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The 2020 NBA Draft’s Safest Gamble

Patrick Williams hasn’t shown a lot, but the flashes the Florida State freshman has displayed could be enough to make him a lottery pick. Will one of this draft’s biggest unknowns also prove to be one of its biggest steals?

Davide Barco

Patrick Williams was in a layup line when the sports world came to a halt. It was March 12, the morning after the NBA suspended its season following Rudy Gobert’s positive COVID-19 test. Williams, a freshman forward at Florida State, was warming up on a court in Greensboro, North Carolina, before the team’s ACC tournament opener.

“There’s five minutes until the tip. Where’s Clemson? Why aren’t they coming out?” Williams recalled. “Then our assistant coach tells us to go to the locker room. We didn’t know what to think.”

This wasn’t how his college career was supposed to end. Williams had come on strong in the second half of the season, helping the Seminoles win their first ACC regular-season title in school history and reach no. 4 in the AP poll. He was the sixth man in an 11-man rotation, averaging 9.2 points on 45.9 percent shooting, 4.0 rebounds, and 1.0 assists in 22.5 minutes per game. Florida State’s offense ran through two older NBA prospects, sophomore Devin Vassell and senior Trent Forrest, but there was still buzz around Williams in NBA circles because of his unusual combination of size (6-foot-8 and 225 pounds with a 7-foot wingspan), skill, and athleticism. March Madness likely would have been his coming-out party.

“You could tell that it was kind of clicking for him,” Forrest later said.

Williams was a mystery when he declared for the draft at the end of March, a relatively anonymous 18-year-old projected by experts as a late first-round pick due to his raw talents. He didn’t seem to have much opportunity to boost his draft stock. He had no One Shining Moment and elected to skip the virtual predraft combine and individual workouts with NBA teams.

Yet none of that has stopped Williams from flying up draft boards over the last eight months. He is the hottest name in the 2020 class. With just over a week until the big night, it will be surprising if the versatile forward falls out of the top 10, and he has been rumored to go as high as no. 4. In a year when nothing is normal and the predraft process has stretched on forever, Williams perfectly represents a draft that has far more questions than answers.

Florida State assistant coach Charlton Young still laughs about his preseason meeting with Williams and head coach Leonard Hamilton. The Seminoles’ staff brings each player into its offices during training camp to talk about their expectations for the season. They prepared for a tough conversation with their five-star recruit. Florida State was bringing back six players from a team that had won 29 games and made the Sweet 16 the season before. For the first time in his life, Williams would not be a featured player on offense.

“He was attracted to our program because he felt like he needed to defend,” Young said. “He said it when we talked to him. [Coach Hamilton and I] both looked at each other like, ‘What?’ We never talked to a top recruit in the country who said, ‘Teach me how to play defense.’ They all ask, ‘Can I start? How many shots can I get? Will I have the ball in my hands? Are you going to run plays for me?’ He’s the first kid in my 26 years of coaching that said, ‘I need to learn how to play on the other side of the ball.’”

While Williams projects as a power forward in the NBA, he played a lot of point guard in high school. He was used to calling his own number whenever he wanted to shoot. At Florida State, he had to learn how to play off the ball and take advantage of the few chances he received as a complementary player. According to Synergy Sports tracking data, most of his offensive possessions came from spot-up attempts (32.3 percent), cuts (15.6 percent), transition (15 percent), and offensive rebounds (13.6 percent).

“I was just trying to improve overall,” Williams said. “Offense is always going to take care of itself. It takes somebody special to sit down on defense. Stops are what win the game.”

There were plenty of games last season in which Williams disappeared into the background of FSU’s offense. But scouts who looked past his limited role saw flashes of something special.

It starts with Williams’s physical tools. Most 3-and-D prospects are built more like Vassell, a projected top-10 pick who is listed at 6-foot-7 and 194 pounds. Williams, who averaged 1.0 steals and 1.0 blocks per game last season, is the rare defender who can match up with supersized wings like LeBron James and Jimmy Butler. There aren’t many guys with his size and strength who can play above the rim and help out all over the floor:

“He’s a big body Benz. He ain’t no little dude,” said Young. “He can get in there and mix it up in an NBA game. He can finish through contact, take contact.”

The next box that Williams checks is shooting. He didn’t take many 3s last season (32 percent on 1.7 attempts per game) but his strong free throw numbers (83.8 percent on 2.6 attempts) show his touch and upside from the perimeter.

Two-way ability separates Williams from a lot of players in this uncertain draft. It’s hard for young players to crack an NBA rotation if they can’t succeed in the 3-and-D role that he thrived in at Florida State. That’s why Williams is a relatively safe pick despite his pedestrian production. He has an immediate path to playing time at the next level because he doesn’t need to hide on defense and he can be a threat on offense without having the ball.

