Johnathan Williams had a different path than most to the NBA this season.
After being waived from the Lakers last year, he signed with Maccabi Rishon LeZion and played in the Israeli Premier League until Christmas. At that point the short-handed Wizards used an injury-hardship clause to sign Williams to a 10-day contract. I wrote an in-depth story on Williams during his 10-day stint.
The rebounding-depleted Wizards were impressed by Williams board skills and signed him to a two-way contract. And so a journey that started in LA, continued to Israel, ended in Washington.
However, will that be Williams’ final stop?
Elite rebounding & more: the argument for
There is no doubt Williams is an elite rebounder (more on that soon).
There is no doubt the Wizards sucked big time in that department this past season. They finished the season ranked 28th in defensive rebounding percentage (ahead of the Atlanta Hawks and Charlotte Hornets), and 18th in offensive rebounding percentage.
Thus, the logic should be easy: keep Williams.
Why do I claim Williams is an elite rebounder? Listen to Daniel Sokolovsky, assistant coach with Maccabi Rishon Lezion, who worked closely with Williams,
“The NBA is a specialist’s league. Rebounding is what JW is world-class in and he excelled at it this season. I can see him sticking in the NBA as a rotation energy big, a la Montrezl Harrell. He is probably a notch higher of a motor on both ends of the floor away from being Montrezl-ish in the energy and in the role he could play.”
Williams is showing decent numbers all around. I asked our analytics guru, Kevin Broom, to run his algorithm:
“In the numbers, Williams seems decent defensively. The big thing he probably does at an NBA level is rebound — especially getting offensive boards. He was actually fairly productive for a reserve big —PPA 97 in the Before Times and 90 in The Bubble. For the full season, a PPA 95, but only 180 minutes. Given what I saw of each, it seems nuts to me that they gave 437 minutes to Paseniks. Williams was excellent in the G-League — 162 PPA with a similar rebound and defend profile. On the small side for a traditional NBA center, but he’s mobile and size is less important than it used to be. Pasecniks G-League PPA was 78.
In summary, Williams passes both the eye test and the analytics test.
Perimeter shooting: the argument against
Williams’ main limitation is his shooting. He did not make a single three pointer this season. And, he made only two shots from 10 feet or more.
The big question is how much can he improve? Could he develop the ability to knock down wide-open threes? Sokolovsky gives his opinion:
“Touch finishing over bigger defenders and making perimeter jump shots will strongly increase his chances of playing at the highest level.”
Scott Brooks: development inhibitor?
There was a time when Scott Brooks was touted as a development coach. That time has passed. We’ve seen little player development under his watch, at least relative to the elite franchises in this league.
With Williams the story is no different.
In his 15 games in Washington Williams averaged 12 minutes, a decrease from his role with the Lakers in 2018-19 where he averaged 15.5 minutes.
So, on a team with LeBron James, Williams found more minutes on the floor than on a tanking Wizards team. Brooks, can you explain why?
This gets worse, wait. In the eight Bubble games in Orlando, Williams only suited up for four. Why?
In a setting where the Wiz were playing for nothing but development and losing the rebounding battles, the coach couldn’t find Williams more than 45 total minutes.
By the way, in case you wondered, JW averaged 5.3 rebounds per game in those 11 plus minutes.
In the final game of the Wiz’s season in Orlando, Brooks played Williams 25 minutes. That was the only W for the Wiz in The Bubble.
If nothing else, Williams deserves a two-way contract next year and meaningful minutes with the Wizards. The former is on Tommy Sheppard, the latter is on Brooks.
If Williams does well, and his game quota in the NBA is fulfilled (45 games in a typical season; not clear yet what the quota will be next, likely shortened, season) the Wizards should upgrade his contract to a standard NBA one.
As far as Williams is concerned, he needs to work relentlessly on his shooting to become a reliable wide open three-point and free throw shooter. Finally, his defense on bigger guys (he is 6-9) needs to improve to allow the Wiz to employ him as a center in small ball line-ups.