Just as I was about to go to press with this article, the Courtney Lee trade went down. The trade indicates the Nets are probably not going to trade Terrence Williams before the start of the season. As a result, I have removed an entire section devoted to analyzing Terrence Williams’ value as a trade commodity, specifically in relation to other players he might be traded for. In turn, I have expanded my focus on pinpointing what I perceive to be Williams’ most effective role within the current Nets lineup.
I want to acknowledge Andres B. for his constructive criticism of my disparate ideas about Terrence Williams heretofore; Mr. Dollar Bills for consistently urging me to synthesize these ideas into a fully fleshed out statement – this article; NetsDaily and Net Income for giving me an outlet to publish this article; and, more generally, the NetsDaily community for providing hours of information and entertainment from which to draw upon. You guys rock.
Much has been written this off-season about the future prospects of the New Jersey Nets’ Terrence Williams. Debates raged online throughout the summer over whether the Nets’ front office should consider him a key component of a championship caliber NBA team or a tradable commodity capable of returning a key component. Moreover, copious consideration has been paid to the position that best utilizes Williams’ talents on the basketball court. The trade of Courtney Lee seems to have created an opening for Williams and Anthony Morrow to jockey for the starting and backup shooting guard (SG) positions. This analysis attempts to put a finer point on some of the more critical aspects of this discussion by examining Williams’s character, on-court statistics, and teammates, to determine what role Williams should play on this Nets team that will best utilize his skills and help the Nets win games. I also analyze what kind of role Williams should play on a championship team (a subtle difference).
Context: a rookie year Recap
Terrence Williams’ rookie season got off to a solid if unspectacular start. Despite an erroneous reputation among Nets fans for affording rookies little playing time, then-Nets coach Lawrence Frank played Williams 27.2 minutes per game in November, 2009. Over the course of 14 games, which included three starts, Williams averaged 9.9 points, 5.3 rebounds, and 2.1 assists per game. The Nets and their fans were pleased with Williams’ production. However, this early season success was engulfed right from the beginning because the Nets were losing – a lot. The march toward attaining the NBA’s single season record for futility to open a season culminated in an 0-18 record. It was reported that such record-setting futility took its toll on Williams, which is understandable, and his statistics in the aftermath of the infamous record-setting team performance reflected it. What follows are Williams’s statistics for December, January, and February of last season, a very bleak time in Nets’ history:
December - 6.1 ppg, 2.2 rbg, 1.4 apg
January – 3.6 ppg, 3.8 rbg, 2.0 apg
February – 3.7 ppg, 2.3 rbg, 2.2 apg
What happened? What caused such decline in on-court production? After all, Williams was not reported to be injured. For one thing, his minutes dropped to 15.73 per game during the winter months. Therefore, one possibly could pin the blame for Williams’ lackluster streak on a lack of playing time afforded to Williams by new Nets coach Kiki Vandeweghe, who helmed his first game in early December after the firing of Lawrence Frank and Vandweghe’s replacement of fill-in temp coach Tom Barisse. This is to say, Williams’s statistical downturn conspicuously took place in the aftermath of Vandeweghe’s hiring. Williams himself seemed to blame Vandeweghe at least in part, which we will get to in a moment. For now, it should be remembered that critical starting backcourt players Devin Harris and Courtney Lee also gradually returned to the lineup around this time. As a result, their minutes cut into some of the minutes Williams had been receiving. Furthermore, because these players were ballhandlers themselves, it stands to reason that their integration back into the rotation limited the ballhandling duties afforded to Williams over this period. He was not drafted based on shooting proficiency, and as we will see later in this analysis, it seems that when the ball is taken out of Williams’s hands, as was increasingly the case with the return of Harris and Lee, Williams’s production drops; hence, the statistical downturn.
