Robert Williams is the forgotten man in this year’s NBA draft. Texas A&M’s sophomore big man passed up the chance to be a lottery pick in 2017 to return to school, only to play out of position on a team derailed by suspensions and injuries. There wasn’t much buzz around A&M coming into the NCAA tournament. Now, after a dominating 86–65 second-round win over North Carolina, the Aggies are back in the spotlight and Williams is getting a chance to remind NBA scouts why they fell in love with him last year. Currently projected as a late-lottery pick, Williams is not as skilled as some of the younger big men ranked ahead of him, but he might be a better fit for the role centers tend to play in the NBA these days.
A guy as big as Williams (6-foot-10 and 241 pounds with a 7-foot-5 wingspan) should not be able to run and jump like he does. He put the exclamation points on A&M’s victories over Providence and UNC with a pair of ridiculous windmill dunks:
Williams’s problem has been translating those athletic tools to on-court production. He is averaging 10.3 points, 9.3 rebounds, 1.4 assists, and 2.6 blocks a game on 62.7 percent shooting this season, numbers that have largely stayed consistent with his freshman-season production.
A&M has not been a great situation for him. Williams would be best in a role similar to Clint Capela in Houston: anchoring the defense, setting screens, and catching lobs with four 3-point shooters around him. He would be indefensible if he switched spots with Moritz Wagner, the Michigan center he will face in the Sweet 16 on Thursday, who typically plays as the lone big man in John Beilein’s spread offense. The Aggies don’t have the pieces to run something similar. Their leading scorer (junior Tyler Davis) plays almost exclusively in the low post, and his presence pushes Williams to the perimeter, where he’s not as effective. Senior forward Tonny Trocha-Morelos, who is shooting 30.9 percent from 3 on 2.4 attempts per game, is a better fit next to Davis, which has capped Williams’s minutes at 25 per game in both his college seasons.
The situation is made worse by the lack of playmaking and shooting around their big men. A&M is 297th in the country in 3-point percentage, and their top two point guards are gone. Senior Duane Wilson went down with a season-ending right knee injury in February and freshman J.J. Caldwell was kicked off the team for several violations of university policy. The big change in the NCAA tournament is the emergence of freshman T.J. Starks, a gunner who has struggled since being forced into the role of primary ball handler. He averaged 18 points and 6.5 assists on 44.4 percent shooting in their two games last weekend. Strong play from Starks allows their team’s strengths to shine through.
Williams, the two-time SEC Defensive Player of the Year, has always been dominant against opposing offenses. He shut down the lane in A&M’s wins over Providence and UNC, with several volleyball-spike blocks that clearly got in the heads of their guards. He also dominated the glass, soaring far above the heads of everyone else on the court to snatch balls out of the air. Williams had two turnovers against North Carolina because he jumped over a huge scrum to secure a rebound and had nowhere to land without shuffling his feet. He’s one of the most productive defensive big men in this year’s draft:
Defensive Big Men in the Draft
|Jaren Jackson Jr.||Michigan State||14.3||19.7|
|Robert Williams||Texas A&M||10||27.1|
|Wendell Carter Jr.||Duke||7.8||23.3|
|Marvin Bagley III||Duke||2.8||22.3|
His ability to slide his feet on the perimeter makes him even more intriguing defensively. With A&M head coach Billy Kennedy keeping Davis in the lane as much as possible, Williams has spent a lot of time in college chasing smaller players all over the floor. He put the clamps on UNC senior Theo Pinson, a 6-foot-6 point forward who was the catalyst for their offense, holding him to four points on 2-of-7 shooting. He will have to do something similar against Michigan, which uses senior Duncan Robinson III and freshman Isaiah Livers as small-ball 4s around the 3-point line. How Kennedy handles the matchups upfront will be fascinating. Williams is his best bet to shut down Wagner, Michigan’s best NBA prospect, but there’s no way Davis can guard their smaller players on the perimeter. Kennedy may have to bench his best scorer and play Williams and Trocha-Morelos together, or go to a zone to hide him.
