Thunder – the third straight season of endless losing Gilgeous-Alexander has had to endure.
Yet, with less than a month to go in the regular season, neither of these prophecies has come to fruition as the Thunder are currently eligible for the Play-In Tournament if the season ended today (they are ninth in the West). And by all accounts, Gilgeous-Alexander seems as content as ever in Oklahoma City.
And while he doesn’t deserve all the credit, rookie Jalen Williams has certainly played a large role in making all this happen. In fact, the 12th overall pick has played so well that he’s established himself as a dark horse candidate for the Rookie of the Year award.
However, the same question that led to Williams being drafted at the back end of the lottery still exists today. He’s an “older” rookie (he’ll be 22 on April 14th). Naturally, that makes people wonder how close he already is to his ceiling as an NBA player.
So, we took a look under the microscope to find out if what we’re seeing now is as good as it gets with Williams or if maybe, just maybe, he’s got the potential to be Gilgeous-Alexander’s All-Star partner in crime.
Williams’ offensive style is a collaboration between a mid-2000s slasher and a new-age connector wing.
In many ways, his off-guard style brings back memories of a vintage Dwyane Wade. He’s an explosive vertical finisher (league leader in dunks by a shooting guard this season), sharp cutter (89th percentile in efficiency, per NBA.com), and astute offensive rebounder (great cutters are usually good offensive rebounders too).
That drive game (lightly featured in the clips above) deserves further praise. Outside of Jaden Ivey and Paolo Banchero, no rookie drives more times per game (8.9) than Williams, which makes him a perfect fit in the Thunder’s drive and kick offense (they are first in the league in drives by a considerable margin).
While he’s a professional dunker, his finishing bag is a lot more refined than that. He’s got a bevy of moves for getting to and finishing around the rim. Most of them involve him using his 7-foot-2 wingspan to slither his way through tiny gaps in the defense. In this way, his finishing package is eerily similar to Gilgeous-Alexander himself. And unlike fellow rookie Keegan Murray, he’s already got a well-developed lower body that allows him to absorb contact and finish through it.
Despite possessing some nostalgic qualities, he’s not the blackhole that many of his 2000s ancestors were (for the record, neither was Wade). Along with his slashing powers, he’s the quintessential read and react off-ball player.
He makes quick decisions, has a good feel for space and where to be on the floor, and he’s a great connective tissue passer.
That last remark (connective tissue passer) is a buzzword that often gets thrown around but never fully explained. A connective tissue pass is one that continues an advantage that has already been made. The best connective tissue passers can get the ball from the advantage creator and immediately release it before the defense has had the chance to recover.
Gilgeous-Alexander is the master of creating those initial advantages, so pairing him with a great connective tissue/off-ball passer like Williams is a match made in basketball heaven.
With that said, Williams can make some sharp on-ball reads too. His specialty is finding cutters for high-value layup passes.
But due to the nature of Oklahoma City’s offense (they run a lot of ghost/brush screens designed to get the ballhandler driving downhill), he hardly has a chance to show his merit as a lob or skip passer in traditional pick-and-roll situations. Judging from the speed and accuracy of his other passes, it’s plausible he could make those reads if given the chance.
These connector types usually have a reputation for being very positionally sound on the defensive end. Williams is no different, as his steal rate (a strong indicator of positional awareness and defensive IQ) is tied for third among rookies who have played at least 25 games this season (2.1 steals per 100 possessions).
But Williams isn’t just a sound rotator and defensive playmaker. He’s also a stout spearhead at the point of attack. Outside of shutdown specialist Luguentz Dort, Williams is probably already the team’s best perimeter defender – often tasked with shadowing the opposing team’s second-best, and sometimes, best exterior offensive player.
The key to his man defense is the constant state of movement in his lower body. Watch the clips above. Williams is constantly bouncing around on the balls of his feet, hardly ever giving his heels an opportunity to grace the hardwood.
The looseness in his lower body makes it so he can fluidly rotate his hips to mirror the movements of the ballhandler in front of him. And it makes him a good screen navigator, as sometimes he’ll literally just hop around screeners like he has pogo sticks in his outsoles.