Of course, the final portion of any rookie-season recap about Williams inevitably excites fans. In fact, it is the final couple months of the 09-10 season upon which Nets fans base a large majority of their hopes and dreams for Williams’ success. During the months of March and April 2010, Williams averaged 14.2 ppg, 6.9 rbg, and 5.6 apg over 22 games. Obviously, these are stellar numbers for a rookie or otherwise; award-worth, in fact, because Williams won Rookie of the Month in April. Depending upon which theory you embrace, either Williams’ light went on during this two-month period, or Vandeweghe simply decided to give Williams many possessions where he handled the basketball at the top of the key and could improvise off the dribble. In point of fact, this is the type of basketball at which Williams excels. As is most often the case, the reality is probably a combination of the two theories containing some shades of grey. It should also be noted that then-Nets President Rod Thorn might have flipped Williams’ switch when he threatened to demote Williams to the NBA Development League if he did not shape up and play the type of basketball for which Thorn presumably drafted him. That moment was the nadir of Williams’ rookie season, one which might have jolted him out of his funk.
All in all, Nets watchers learned that Williams performs best when he has the ball in his hands; when his coaches and teammates trust him to run plays and manufacture scoring opportunities; and when he is able to find seams to drive to the basket and either score the basketball himself or kick it out to teammates for open jumpshots. Nevertheless, how realistic is it that Williams will be called upon this year to play the same role he played last year, especially when considering the "It’s All New" Nets have a vastly different coaching philosophy and roster this time around? If Williams’ role changes, how will he respond? What should Williams’ role be in the first place? Last year’s role was molded out of a 12-win team. Can it be carried over onto a winning team? Let us investigate these questions by examining Williams’ character and on-court production to help us find answers.
Criterion for Judgment: 1) Attitude
Over the past year, Williams has been involved in numerous ill-advised poor choices to put it euphemistically or downright infractions to put it bluntly. Let us recount a handful of them. Keep in mind that all of these occurred within just the past year:
- What we’ll label Twittergate, whereby Williams wondered what life would be like had been drafted by Charlotte (he has since explained this Tweet was misinterpreted by the fans and media; even so, there’s no getting around that it was a terribly phrased Tweet and an incredibly un self-aware moment). In addition, do not disregard the most recent Twitter offense when he taunted Nets employees not to monitor his Tweets because doing so would get them "kno where (sic) in this lifetime." Admittedly, this author did not see the latter Tweet firsthand, presumably because Williams removed it soon after it caused a mini-uproar.
- Snapping at Nets beat writer Fred Kerber when asked to explain why he wasn’t getting playing time
- Nearly coming to blows with assistant coach Doug Overton and having to run arena stairs as punishment
- Recently missing the team bus and subsequently getting a tongue lashing by Avery Johnson over missing the bus
- As already recounted, Williams’ rookie year nadir culminated in a stern threat from Rod Thorn to shape up on the court (including instructions to stop miscasting himself as a long-range marksman) and off the court (the afore mentioned infractions), or he would find himself demoted to the D-League, an abyss few young prospects have come back from.
It goes without saying these are simply the infractions that the public knows about. One would think a twenty-two year old would be mature enough not to commit these public relations snafus, but obviously this was not the case. Therefore, for lack of a better word, it is not unreasonable to question whether Williams will ever "grow up." Intuiting that Williams may receive less leeway both on the court and off from new Nets head coach Avery Johnson (after all, if Johnson had a rocky relationship with the largely amiable Devin Harris in Dallas, why would we discount the possibility he could have the same with Williams?), the precedent has been set for Williams to commit further character-oriented violations.
Bottom-line: It’s difficult to be certain whether Avery Johnson’s short leash will set Williams straight or drive him crazy. He could be scared into subservience as surmised by Dave D’Alessandro ("not only out of respect [for Johnson by Williams] but also a little bit out of fear," wrote D’Alessandro) or rebel against strict protocol. Lashing out would almost assuredly send Williams to Johnson’s dog house. Now, the question is, how likely is it that this would actually transpire? No one can know for sure, but there is undeniably cause for concern – hopefully all for naught.
Criterion for Judgment: 2) Statistics
We have seen that Terrence Williams is capable of putting up numbers befitting a triple double threat. However, upon closer analysis, a few red flags pop up that give one pause, which leads one to believe that Williams needs the ball in his hands to be successful. For example, Williams is frequently cited as excelling in the point forward role; that is, ostensibly one of his strengths is setting up teammates. However, upon further analysis, one sees that last season he totaled 651 shot attempts and 223 assists. That’s nearly a 3-to-1 ratio of shot attempts to assists (2.92 to be precise). In addition, during summer league just a few weeks ago, Williams averaged 19 shot attempts per game while playing point guard. Is this normal? It doesn’t seem so, and if Williams has an inclination to shoot the ball rather than distribute it, maybe we ought to think of him more as a scorer than a set-up man.
