Scouting Report & Film Review: Ziaire Williams

Ziaire Williams had a rough freshman season, but his two-way versatility still makes him one of the biggest home run swings in this class.

Strengths: On-ball defense, rebounding, scoring potential, willing passer

Weaknesses: Processing speed, ball security, strength, shot selection

Consensus Expected Draft Range: Mid to late first round 

Where I'd Draft Him: Back half of Lottery

Shades Of: Cam Reddish, Caris LeVert, Kevin Huerter 

Best Team Fits: New Orleans Pelicans, Indiana Pacers, Memphis Grizzlies, Oklahoma City Thunder

Ziaire Williams was one of many highly touted freshmen who had far from the ideal season. Coming out of high school, Williams was projected as a dynamic scorer with top-five upside. Unfortunately, Williams's combination of size, potential, and versatility didn't come to fruition.

Williams showed flashes of what he could be, hence still ranking him as a lottery talent, but everything that could go wrong for him did. Williams had a fluke bike injury involving a pothole that resulted in him lugging around a bulky knee brace to start the season. In the middle of the season, Williams had to step away to attend funerals, and due to COVID guidelines, he was forced to stay away from the team for multiple weeks. On top of all of that, due to California's and Stanford's COVID guidelines, the team had very limited practice, little to no access to the weight room, and had to play all of their home games at the Santa Cruz Warriors gym, about an hour away from campus. Maybe I'm naïve in giving Williams some slack, but I still came out impressed by a lot of his play, given the circumstances.

Despite coming into the season as a projected scorer, Williams made his most significant impact on the defensive end. He showed stretches of exquisite on-ball perimeter defense that should help him earn early minutes in the NBA. If Williams's scoring repertoire develops like many expect it to, he will be the most promising homerun swing outside of the consensus top five.

Defense

Coming into the season, defense was the last thing I anticipated Williams being proficient in. To my pleasant surprise, it was the most reliable aspect of Williams's game. As always, take these defensive points-per-possession (PPP) numbers with a grain of salt, but Williams allowed a solid 0.818 PPP (58th percentile) overall, per Synergy.

Williams has good on-ball instincts, is excellent at avoiding screens, and has shockingly good perimeter footwork. The most pleasant surprise, though, was Williams's disciplined approach to on-ball defensive fundamentals. He wasn't perfect every possession, but being a good defender clearly means a lot to Williams based on how he plays. He is determined to get in a low, stable defensive stance and avoids ball screens like a seasoned veteran.

Williams's combination of perimeter footwork and ball screen navigation make him a reliable pick-and-roll defender. This season, Williams allowed 0.552 PPP (83rd percentile) when he defended the pick-and-roll ball-handler.

Here, we see Williams get switched on a smaller, quicker guard who should have the advantage once a screen comes. Instead, Williams gets in a great defensive stance (broad base and bending at the knees, not hips) and uses his footwork to disrupt the play. Williams knows the screen is coming and is determined not to allow the ball-handler back to the middle of the floor due to their defensive coverage. Instead of allowing the ball-handler to dictate the action, Williams promptly beats the ball-handler to the screen. This movement cuts off the ball-handler and negates the effects of the screen. UNC quickly tries to rescreen, but Williams uses his long strides and perfect footwork to slither over the screen once again to force the pass.

A little later in the same game, Williams perfectly disrupts another pick-and-roll. The screen makes a bit more contact with Williams this time, forcing him slightly off his path. Instead of fully turning his hips or carelessly reaching, Williams purposefully uses his left arm to poke at the ball. This movement has no chance of forcing a turnover, but it makes the ball-handler more cautious and makes him hesitate just enough for Williams's long legs to recover to the point where he can inevitably force the turnover.

The beautiful aspect of Williams's footwork on that play was how there were no wasted steps. After Williams initially gets hit by the screen, he firmly plants his left foot to propel him towards the lane to contest a drive. Williams then steps with his right foot around the screen, keeping his balance and continuing his momentum, allowing him to cut off the drive. Now that he's completed that part of the play, Williams firmly plants his right foot, enabling him to explode back to the ball-handler to take away any space.

