The Los Angeles Clippers seem like a great spot for Robert Williams of Texas A&M to land. After all, they just got a lot out of a player who fits Williams’s archetype.
Williams is a lot like Montrezl Harrell. Like Harrell, he’s an undersized center with strong length, measuring in at 6-foot-9 with a 7-foot wingspan. Also like Harrell, he makes up for his lack of height with a solid athleticism base. Williams is able to explode off the floor, making him a thrilling lob target.
Williams is also incredibly strong, leveraging a thick, jacked frame to be an absolutely dynamite rebounder. Williams averaged 14.4 rebounds per 40 minutes and led the SEC in rebound rate, and his ability to fight through traffic and establish position under the basket is very enticing, as rebounding is one of the more established statistics that translates well to the NBA level.
Like Harrell, Williams doesn’t offer much as a shooter. He missed all twelve of his three-point attempts this year, and he was just 12-of-33 from midrange, per Will Schreefer shot chart data. However, both compensate for their lack of shooting threat with an excellent understanding of spacing, and great touch around the rim. Harrell is a per-36 god because of his consistent sixty-plus percent shooting at the rim. While Williams probably isn’t going to be putting up that type of sustained efficiency, he was in the 98th percentile of big men (84 percent shooting), and there’s a lot to like about his ability to run pick-and-roll because of how he fills space. There’s a chance he eventually fits into the Harrell or Drummond tier of rebounder/finishers; meaning his shooting doesn’t matter because he provides spacing by dragging a man out of the paint simply because he has to be boxed out.
The other main area where this comparison matches up is on defense, where both of these high-motor, undersized bigs make for useful shot-blockers. Harrell averaged 1.4 blocks per 36 this season and can be capably called upon as a help defender for stretches despite less than optimal technique.
Williams protects the rim in the same way. At his size, he’s never going to be a singular deterrent like the league’s elite rim protectors. But despite being a little smaller than Harrell, his vertical and timing are actually quite strong, and he can definitely evolve into a strong help defender at the rim, rotating over in traffic to offer a last line of defense that’s less reliable, but probably more exciting.
This comparison is to say that Williams has a solid floor as an NBA prospect. His type of big man - hustle, rebounding, finishing, a touch of shot-blocking - finds places in the NBA. Harrell’s a great example, but there are plenty of these guys floating in NBA rotations - Bismack Biyombo, Ed Davis, Daniel Theis, etc. Tristan Thompson got $80 million for filling this role. Athletic bigs who try hard and understand where they need to be on offense enough to not collapse spacing make money in the NBA. Always have, always will.
However, the Clippers aren’t going to be spending a lottery pick on a player they basically got off the scrap heap from the Chris Paul trade. If they’re going to take Williams over a Lonnie Walker, Zhaire Smith, or Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, they need him to be more, especially given that his likely future is going to end up being replacing DeAndre Jordan. That’s where Williams’s potential becomes more questionable. Undersized energy bigs make rotations in the NBA. They rarely become the third best player on a successful team.
Can Williams be more, like many of the other big men in this class appear to be capable of? That’s a tough question to answer. Becoming an elite rim protector would be the easiest path to that next level, but Williams isn’t big enough to present a consistent isolated threat at the rim, and his recognition of off-ball actions isn’t very strong. Williams is best when he can track a player heading towards the rim on simple actions or in one-on-one situations - he doesn’t have a quick enough reaction time to read and react to a dump-off pass and block the shot, in the way that the league’s best rim protectors consistently do.
The shooting would also be a way to that value, but it’s optimistic (at best) to even expect Williams to be at a point where he’s taking NBA threes, much less hitting them. Williams’s range has been hard-capped at about 15 feet, and there’s a long way to him turning his slow, high-arching release into a competent shot. He’s also not very strong in space defense, as he lacks good enough footwork to contain good guards, and his effect on team defense hasn’t been consistent to date. These traditional avenues to adding value as a big are probably out of Williams’s wheelhouse for now. Three years from now, it’s possible, but it’s hard to see that avenue.
The one area where Williams could break through is as a passer, as he has intriguing vision for a center and makes some incredible plays as a post passer.
This wasn’t a huge part of his game in college - he had just 87 assists in 1570 minutes - but like John Collins of the Atlanta Hawks, a notorious black hole on offense in college, Williams’s lack of assists may have been a product of his college role more than an inability to recognize the need to make these plays. He appears to be a legitimate passing threat, and that may be his version of Tristan Thompson’s space defense or Julius Randle’s face-up game. The only problem is that to truly harness it, he probably needs significant shooting or ball-handling development to make it work.
Williams is a safe pick for the Clippers to make. By drafting him, you’re getting an athletic, powerful big man who understands offensive spacing and rebounding and has a great motor, an archetype that usually works pretty well. Given how productive Harrell was in that role, it’s easy to see how Williams fits there. But if he’s the shot at a DeAndre Jordan replacement, the Clippers will need to bet on development value that might not ever be there.