Because this author is curious to determine what is optimal or perhaps "normal" with regard to any statistic that is cited (after all, a statistic only has meaning relative to another), let us consider the field goal attempt-to-assist ratio of five players who might help us determine a benchmark for this sort of thing: John Stockton, the prototypical point guard who set up his teammates; Magic Johnson, a point guard who could score as easily as he could pass the ball to his teammates; Oscar Robertson, the ultimate versatile player; LeBron James, the paragon for the type of player Williams should strive to become, if never actually get there, of course; Andre Iguodala, whom Williams was compared to by Draft Express and Dave D’Alessandro last preseason; and the Nets’s own point guards, Devin Harris and Jordan Farmar. Collectively, their statistics might provide a litmus test with which to judge Williams’ own statistics. Again, this is to determine if Williams is instinctively a set-up man.
Note: The player’s rookie year is given first, followed by his career average.
John Stockton: 333 field goal attempts (fga) to 415 assists accumulated in 84-85 = 0.8-to-1 ratio of shot attempts to assists; 13,658 fga to 15,806 assists for career = 0.86-to-1
Magic Johnson: 949 fga to 563 assists in 79-80 = 1.69-to-1; 11,951 fga to 10,141 assists for career = 1.18-to-1
Oscar Robertson: 1,600 fga to 690 assists in 60-61 = 2.32-to-1; 19,620 fga to 9,887 assists for career = 1.98-to-1
LeBron James: 1,492 fga to 465 assists in 03-04 = 3.21-to-1; 11,403 fga to 3,811 assists for career = 2.99-to-1
Andre Iguodala: 546 fga to 246 assists in 04-05 = 2.22-to-1; 5,769 fga to 2,230 assists for career = 2.59-to-1
Devin Harris: 366 fga to 169 assists in 04-05 = 2.17-to-1; 3,980 fga to 1,910 assists for career = 2.08-to-1
Jordan Farmar: 294 fga to 137 assists in 06-07 = 2.15-to-1; 1,852 fga to 644 assists for career = 2.88-to-1
What’s interesting when looking at these numbers is that Terrence Williams’ rookie ratio is actually better than LeBron James’s rookie ratio and is not too far removed from Andre Iguodala’s career ratio. However, it is worse than the ratios measured for the guards. Notice that Williams fares comparably to the two small forwards and poorly to the point guards. This suggests that Williams might have a scorer’s mentality more than a distributor’s mentality. He lacks the instincts of a set-up man. However, Nets coach Avery Johnson has clearly stated that he has no plans to play Terrence Williams at the small forward (SF) position – a scoring position – presumably because Williams needs the ball in his hands to be successful on the floor (among other reasons, which we will address later). So if Williams will not play SF but has yet to demonstrate that he is willing to distribute the basketball like a traditional, "pure" point guard, this confounds matters. In any case, Williams’ 3-to-1 fga to assist ratio clearly is too high to be an effective set-up man for his teammates.
No matter, it could be reasoned that if Williams is not a traditional point guard, then he could be a scoring-oriented point guard – if he is a point guard at all. Does Avery Johnson have room within his system for a scoring point guard when two other more conventional point guards are available to him (Harris and Jordan Farmar)? This remains to be seen. We will analyze this further a little later.
Now let us look at Williams’s field goal attempts per 48 mins and turnovers per 48 minutes and contrast it against some other players (again, I am doing this for no other reason than to determine what would ostensibly be optimal in this statistical category and then to use that as a guidepost in determining what might be acceptable for a supposed playmaker such as Williams to achieve).