So frequently, young defenders are too eager to flip their hips and cross their feet to play catchup. Williams does an excellent job of not allowing the ball-handler to manipulate his momentum. Instead, Williams is always on balance because he keeps his hips at the proper angles and doesn't waste steps.

Again, Williams does a perfect job of disrupting the pick-and-roll. Williams rapidly slides his feet to beat Chris Duarte to the screen. As Duarte pulls back to use the rescreen, Williams is already back in his defensive stance, which allows him to get over the screen again to force the pass.

Williams's immaculate footwork and balance on the defensive end are traits that should translate from day one. Williams played with a sense of pride as an on-ball defender, and scoring on him in isolation, the pick-and-roll, or on handoffs was extremely difficult. 

While Williams's on-ball defense is highly encouraging, his off-ball defense is equally frustrating. Williams had flashes of brilliance with controlled closeouts and thoughtful rotations, but more frequently, he was ball-watching, late on rotations, or getting lost through screens. Williams allowed 0.976 PPP when his man spotted up (37th percentile) and 1.19 PPP when his man ran off screens (18th percentile).

The most correctable aspect of Williams's off-ball defense is his tendency to ball-watch. I say that because Williams is highly engaged as an on-ball defender and shows flashes of wanting to succeed off-ball. He plays as though he understands the importance of good defense; it is just a matter of improving his consistency away from the ball.

Once the ball is swung to the shooter in the below clip, Williams is essentially checked out. He takes one languid glance towards his man and then goes to the paint to rebound. UNC secures the long rebound, but Williams continues the play as if he's watching through a VR headset. The ball finally finds its way to Williams's man, and Williams has to close out frantically. Williams gets bailed out by a travel, but in the NBA, that will likely end in three points.

The more troublesome aspect of Williams's off-ball defense is how poor he is at navigating screens. This is a peculiar dilemma because Williams is highly successful at navigating ball screens. When his ball-watching gets thrown in the mix, though, Williams struggles to recover while also avoiding screens. 

Williams also won't offer much weak side help early in his career. I expect him to improve in this area as he gets more experience, but Williams is late to identify his rotations right now. He has flashes of reading the play perfectly to intercept passes, which is encouraging, but he desperately needs to improve his consistency. If he doesn't, he will regularly be the beneficiary of his teammates' wrath as he fails to back them up while also getting in foul trouble.

Williams is far from a positive off-ball defender right now, but his errors are fixable. Most of Williams's off-ball blunders are self-inflicted from focusing on the wrong thing. He has bought into the importance of defense and is willing to make the proper rotations. The problem is that he tunes out at inopportune times. Once a coaching staff redirects Williams's focus, and he gets more consistency and experience in a defensive system, his flaws should be ironed out.

Flat-out bad defenders don't have possessions like the one below. Williams does a great job of chasing his man through a series of screens. As the ball screen comes, Williams flips his hips to feed the ball-handler into the drop defender. Williams effortlessly gets over the screen while keeping his right arm extended to deny a pocket pass to the roller. Williams then rotates to the top of the arc to prohibit the open three before quickly recovering to his man in the corner. After denying the drive and forcing a kick out, Williams rotates down to the block to deny a would-be layup.

Shooting

Williams has seen such a precipitous drop in his preseason projections mainly due to the underwhelming scoring arsenal he showed. Williams projected to be a dynamic scoring forward, but his scoring numbers were mediocre across the board. This season, Williams scored 0.739 PPP overall (23rd percentile), 0.635 PPP as the pick-and-roll ball-handler (32nd percentile), 0.635 spotting up (15th percentile), 0.438 PPP off screens (6th percentile), and 0.698 PPP shooting off the catch (16th percentile). 

If you need a minute to get some fresh air or cleanse your palate, I completely understand.