Williams has sacrificed to make Davis comfortable throughout their careers at A&M. Playing out of position, though, may actually help his offense down the road. He is playing in less space than he will in the NBA, so he’s had to learn how to deal with extra defenders hedging on him and preventing him from getting free runs to the rim. It’s not obvious by his passing numbers, as he’s averaging 1.4 assists and 1.7 turnovers per game, but he’s able to make basic reads on the move. He just doesn’t get many opportunities to make those plays. According to the tracking numbers at Synergy Sports, Williams has been used as the roll man in the two-man game only 13 times this season.
The Aggies run a more traditional inside-out offense, with plenty of touches in the post for their big men. Williams has improved with the extra reps, going from the 58th percentile of post scorers nationwide as a freshman to the 85th percentile as a sophomore. He’s more decisive against smaller defenders than he was last season, and he’s capable of elevating over them in traffic and finishing. Williams has better touch than most rim-running centers: He can score over either shoulder with a hook shot or a turnaround jumper that is effective out to 12 feet. There wasn’t much Pinson could do to stop him in the post on Sunday.
To be sure, no NBA team would run much offense through Williams. The most disappointing part of his performance this season, other than his three-game suspension for a violation of team rules, is the decline in his free throw percentage from 59 percent on 3.2 attempts per game to 47.8 percent on 2.4 attempts per game. The progression on his jumper that NBA scouts were hoping for has not happened: He’s in the first percentile of players nationwide on catch-and-shoot jumpers. Williams is neutralized outside of the paint, which eliminates any possibility of using him at power forward at the next level.
What his role at A&M has prepared him for is making plays when the pick-and-roll breaks down. Williams can punish switches inside, and he can put the ball on the floor for one or two dribbles and create a higher-percentage shot for himself. While Williams doesn’t have the skill level to be an offensive focal point, he can do more than just catch and dunk. He should thrive in the medium-usage offensive role that NBA teams need from their big men. The NBA is a better fit for his game. A&M doesn’t need him to do the things he does well, while his NBA team won’t need him to do the things he can’t.
There’s a disconnect between the way big men are used at the next level and the way they are talked about in the draft. Williams can’t take over a game on offense the way guys like Deandre Ayton, Marvin Bagley III, and Wendell Carter Jr. can. He needs his perimeter players to create shots for him, which is not something they’ve done consistently at A&M. He’ll be playing with more talent in the NBA, which will make his life easier on offense. A high-level NBA guard doesn’t need a big man who commands double-teams in the post. What he needs is someone who can protect the rim and defend the pick-and-roll, areas which Ayton in particular has struggled with.
It all comes down to the type of team NBA franchises want to build, and which position they should invest in with a high draft pick. The Suns, who currently have the best odds for the no. 1 overall pick, could end up facing this exact dilemma. If they win the lottery, they will likely be choosing between Ayton and Luka Doncic, the 19-year-old Slovenian tearing up the EuroLeague. They also have two picks in the middle of the first round, the range where most mock drafts have Williams. Would they be better drafting an offensively gifted center early and looking for perimeter help later, or taking the best wing in the draft and then looking for a defensive presence upfront?
Shot creation is not as important a skill for centers in the NBA as it is in college, where the guards are not nearly as talented and big men can dominate on size alone. What possession is likely to generate a better look at the next level: Ayton trying to score over Williams inside, or one of Williams’s guards trying to get around Ayton on the perimeter? In an ideal world, an NBA team would draft a center like Karl-Anthony Towns or Joel Embiid who can excel on both sides of the floor, but if they are choosing between more limited options, the answer may not be as obvious as the NCAA stats make it seem. Robert Williams is playing outside his comfort zone at Texas A&M. He will be better for it when he’s in his natural role in the NBA.