Terrence Williams: 17.72 fga per 48 mins in 09-10; 3.38 turnovers per 48 mins in 09-10
John Stockton: 13.73 fga per 48 mins for career; 4.27 turnovers per 48 mins for career
Magic Johnson: 17.26 fga per 48 mins for career; 5.06 turnovers per 48 mins for career
Oscar Robertson: 21.46 fga per 48 mins for career; [turnover statistics not available]
LeBron James: 24.76 fga per 48 mins for career; 3.91 turnovers per 48 mins for career
Andre Iguodala: 14.94 fga per 48 mins for career; 3.13 turnovers per 48 mins for career
Devin Harris: 16.96 fga per 48 mins for career; 3.69 turnovers per 48 mins for career
Jordan Farmar: 16.33 fga per 48 mins for career; 3.00 turnovers per 48 mins for career
Terrence fares very respectably in these statistical areas. While Terrence shoots the ball only slightly high for a point guard, it is actually quite respectable for a wing player. In addition, he takes care of the ball pretty well in comparison with some Hall of Famers and contemporary colleagues, suggesting he handles the basketball well. However, some members of Nets fandom view Williams as turnover prone. Where does this reputation emanate from? Maybe when he does commit a turnover, he has a tendency to do so at inopportune times during games. In addition, consider his high turnover frequency at summer league (see below). In any case, this requires further research to determine the source of the perception. Are there any volunteers?
Now let us examine Williams’ aggressiveness going to the hole by looking at his field goal attempts (fga) to free throw attempts (fta) ratio. This ratio signifies Williams’ willingness to drive the basketball hard into the lane rather than settle for a perimeter jump shot. I think the conclusion to be made from reading the stats below is pretty obvious.
Note: The number given below should be interpreted as, "Player takes X number of field goal attempts for every one free throw attempt." That is, generally speaking, the higher the number, the less aggressive the player.
Terrence Williams: 4.52 fga-to-fta in rookie year and career
John Stockton: 1.73 in rookie year; 2.36 for career
Magic Johnson: 2.05 in rookie year; 2.04 for career
Oscar Robertson: 2.02 in rookie year; 2.14 for career
LeBron James: 3.24 in rookie year; 2.32 for career
Andre Iguodala: 2.6 in rookie year; 2.25 for career
Devin Harris: 3.55 in rookie year; 2.10 for career
Jordan Farmar: 7.74 in rookie year; 6.66 for career
What does all of this mean? First, perhaps contrary to popular belief, Williams has a scorer’s mentality rather than a set-up-your-teammates mentality. He instinctually looks for his own shot rather than that of a teammate. This is born out by his shot attempt-to-assist ratio (admittedly an obscure guidepost, but one which this author feels is an insightful one). Fortunately, he does not shoot an inordinate number of shots per game. Instead, it is his shot selection that can be questioned. He also is not as aggressive going to the hole as one would hope. When Williams looks for his own shot, it tends to be a jump shot.
By the way, did you notice Jordan Farmar’s absurdly high ratio? Blame the Lakers’ Triangle Offense, which does not permit point guards to drive the lane. Let us move on, shall we? Nothing to see here.
I will largely skip over Williams’s recent summer league performance, because history has shown summer league statistics to be fool’s gold in either direction – both for and against players. However, it was alarming that when explicitly called upon by Avery Johnson to demonstrate his ability to play the point guard position, Williams responded by averaging 19 fga and 5.25 turnovers in the four games in which he played starter’s minutes. It probably was not what Johnson was hoping to see and might have convinced him that Williams is better suited for SG.
Williams' Position on the Nets in relation to his Teammates
Considering all that we have seen thus far, one can conclude that Williams is not well suited to play the point guard position – certainly not full time, in any case. While last season’s stats indicate he is an acceptable ball handler, his summer league stats contradict this. Moreover, he doesn’t think like a point guard given his shooter’s mentality. This is to say nothing of how great a liability he would be guarding traditional point guards. Keeping in mind Williams’ predilections, he would seem to be best positioned to play either SG or, based strictly on the statistical caparisons above, small forward (SF). But again, Nets coach Avery Johnson has already publicly declared that Williams is definitely not a three (i.e. SF). Why? There are any number of reasons to explain this, the first of which is that Williams needs the ball in his hands to be effective. Notice that he played SF during the worst stretches of his rookie year. He either was miscast as a catch-and-shoot perimeter player on the wing, or he miscast himself as such. His poor play led to diminishing playing time last winter, which lead to many of the character infractions listed above.