Those numbers are uninspiring, problematic, and flat-out lousy. When the rationale for significantly downgrading Williams is linked to these scoring numbers, I understand. I may be naïve in giving Williams an excuse given his circumstances, but I also see why there are reasons for concern outside of the raw numbers. 

The most glaring inconsistency is Williams's jump shot. He struggled mightily off the catch but saw some success off the dribble with 0.795 PPP (53rd percentile). Even though the raw numbers off the bounce are encouraging, the overall process was just as inconsistent as his shots off the catch. Williams's mechanics are far from broken, but there are notable fixes.

Williams is often derided for his slender frame because of how it will hinder him on defense or with finishing at the rim, but his jump shot is the area that is struggling the most from his lack of strength. Williams doesn't need to turn into a bodybuilder, but he does need to improve his core and lower body strength. Currently, both are far too weak and major proponents for his shooting struggles. 

Williams's lack of core strength limits his ability to stay balanced on his jumpers. He struggles to stay centered, which throws off his shot. Williams's lack of lower body strength takes away any elevation and explosiveness from his jumper. Most of his shot power comes directly from his arms which is never a good thing. The lack of lower body strength also slows down his footwork as he has to take extra steps to keep his balance instead of stopping on a dime to pull up.

Thankfully, most of Williams's shooting struggles are fixable through further weight training and attention to detail. When Williams does stay on balance and properly loads up in his lower body, his shot looks is highly effective.

When we label prospects as having good potential as a shooter, it is frequently purely in theory. With Williams, we have a good foundation of what works along with a collection of what doesn't work with consistent, fixable reasons behind it. Williams had a rather horrific shooting season, but I remain optimistic that he will be an above-average shooter in the NBA given his correctable mechanics, free-throw success, and expected physical development.

Scoring

While Williams's pure outside shooting numbers left a lot to be desired, there is a lot to be encouraged about with his overall scoring repertoire. Mainly Williams's ability to attack off the dribble. Williams scored 0.795 PPP (53rd percentile) this season when shooting off the dribble and 0.844 PPP (70th percentile) in the mid-range.

I know the mid-range is widely considered a bad shot now, but that way of thinking is lazy analysis. The mid-range shot is only a bad shot for those who can't shoot well in the mid-range, those who aren't good space creators, and those who see vastly more success at the rim or from three. In the playoffs, a lot of offense still flows through mid-range jumpers. The Phoenix Suns have abused drop coverage all season with this skill.

By having a mid-range jumper, Williams has a path to success when his outside shot isn't falling or if he continues to struggle at the rim. Here, Williams goes through his jab series before knocking down a one-dribble pull-up. 

In the grand scheme of things, this isn't a shot Williams will be taking a ton of. However, it does show the impressive shot-making that he is capable of. My biggest gripe with the shot isn't the location but how indecisive Williams is in getting to his shot. In the NBA, Williams must be quicker with his decisions; otherwise, he will kill the flow of the offense. Having a good jab step is an excellent skill to have, but the NBA game moves far too quickly to regularly be doing stuff like that that worked in lower levels.

Instead, Williams needs to continue showing off shots, as we see below. Rather than getting cute with his footwork, Williams decisively attacks the closeout and knocks down the mid-range jumper. 

Williams isn't a highly advanced ball-handler, but he has proven to be an above-average space creator. Williams has a crisp cross-over, which is highly encouraging for his future scoring outlook when paired with his long strides and high release point. Developing space creation from scratch in a prospect is a near-impossible task. However, when they show a solid understanding and competency of creating space and getting to their spot, the task becomes much less daunting. I don't expect Williams to be an elite on-ball shot-creator in the NBA, but I think he will be much better than is currently being estimated.

Besides the inconsistent shooting of Williams, the other painfully glaring hole in his game is his at-rim finishing. Given Williams's height, length, and athleticism, he should be a much better at-rim finisher. Unfortunately, he lacks the strength to finish through defenders. More concerning, though, is Williams's eagerness to alter his shot in an attempt to finish in an acrobatic fashion. Williams can finish over defenders, but too frequently, he makes life hard on himself by attempting shots like the ones below.

