Grizzlies coach Taylor Jenkins had two specific demands of Ziaire Williams in the rookie lottery pick’s initial days adjusting to the NBA at the MGM Resorts Summer League.
“He’s only been with us for a minute or two, but I’ve said, ‘I only want to see two things out of you right now,’" Jenkins relayed of this week’s conversation with Williams. “I want to see you have fun, and I want to see you compete. That’s all I care about. Don’t worry about missing shots (or) messing up an assignment. Just learn, and grow.”
That’s the extent of the summer league syllabus as Williams, the 10th overall pick in last month’s draft, prepares for his second outing with the Grizzlies in Las Vegas. The 19-year-old athletic swingman out of Stanford is eager to learn, grow and build on Monday’s summer league debut when he contributed to nearly every statistical category in 23 minutes.
Williams smiled as he reflected on his first ‘welcome to the NBA’ moment. It came when he stole a pass near the top of the key and raced off in transition as his slender, 6-foot-8 frame glided toward the basket for a breakaway dunk. It was one of a growing number of summer highlights for the Grizzlies, who beat the Nets 91-84 in their Vegas opener.
Memphis returns to action Wednesday to face the Heat in the second of four games over a stretch of seven days in Vegas. In the long-term plan, the Grizzlies traded up and targeted Williams in the draft to ultimately plug between franchise catalysts in point guard Ja Morant and power forward Jaren Jackson Jr. – all picked in the top 10 of the past four drafts.
Williams’ combination of length, athleticism, intelligence and potential as an elite wing scorer and defender only add to an encouraging young core the franchise has assembled. Four of the previous six players the Grizzlies selected in the draft made the NBA All-Rookie team.
The short-term expectations are reasonably tempered for Williams, whose 185-pound frame will need time to develop into an NBA body. It was just a little more than a year ago when Williams was teammates with Bronny James and Zaire Wade – the sons of icons LeBron James and Dwyane Wade. Now, Williams is transitioning to playing against NBA fathers.
It’s been a bit of a whirlwind for Williams, who still receives encouraging text messages from “uncle Dwyane” and “uncle ‘Bron” as he takes the initial steps into the demands of the NBA. He’s certainly putting in the relentless work it takes to prepare his mind and body.
Williams said he got ready for the draft by pushing himself with private trainers through twice-daily workouts over a span of six hours. To gain weight, he also converted to a 5,000-calories-a-day diet. Because the Grizzlies acquired the rights to draft him in a trade with New Orleans that involved swapping picks and veteran players, Williams and fellow first-round pick Santi Aldama could not participate in last week’s Salt Lake City Summer League until all logistics were finalized. Williams and Aldama didn’t go through their first practice with the Grizzlies until Sunday, the eve before Monday’s debut in the Vegas summer league.
In other words, NBA life has been coming at Williams fast. But he’s so cool, calm and mentally prepared for this opportunity, one could hardly detect any nervousness.
“Getting that first dunk was a good feeling for sure,” Williams said on scoring his first basket early in the first quarter of Monday’s game. “I just read the play really well and it was good to hear the crowd cheering, because I haven’t had fans since high school. I was just trying to go out there and play hard and help the team come out with a win.”
Williams finished that game with seven points, two offensive rebounds, an assist, a steal and a block. He struggled to find the range on his three-point shot, which will be a development priority throughout the summer and into his rookie season. But, as Jenkins pointed out, the mission right now is to simply grow acclimated to the team’s systems, have fun and compete.
The growth opportunities continue for Williams and the Grizzlies, who are accustomed to success as they develop their young prospects this time of the year. Memphis was the last team to win the MGM Resorts Summer League title when it was played two years ago. The COVID-19 pandemic forced the cancellation of last year’s summer league play.
I just read the play really well and it was good to hear the crowd cheering, because I haven’t had fans since high school. I was just trying to go out there and play hard and help the team come out with a win.
But the Grizzlies are back with one of the league’s newest and top students of the game.
“As far as coach Taylor just telling me to have fun and compete, it’s been helpful a lot,” Williams said of his mindset this week. “I don’t pay attention to any outside noise, it just allows me to play my game and compete. And it definitely allows me to play freely with confidence.”
Teammates have already seen that competitive confidence on the defensive end.
“He’s a really big wing and he’s got a good feel for the game already,” Grizzlies second-year guard Desmond Bane said of Williams. “You can tell he’s got a knack for scoring. I like the way he hustles and competes on defense. One of the (opposing) guys got it going and (Ziaire) wanted to check him and stay on him, so that’s special for a young guy.”
Those intangibles and that lofty potential make Williams a unique fit for Memphis.
“He’s super-excited being with us,” Jenkins said. “He’s got great teammates around him in this summer league, and coaches are going to push him. The sky is the limit for this kid, he’s got so much talent. He’s got a lot of work to do for sure, but this is just the starting point for him.”
You can tell he’s got a knack for scoring. I like the way he hustles and competes on defense. One of the (opposing) guys got it going and (Ziaire) wanted to check him and stay on him, so that’s special for a young guy.
Much like on the way to his first summer highlight, Williams is taking everything in those long, explosive strides.
“My flow, my rhythm, I’m just letting it come to me,” Williams said. “As the games go on, I’ll get more comfortable. Finding ways, whether it’s cutting or coming off screens, I just find my way. But my teammates are making it super smooth. It’ll come, though. I just have to get my reps.”
Plus, compete and have fun along the way.
The contents of this page have not been reviewed or endorsed by the Memphis Grizzlies. All opinions expressed by Michael Wallace are solely his own and do not reflect the opinions of the Memphis Grizzlies or its Basketball Operations staff, owners, parent companies, partners or sponsors. His sources are not known to the Memphis Grizzlies and he has no special access to information beyond the access and privileges that go along with being an NBA accredited member of the media.