His verticality also makes him a good rim protector for his position (also like Wade). Among guards who have played at least 25 games this year, Williams’ block rate (0.8 per 100) puts him in the 81st percentile league-wide. This springiness, coupled with his suffocating wingspan and defensive instincts, enables him to guard power forwards and centers at times when the Thunder shift into some of their token small-ball lineups.
Overall, Williams is already an above-average defender for his position (0.5 D-DRIP), with hardly any weaknesses on that end of the floor.
If you recall, we specifically referred to Williams as an “explosive vertical finisher,” and it’s because his horizontal abilities aren’t at that same level. Part of the reason he’s had to develop such an expansive repertoire of finishes is because his first step is largely unspectacular.
On a balanced floor, most mobile defenders can stay in front of him, leading to tougher finishes for the rookie. To his credit, he converts way more of these contested looks than you’d expected. He’s shooting 66.5% at the rim (for comparison, Banchero is shooting just 54.7%).
But because he’s not blowing by defenders, he’s not creating advantages for himself and his teammates, and he’s also not giving defenders a reason to foul him. This leads to a free throw rate of 3.9 attempts per 100, which is pretty low for someone who lives in the paint as much as he does (Banchero averages 10.7 attempts per 100).
Developing an advantage-creating move (like Manu Ginobili’s negative step) will be huge for Williams’ development into a more consistent free-throw merchant.
Becoming a more frequent foul drawer will be huge for juicing his scoring volume (52nd percentile) and efficiency (67th percentile) moving forward, especially if his pull-up jump shooting doesn’t ever come along.
On the year, he’s shooting 34.9% from downtown on 2.7 attempts per game. This is right in line with the 35.2% on 3.0 attempts per game he shot during his three-year college career at Santa Clara.
Given his assertiveness, that 35% mark is a sufficient mark to be a credible spacer/spot-up shooter for the Thunder. But his lack of pull-up shooting is worrisome if he’s going to develop into a high-volume on-ball scorer.
On the season, only 24 of his 172 threes have been pull-ups (per NBA.com). As for shots between 16 feet and the 3-point line (almost always pull-up jumpers), he’s only hitting 33.3% of those.
Again, he doesn’t need to improve his foul drawing or pull-up shooting to be a really good role player (he’s already pretty much there). But if he’s going to ascend into All-Star status, he needs to increase his scoring volume while maintaining or improving his current efficiency. And to do that, he’s going to have to add one (or both) of those tools to his game.
Last season, we called then-rookie Franz Wagner the most versatile player in the 2021 Draft Class. And we think the same can be said about Williams as it pertains to the 2022 rookie pool.
So, what does this mean for his long-term prospects?
Well, think of it this way; while many of his classmates have experienced a sophomore slump, Wagner has emerged as one of (if not the most) promising players from the class. And a large reason for that is his versatility.
Think about versatile skillsets like having multiple sources of income. If you have a diverse stream of income, and one of those sources falls off or is experiencing a down period, you aren’t nearly as affected by it as someone who has all their eggs in one basket.
It’s the same way with basketball. The more ways you can impact a game, the better chance you have of being a consistently good player in the league. So, while some sophomores may be slumping hard because one or two of the skills they heavily rely on is failing them right now, Wagner is thriving because he has so many different ways he can influence a game.
As for Williams, his versatility already makes him a really good player. In fact, his 1.5 DRIP score (our catch-all metric, which projects a player’s contribution to a team’s plus-minus per 100 possessions) is the best among all rookies and 55th in the NBA overall (minimum 500 minutes played).
And while he doesn’t have the benefit of time on his side the way some of the other 2022 rookies do, what do you think is more likely? That a 19 or 20-year-old with a couple of enticing strengths and a handful of fatal flaws goes from a low-impact player to an All Star? Or that an “older” rookie, who is already solid across the board and only needs to level up in a couple of areas, becomes one?
We’d bet the latter, and it’s because of that (and all the features we outlined above) we think Jalen Williams eventually becomes the All Star that Oklahoma City and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander need him to be.