Even though Williams does have a slender frame, he was highly impactful on the offensive glass. Williams has excellent rebounding instincts on both ends of the floor, but on nights when his shot isn't falling, offensive putbacks will be an easy way for him to turn things around and spark some momentum. His instincts, combined with his athleticism and length, will give defenders fits on missed shots.

The final area of Williams's off-ball scoring that needs to improve is his lack of spacing. Williams has shown instances of excellent off-ball relocation to open pockets on the perimeter.

However, most of his off-ball movement ends up clogging up the offense. Here, Williams initially makes a nice cut. Unfortunately, the post player never sees him and passes to someone else. On its own, not a big deal if Williams continues his movement and gets out of the lane. He never does. Instead, Williams kills his movement at the lane, exactly where his teammate drives. This decision clogs up the entire offense, and instead of creating space or a scoring opportunity, Williams is standing there with his arms out like a helpless toddler on a playground.

Here, Williams's off-ball impact is a bit more subtle but equally impactful. After Williams realizes he's not getting the ball on his cut, he slows down considerably and turns his back to the play. This movement signals to his defender that Williams knows he isn't part of the play anymore. Williams's defender makes the heads-up play by turning back to the strong side, where he disrupts what could've been a layup. If Williams sprints with more purpose through the lane, his defender will likely stick with him and not disrupt the shot.

Passing

Williams's passing and decision-making are the most underrated aspects of his game. Both are far from perfect, but given his likely role, Williams will be a net positive. Williams won't turn into a primary initiator, but he is a willing ball mover and shows promise of running a competent pick-and-roll.

Like his scoring, though, Williams is an inconsistent passer. His willingness or accuracy doesn't necessarily fluctuate. Instead, it is Williams's processing speed that fails him at times. Williams will see the correct play to make, but his body will be a step behind from where his mind is. This isn't an uncommon trait in young players and should iron itself out with more experience. The main reason Williams won't be a primary initiator, though, is his inability to read the weakside defender. Williams can run a robust two-man game, but he currently lacks the vision to read the weak side defender and the accuracy to make the skip pass to the corner shooter.

Not developing into that type of player is more than acceptable. Williams doesn't need to be a primary initiator to be an impactful playmaker. He is at his best running a two-man game or creating after he's penetrated the initial layer of the defense. Williams is excellent at setting up his roller, passing in the paint, and kicking out to shooters.

Williams's passing can get sped up under pressure. He will have the boneheaded turnovers that make you scratch your head. He needs to improve his handle, but overall, his decision-making blunders reflect those of a teenager. I would be much more concerned if Williams made these errors every time he passed the ball. Instead, he is typically looking to make the right play for the team, not just himself.

Williams's eagerness to make the extra pass and keep the ball moving is highly encouraging for his overall development. Williams has a keen understanding of what constitutes a good shot and is eager to hunt for it, even if he isn't the one taking the shot.

Outlook

Ziaire Williams had a rough freshman season at Stanford, but he remains one of the biggest home run swings in the 2021 NBA Draft. Williams is a superb on-ball defender. Once he improves his defensive discipline, his off-ball defensive impact will skyrocket. 

Offensively, Williams has a lot more work to do. The most prominent issues stem from inconsistency. Whether it is inconsistent lower body mechanics on the shot or processing speed, or off-ball movement, Williams needs to be willing to put the work in. He has an incredibly promising foundation of scoring and passing, but his scoring profile will struggle to develop if he doesn't improve his core and lower body strength. 

There are plenty of prospects who had more impressive seasons than Williams, but few have as much upside. It may take Williams some time to piece everything together as he continues to fill out, but he is the type of player I am fine missing on. Ziaire Williams is a clear lottery talent with top-five upside.

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