But he didn’t become the biggest riser in this draft because he’s just a safe pick. That happened because of his upside. There’s an element of the unknown with the teenager because of how little was asked of him on offense. Maybe that’s all Williams was capable of. Or maybe he could have done more in a different role.

“[Florida State] had a talented team and a system. He only had to do certain things,” said Jacoby Davis Sr., who coached Williams at West Charlotte High and on the AAU circuit. “Once [an NBA team] gets him, and they realize what they have, they are going to say, ‘Thank you.’”

Believers in Williams point to a few reasons they think he has untapped potential. The first is his ability to create his own shot. While he doesn’t have an elite first step, defenders bounce off his strong 6-foot-8 frame, and he doesn’t need much space to raise up for a jumper. Williams was in the 90th percentile nationwide in points per possession when running pick-and-rolls and in the 70th percentile when shooting off the dribble. Those numbers have to be taken with a grain of salt due to his lack of attempts, but he looked comfortable with the ball in his hands:

“You can tell he plays with a pace to himself and he’s under control,” said Forrest. “[He] knows what he’s doing. He’s not going to do too much. He’s going to get to his spots and score the ball. He’s able to do a lot of things that a lot of normal players wouldn’t be able to do.”

He has displayed a high basketball IQ as well, most notably in Florida State’s 80-77 win over Syracuse in February. The key to beating the Orange’s legendary 2-3 zone is putting a playmaker with size in the middle, a role the Seminoles’ coaches gave to their freshman forward. It didn’t matter that Williams was athletic. He had to beat the zone using his mind. He finished with 17 points, including the final two field goals down the stretch of the game, but it was the way he picked apart the defense as a passer that excited scouts the most:

The challenge with evaluating Williams is there are so few data points to analyze. He just didn’t do that much in college. Picking him in the top 10 would be more straightforward if he had decided to return for his sophomore season at Florida State and dominated in a larger role.

“I think everyone in the NBA wants [Williams] to be good because we all need players like him,” said one NBA scouting director. “You want to take a chance on someone who at least has a chance to be valuable, especially in a draft like this. But he still has to prove that he’s actually good.”

When you ask around the NBA about memorable predraft workouts, Dragan Bender’s name inevitably comes up. Bender, whom the Suns drafted with the fourth overall pick in 2016, was even less of a known commodity than Williams. He averaged 2.1 points in 10.6 minutes per game in his final season in Europe before coming over.

The intrigue with Bender, like Williams, was based on what he might do in a bigger role. Not many 7-footers possess his combination of shooting touch and perimeter skill. His shooting display in a one-on-zero workout in Phoenix has become the stuff of legend. According to multiple sources, Bender hardly missed a shot for almost 90 minutes, blowing away Suns owner Robert Sarver, who watched from the sidelines.

Many owners want to see prospects work out before giving them millions of dollars. But they don’t always know what to look for. What happened with Bender, who burned out of the NBA after four unremarkable seasons, is the worst-case scenario. The holes in his game—lack of physicality, inability to defend at a high level, and confidence issues—didn’t appear in that type of setting.

Lack of information could be an even bigger issue in 2020. There was a long gap in the summer when NBA rules forbid teams from even watching tape of players working out after the college season, much less work them out themselves. One longtime executive told me he thought agents should be posting their players’ workouts to Instagram Live for exposure. “This is more of a pure scouting draft,” he said. “You had to have done your homework on these guys over the last several years, going back to when they were in high school.”

The league has relaxed those rules in the last month, allowing teams to visit up to 10 prospects in their home markets and watch them work out. But it’s not like a normal offseason when they can bring as many prospects as they want into their facility and have them play in group settings. One-on-zero shooting exhibitions, like the one the Suns had with Bender, are the only workouts teams can have right now. And they aren’t even getting that with Williams.

I’ve heard a number of theories about why he isn’t working out with teams. His agents might not see the point given the restrictions. They might already have a promise from a team whom they want him to go to. Or they might just want to maintain the mystery surrounding him.

A peek behind the curtain isn’t always a good thing, either. A clip of Vassell shooting with an altered motion went viral last month. No one in the league knows what to make of it. It will be more than nine months between when Vassell and Williams last played in college and when they make their NBA debuts. That’s enough time for a young player’s game and body to change dramatically, for better or for worse. Some executives expect a few prospects to make a dramatic leap given how much time they have had to work on their games. That expectation may be playing into the hands of high-upside prospects like Williams.

“Not seeing Williams work out might be saving us from ourselves,” said one NBA front office member. “There’s no telling how high he would be drafted if he came into a facility and shot the lights out.”

