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Mark Williams Is Here to Kill Small Ball

The former Duke star dominates the paint. Can he stay on the floor in today’s NBA?

After a day of working out down in Miami, where he temporarily moved to prepare for the NBA draft, Duke center Mark Williams attended Game 5 of the 2022 Eastern Conference finals. Seated in the third row, Williams marveled at the intensity, physicality and general skill level unfolding before him, from Jayson Tatum’s masterful floor game to Jaylen Brown throwing down one of the postseason’s marquee dunks.

Williams took note of how both teams communicated on defense, calling out every screen, verbally elevating one another on the court. But, most importantly, he had his eyes trained on the big men, like Robert Williams III, Boston’s bouncy anchor who changed games all year long. As Williams looked on, he kept asking himself one question.

“What are all the guys on the floor doing to stay on the floor?” he remembers. “I think that was probably the biggest thing for me. I don't think it was like, O.K., I need to do this, I need to do that. It was just, like, this is what they're doing and that's what's helping them be successful right now.”

That initial question—What are all the guys on the floor doing to stay on the floor?—is one that’s so often tied to most centers in every playoff series, as teams try to emphasize their need for space on offense without inhibiting the ability to consistently get stops. Over the past few years it’s caused an existential crisis among traditional seven-footers who do most of their damage in the paint.

But, as Boston’s Williams III showed that night and on many possessions throughout the 2022 playoffs, centers who don’t have a single play called for them to score can still take over a game and become invaluable linchpins on rosters that aspire to win at the highest level. The position is alive and well, so long as said center dominates the physical areas of basketball that transcend gameplans and, thus, can’t be played off the floor.

Now 20 years old, standing 7’2” in sneakers and coming off a sophomore season in which he was one of, if not the, most impressive defenders in college basketball—who took only nine jump shots all year and still found plenty of ways to positively impact the other end—Williams hopes to buck a perception that may already be fading. In this draft, he’s somewhat of a litmus test for how valuable a prospect who’s unlikely to ever average 15 points per game (and made zero threes in his two college seasons) can be.

Those who say “the postseason is about matchups” do so for a reason. Some centers are able to thrive despite their opponent and some (like Grizzlies big Steven Adams) might be sidelined for lengthy stretches. Williams has his own view on small ball, and it was validated in the playoffs by Williams III, Kevon Looney and others who found ways to be reliable in their roles.

“I think it's more of a strategy thing,” he says. “I guess if that's how a coach feels about it I can't say you're wrong. But my argument for having a big on the floor is you know what they're gonna do. They're gonna rebound. They're gonna protect the rim. Obviously, depending on the big, if they're mobile, you can trust them to switch, get a good contest. I don't see why I can't be on the floor in those late game situations. … I think just having a big on the floor is your best bet. You know what you're getting.”

With a standing reach (9’9”) that’s two inches longer than Rudy Gobert’s (and 4.5 inches longer than Deandre Ayton’s) and an immense 7’7” wingspan, Williams led the NCAA last season in true shooting percentage, dunks and offensive rating, and the ACC in PER, blocks, Win Shares/40 minutes and defensive rating. Shooting 72.3% inside the arc and making 72.7% of his free throws, Williams averaged 19 points, 12.5 rebounds and 4.8 blocks per 40 minutes.

The ACC recognized him as its top defensive player and he was a finalist—alongside Gonzaga’s Chet Holmgren—for the NCAA’s Naismith Defensive Player of the Year award. Players who move their feet, don’t foul, trust their length and wall up as consistently as Williams does, with the impeccable timing he has, don’t come along every year.

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The three centers Williams admires the most (Joel Embiid, Nikola Jokić and Giannis Antetokounmpo—who Williams counts as a member of the position) also validate having someone like him on your side. Large, strong, nimble bodies who can’t be easily overpowered one-on-one are invaluable in those matchups. Williams can also make them work on the other end, crashing the glass, sprinting from rim to rim, diving into the paint as a lob threat, having enough feel and footwork along the perimeter to engineer a dribble handoff or knock down an open jumper.

The questions about Williams’s outside shot are valid seeing that it didn’t exist in college. In the right situation they’re also irrelevant. In the wrong one, where his team isn’t able to surround him with credible three-point threats and more than one ball-handler, they’re glaring. But they also might not be questions forever.

“These guys all want to shoot threes and be Steph Currys,” Duke assistant coach Chris Carrawell said. “And we told [Williams] that’s not going to happen. We built it from the inside out. You’ve got to protect our paint. You’ve got to rebound and then he’s an unbelievable finisher. He showed that with his stroke from the free-throw line, and he was able to show that he could make jump shots, which I think a lot of NBA teams don’t know because he didn’t get to shoot a lot of them. But his potential is incredible.”

Williams had 1-on-0 workouts with the Knicks, Hornets, Spurs, Bulls and Wizards. Most mock drafts have him slated to go just outside the lottery at 15 to Charlotte, which makes sense. He’s the complementary franchise center who’d form a mutually beneficial relationship with LaMelo Ball. There are questions in Charlotte right now (like: who’s gonna be the coach and why did their first choice say thanks but no thanks?) but Williams can solve one that’s plagued them for several seasons.

If he can intimidate from the weakside like Time Lord has learned to do, or become an All-Star in a tight albeit crucial role, like Jarrett Allen or Gobert—putting pressure on the rim on both ends, finishing everything around the basket, being quick enough to switch on the perimeter but also guard ball screens in a drop, high on the floor—that player deserves to go higher. As a passer, Williams flashed an ability to read the floor from the post, too. “It's easy to think I just block shots,” he says. “I'm more versatile than what the outside world thinks. … I'm pretty composed most of the time when I catch it.”

That skill is key, and there were instinctual passes throughout his sophomore season that make it easy to envision Williams dishing on the move, too. In San Antonio, center Jakob Poeltl is sturdy, but the Spurs could use more athleticism at that position, especially as their guards and wings continue to develop (keep an eye on Devin Vassell this season). Taking Williams at No. 9 seems like a reach, but Poeltl is entering the final year of his contract and gives them an important building block who makes life easier for everyone else. (If Williams falls to them at 20, it’d be an absolute steal.)

Regardless of where he goes, whichever team picks Williams knows what they’re getting, with some offensive upside. They’re checking off a necessary box, getting a center who, if everything goes right, will be on the floor in a game like the one in Miami he soaked in a few weeks ago. He understands there’s a lot to learn and isn’t afraid to be coached, either. “I just want to know why,” he says. “The why behind everything I do.”

His goals for this upcoming season are to make an All-Rookie team and then, “Obviously I want to win a championship. I think that’s always important, the desire to win anywhere I go.” 

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