Another reason he would not be best at SF is he has yet to demonstrate he can defend larger players in the post, and, yes, at 6-6, 220 lbs, Williams would be posted up by many opposing SF. At least at this point in his career, Williams seemingly does not have the defensive tenacity and wherewithal to stand his ground in the post against larger players. There also is the practical reality that the Nets would not have signed Travis Outlaw, a legitimate SF, to the largest free agent contract in franchise history if they felt he would back up Terrence Williams at that position. How about positioning Terrence as a backup SF? Well, to play that role, they drafted rookie Damion James, and it could be argued he put forth a better summer league performance than Williams. Bottom-line: Williams will be cast as a guard this season.
Helping to further clarify Williams’ projected position on the Nets this season, the team seemed to tip their hand when they traded away incumbent starter Courtney Lee. Lee’s vacancy has created an opportunity for Williams to receive steady minutes at shooting guard (SG). He will vie against Anthony Morrow for playing time at that position. Morrow, a career 46% shooter from three-point range and 47.2% shooter overall, clearly is a better jump shooter than Williams, who by comparison last year shot 31% from three and 40% overall. But Morrow is also not nearly as effective as Williams with the ball in hands in the triple-threat position, ready to make a play. They are quite different players. As a result, each should receive a healthy amount of playing time, because of the differing skills each brings to the table.
Despite all of this, could Williams play some PG? The most likely opportunity to do so would seem to be when he shares the backcourt with Jordan Farmar, an otherwise presumed PG. There have been rumblings Farmar could spend some time at SG. Farmar is better than Williams in catch and shoot situations, which he became familiar with and honed during his stay with the Lakers. He is a career 36% shooter from three, with agility and quickness to move without the ball to find an opening to catch and shoot the basketball. Don’t be surprised to see Williams handle the ball with Farmar flaring out to the wing, ready to shoot should his defender help off him.
An Estimation as to Williams' most effective Role
Regardless of where Williams fits into the current Nets lineup, this author is still intrigued to consider what could be Williams’ optimal role on a basketball team – one which best utilizes his personality traits and skill set. If Terrence Williams is to become a key component of what hopefully is a bright Nets future, all the evidence points to the belief that he might be best served playing a backup "wildcard" role – what the author calls the "Tazmanian Devil" role. That is, optimally, one would play Williams in short stretches at point guard, probably along with Farmar or Harris at the off-guard position to cover Williams’ man on Defense. In short stretches, one can live with Williams’ knack for scoring and making a play for himself and occasionally for a teammate. As we have seen, he wears his emotions on his sleeve, and he is useful in providing a lift when the situation necessitates one. Williams’ game-busting, "center of attention" approach to offense can disrupt the offensive flow of a game and throw defenses for a loop, because of his unique skill set. Where it becomes problematic is when Williams overstays his welcome and overwhelms his own team’s rhythm as much as the opponent’s. Teammates stand around watching Williams do his thing, and ultimately, Williams’ style of play can cause as much havoc for his own team as he does for opponents. (Havoc -- Tazmanian Devil -- get it?) This is why it is important to bottle up what Williams provides and to unleash it at opportune moments.
Because of all of the above, on balance, it is probably most prudent to play Williams as Doc Rivers did with Nate Robinson last year. This approach would minimize Williams’ bad habits and maximize his potential for altering the course, and ultimately the outcome, of a game.
Just for a kick, check out some of Robinson’s statistics and compare them to Williams’.