Davis, Williams’s high school coach, has watched his star pupil play his entire life. He grew up playing with Patrick’s father in the Charlotte area, and coached Patrick’s two older brothers, too.

“We knew that he would be tall by just looking at his older brothers. They were both 6-foot-6. We were thinking that the worst case [for Patrick] would be 6-foot-5. But for a long time, he was small or average size,” said Davis. “I will never forget in his sixth- or seventh-grade season, I made the joke that, ‘I guess you aren’t going to grow.’ He was shooting around. And he just smiled like he always did.”

Patrick ended up becoming the tallest of the three. The result was a profile that scouts love: a big kid who didn’t grow up as the biggest kid on the floor. Future NBA players often pick up a lot of bad habits because they are so much bigger than their peers. They don’t need to be fundamentally sound or well-rounded in order to dominate. Williams never had that problem. He was always being pushed by his older brothers.

“It was huge. Just from watching them play, learning things from them, trying to play them one-on-one, them not taking it easy on me,” Williams said. “I credit those guys for my work ethic and me never backing down from anyone.”

Williams has also always been an excellent student, which means that he’s “played up” against older players in school. He turned 19 in August, making him two years younger than fellow one-and-done freshmen Cassius Stanley and Precious Achiuwa.

Youth always helps a prospect’s draft stock when considering upside. History tells us that younger players are more likely to outperform their draft position. It’s not just that they have more room to grow than older players who have already maxed out their development. Playing up their entire life means they never receive the benefit of being one of the older players on the court until later in their NBA careers.

The concern with drafting younger players is they may be too unpolished to stick in the first place. But that’s not an issue with Williams. He’s the rare project who isn’t a boom-or-bust pick. The foundation for a long career is in place even if he never gets much better.

The most interesting comparison for Williams that I’ve heard from NBA talent evaluators is Marvin Williams (no relation). Marvin, like Patrick, was a 6-foot-8 sixth man for a team that won the ACC title. He was drafted no. 2 overall in 2005 after helping North Carolina win an NCAA championship. While he’s best remembered for being taken ahead of Chris Paul, his combination of size, skill, and athleticism allowed him to carve out a 15-year NBA career before retiring in September.

There’s no guarantee that Patrick will come any closer than Marvin to fulfilling his massive upside. He doesn’t have one standout skill at the moment. He’s a good athlete, but not a five-position defender who can stay in front of elite point guards. He’s a good shooter, but not a great one. And while he has some dribbling and passing chops, he can’t run an NBA offense at this stage of his career. The team that drafts him has to hope that there’s a compounding effect that comes from his potential to get better in so many areas.

That’s certainly possible. People around Williams compare him to “a poor man’s Kawhi Leonard,” but no one could have predicted that the player who averaged 12.1 points per game and shot 20.5 percent from 3 as a freshman at San Diego State would become a two-time Finals MVP. That’s what makes the draft so difficult. Projecting the career paths of teenagers will always be an inexact science. How good they become often depends just as much on who they are off the court as on it.

Figuring that out is the one of the most important parts of the predraft process. Breaking down game tape is relatively easy, but background work can make or break a selection. How hard do they work? How smart are they? How do they relate to others? What kind of people are around them? How will they handle tens of millions of dollars?

That’s where the lengthy layoff before the November 18 draft—which is usually held in late June—has been most helpful for teams. I had one general manager tell me he wished that the draft was at the beginning of fall every year. Front offices have had nothing but time to dig deep into the background of every prospect. And maybe no one has benefitted from that as much as Williams.

“You aren’t going to find anyone at FSU that is going to say anything bad about him. Or anybody that knows him that [an NBA] team would ask. That’s going to help him a lot,” said Forrest. “You have a lot of guys who are going to treat the manager totally different than they would treat somebody else. That’s not Patrick.”

His limited role at Florida State might have been the best thing to happen to him. Most young players have to take a step back on offense early in their NBA careers. Williams got a taste of that process a year ahead of his peers. He certainly looks the part. Williams’s agents, Thad Foucher and Joe Smith at Wasserman, also put him through a rigorous pre-draft training program over the last eight months that has further enhanced his already impressive physical tools. Now, he checks as many boxes off the court as he does on it. He’s a good student and a hard worker who’s proved that he’s unselfish and humble enough to adapt to any role. Those types of players tend to become the best versions of themselves in the NBA, and the best version of Williams would be as good as any player in this draft.

“During the recruiting process, we rarely talked about basketball. Just talked about life. What he wanted to do. He’s just a humble kid. That’s easy to love,” said Young. “The kind of kid that you wish you could get 100 of them. Guys like that come once every 20 years.”

An earlier version of this piece misstated Williams’s age when he declared for the NBA draft. He was 18 at the time, not 19.


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