A change of pace: Some Derrick Williams optimism

Synergy Sports got themselves online this week, which has been immensely fun for two reasons. First, Synergy’s in-depth statistical analysis immediately raises the level of basketball discourse, both on Twitter and in basketball writing. Second, it allows for an incredible amount of #smallsamplesizetheater, a Twitter hashtag designated for basketball fans who get too excited by James Harden averaging over 40 ppg after his first two games and the Lakers starting the season 1-4.

But while Minnesota’s first four games aren’t a large enough sample size to draw absolute conclusions from, they ARE enough of a sample size for us to examine early season tendencies and flaws.

Through four games, Derrick Williams, per Synergy Sports, has averaged 0.78 ppp in 50 opportunities. But that fairly disappointing number is actually inflated thanks to an extremely efficient game against Orlando. While Williams averaged just 0.62 ppp (bad) and 0.53 ppp (atrocious) against Brooklyn and Sacramento respectively, he averaged 1.27 against Orlando. So what changed? Why was Williams SO much better against the Magic?

The first (and easiest) answer is that Williams was used much less. While Williams had a usage rate of 32.6% against Brooklyn, higher than Kevin Durant’s usage rate most nights, it was back down to a much more manageable 16.6% against the Magic. So that was undoubtedly part of the improvement.

But, even with a nod to #smallsamplesizetheater improving Williams’ points per possession efficiency, he clearly played better basketball against Orlando. One thing that may have helped him was Glen Davis’ bad defense. There are undoubtedly worse defenders than Davis in the post, but when he is forced to stretch his defense to the perimeter, Davis struggles inordinately, as he is neither particularly athletic nor is he particularly long-limbed to contest jumpers. Look at this freeze frame from the first quarter, right before Williams (spotting up) hits his first 3-pointer:

I understand that Williams isn’t the kind of player who terrifies opponents from 3-point range, but that’s ENTIRELY too much space. Williams has no reason to hesitate. When he hesitates, his shot is screwed. Whether he back-rims the field goal attempt or just heaves it off the side of the backboard, a shot that gives Williams pause simply isn’t a shot that’s going in. But here he is able to catch and fire away immediately, and he takes advantage.

So Williams’ success was due in part to Davis’ bad perimeter defense. But it was also due in part to the way he was involved in the plays. For example:

This is (obviously) an example of good Derrick. I’m not sure why Roy doesn’t deliver him the pass out of the pick and roll; Williams slips the screen nicely and appears to have some room, even with Vucevic apparently ready to help off Pek. In his only other roll man attempt against the Magic, Williams scored as well. But for whatever reason, Williams hesitates, then fades away to the corner. Roy’s drive-and-kick is on the money though, and Williams converts it easily. Williams isn’t forced to think or to create for himself. Roy does most of the creation, Williams just gets to reap the benefits of the 3-point basket.

When Williams isn’t forced to create, he plays much more efficiently.¬†Thus far this season, we’ve seen Williams regularly struggle in one area: Isolation. Williams has had 11 isolation opportunities and he has averaged just 0.36 ppp in those tries, shooting 0-8. The only reason that number isn’t even lower is because three of the opportunities resulted in fouls. Worse: isolation makes up the highest percentage of his opportunities so far, at 22%

But there is a bright spot on the horizon. His second highest opportunity is spot-up shots, in which he has been above average, including from 3-point range. This goes against what we saw last year, when Williams was generally atrocious from deep. He has converted 0.9 ppp, and he is 3-7 on the year from behind the arc for 42.9%, a very respectable mark.

Once again, we must offer the disclaimer that it is VERY early in the season to be making snap judgments about any player. The small sample size must be acknowledged and respected in any analysis at this point. But given Williams’ respectable numbers in spot-up opportunities, as well as P&R Roll Man (exactly 1 ppp in seven attempts), we can actually be a bit optimistic going forward. Certainly, Williams needs to cut down on his isolation attempts, but we knew that already. We knew that he isn’t a creator. Rather, he has the potential to be a convertor, scoring on attempts created either by a P&R ball handler or off drive-and-kick shots.

If the Wolves are smart (and so far, both players and coaches are showing every sign of being just that), they will limit Williams to those opportunities. He has a long way to go, but this kid just might be alright.

Follow Tom on Twitter: @Tom_NBA.