Robinson’s rookie year:
565 fga to 147 assists = 3.84-to-1 ratio
17.58 fga per 48 mins
3.55 turnovers per 48 mins
Not too far off. To be fair, Williams is a more willing passer than Robinson, but he is also not as aggressive going to the hole. On balance, while these two players might not be mirror images of each other, this author nevertheless feels they both deliver the same elixir to winning teams. As a result, why not play Williams in the same fashion Rivers played Robinson last year for the Celtics? Granted, having defined Williams’ role in this way, one would hope he would accept the role and not rebel during those moments when he cannot be trusted to be in the game. Williams has a history of attitude problems, so there is no telling how he would respond to a perceived genuinely role-playing role (i.e. non-"star" role). The best case scenario is that Williams would relish coming in and wrecking havoc; that he would embrace a clearly defined role within a larger team structure and therefore take to a regimented and winning atmosphere so as not to become a problem in the locker room. In contrast, the worst case scenario is that he would complain about the lack of significant playing time and, as a result, force the issue when he does play to prove a point, and ultimately find a spot in Avery Johnson’s dog house.
We have seen that Terrence Williams presents an intriguing mix of scoring mentality and guard skills. He handles the ball well for a player his size and has supreme athleticism. While he is not a black hole on offense (thankfully, he does not overshoot), he tends to call his own number when he makes a play. He also is not a good jump shooter, but he nevertheless relies on jump shots too often considering his size and athleticism should enable him to drive the lane instead. When things do not go his way, he gets frustrated and uses traditional and new media outlets to vent his frustrations. It is important for the Nets to construct a role for Williams quickly before he succumbs to pouting, and for them to emphasize to Williams that they appreciate his contribution to the team within that role so that he feels appreciated. By presenting Williams with an opportunity to play as a ballhandling SG, the Nets have acknowledged the best of what Williams has to offer.
Final Thoughts: a Reflection
It has been said that Terrence Williams can do it all on the basketball court – he can play three positions, he can handle the ball, distribute, create off the dribble, rebound, shoot from the perimeter in streaks, etc. While only some of these notions are true, it also points to a larger critique of Williams that he, in fact, is good at many things but excels at none.
When all is said and done, I think what gets most Nets fans excited about Williams is his intangibles and desire to make a difference on the basketball court. That is, while he may be mercurial and versatile without being expert, he is able to play this to his advantage when matched up against opponents that are not prepared to deal with his "wild card" nature. Fans sense that when he enters a basketball game, he sets things askew and can convert a streak of team complacency into an invigorating surge of energy. Fans, of course, love these sorts of game changers who actually care about the game of basketball, and they feed off them, because any player who can energize the game on the court is bound to energize the fans in the seats. Perhaps it would be best, then, to maximize this greatest gift of Terrence Williams – an ability to stand a game on its head by disrupting the pace and flow – by letting him loose on a game that needs to be disrupted, that needs an "element of surprise," to echo new Nets owner Mikhail Prokhorov. This author feels Terrence would excel at this role - the Tazmanian Devil role - given to a player who is called upon to wreck havoc on the opposition through short bursts of energy by disrupting the tempo of a game. The question then becomes would Terrence Williams relish such a role? The jury is out because, as we have seen, Williams last year openly complained to the press about his lack of playing time, wishing he had a greater role on the team. Nevertheless, it is this author’s fervent hope that if the light switch did indeed "turn on" late last season as some in the NetsDaily community insist (i.e. Williams had a growth spurt that made him realize how to be a successful NBA player), that Terrence would embrace the role for the good of the team. As a Nets fan, this author hopes for nothing more than that he would.
Sources and References
Andre Iguodala stats - http://www.nba.com/playerfile/andre_iguodala/index.html
Anthony Morrow stats – http://www.nba.com/playerfile/anthony_morrow/career_stats.html
Devin Harris stats – http://www.nba.com/playerfile/devin_harris/index.html
LeBron James stats - http://www.nba.com/playerfile/lebron_james/index.html
John Stockton stats - http://www.nba.com/playerfile/john_stockton/index.html
Jordan Farmar stats – http://www.nba.com/playerfile/jordan_farmar/index.html
Magic Johnson stats - http://www.basketball-reference.com/players/j/johnsma02.html
Nate Robinson stats - http://www.nba.com/playerfile/nate_robinson/index.html
Oscar Robertson stats - http://www.basketball-reference.com/players/r/roberos01.html
Terrence Williams stats - http://www.nba.com/playerfile/terrence_williams/career_stats.html
Dave D’Alessandro quote - http://www.nj.com/nets/index.ssf/2010/07/the_nets_gm_search_ten_require.html