Let’s Fly: Patience Paying Off For Rookie Mark Williams

The most important thing to remember when it comes to player development in the NBA is that the process is almost never linear, nor is it the same for everyone. So many variables factor into transitioning from college to the professional ranks that it’s virtually impossible (and frankly, unfair) to have a one-size-fits-all mentality for young players entering the league.

Such is the case for the Hornets’ rookie center Mark Williams, who appeared in only three games of mop-up duty over the opening two months of the campaign. While the injury bug has hit the Hornets pretty hard this season, it has mostly stayed clear – knock on wood – of veteran big man Mason Plumlee and backup Nick Richards, both of whom are having career years.

Slotted third on the depth chart, Williams bided his time watching, studying, learning and controlling what he could control on a daily basis, whether it was at practice, shootaround or playing for the Greensboro Swarm in the NBA G League. Not playing at first was never about anything Williams was doing wrong or a reflection of his rookie status. It just so happens that sometimes a player has to wait his turn, regardless of pedigree and draft position.

Eventually, the door finally opened for Williams following a minor ankle injury to Richards that he suffered in the fourth quarter of a 134-130 road win over the Lakers on Dec. 23. The Duke product has averaged 7.8 points on 60.0 percent shooting, 7.5 rebounds, 1.0 steal and 1.0 block in six outings since, none more impressive than the 17-point, 13-rebound, two-assist, two-steal, two-block, 100-percent-shooting display he had against Oklahoma City last Thursday night.

“Great size, he’s protected the rim well, he has a natural skill package,” said Hornets Head Coach Steve Clifford. “By next year, he’ll be able to shoot threes. Pick-and-roll defense has been good. We function well when he’s been out on the floor. He has to work on his screening and rolling. If you have a roll game playing with someone like LaMelo, and you can protect the rim and play pick-and-roll defense at the other end, you can be a really good starter.”

When asked about Williams’ performance against the Thunder, Clifford added, “It just shows what he’s capable of. In this league, you’ve got to do it three, four times in a week against different types of players and coverages. I think he’s going to be a very good player, but this just shows his talent. Now it’s, ‘Can you do it every night?’ That’s what the NBA is all about.”

“It’s been great,” stated Williams. “It’s been a smooth transition so far. I just want to continue to show what I’m capable of every night and continue building off these past few games. Obviously, our principles and coverages and stuff are going to be a different level than college. I think I’ve done a good job adapting to that.”

Over his week-and-a-half in the rotation, Williams has had a chance to face a number of elite-level NBA centers, most notably Portland’s Jusuf Nurkić and Memphis’ Steven Adams. These two specifically have been in the league for quite some time – around a decade apiece – and at times, can certainly be a handful for their less-experienced counterparts.  

“The Portland game [on Dec. 26] was the first game where I got rotational minutes,” recalled Williams. “Going up against Nurkić, he’s super-skilled and a big dude. I caught a couple fouls back to back because they ran the same play over and over. I’d say that was a moment where I said, ‘Oh yeah, I’m in this now.’ The league is full of skilled bigs. For me personally, to have a challenge like that every night is what I look forward to and what I enjoy going up against.”

Transitioning into the league is often more challenging for bigs compared to guards or wings, largely because of the increased physicality and defensive adjustments. Let’s face it – there are some incredibly-talented scorers in the NBA. If a younger player gets blown by defending on the perimeter, so be it. But in this scenario, the last line of defense at the basket is usually a center like Williams, and it’s on him to make the proper reads in split-second fashion or risk giving up a high-percentage attempt.

Things are also different from an offensive standpoint between the two position groups, as well, says Plumlee, now in his 10th NBA season. “As a guard, you have the ball in your hands all the time, so it’s hard not to have a rhythm,” he said. “You’re pushing the ball, catching it on the wing, catching it in aggressive positions. As a big, you may go up and down the floor four or five times and not touch the ball. You just have to understand that defense, rebounding, those are the kinds of things that they’re looking for. More often than not, the offense is going to be opportunistic. It’s just the way that you’ve got to establish yourself as a big.”

Plumlee also drew on his own experience coming into the league as a first-year player with the Brooklyn Nets back in 2013. “Everybody has the hope and expectation of playing right away and the reality is, it’s tough as a rookie,” he stated. “I think you’re just always looking for what’s the response to that. I came into the league at 23. Physically, I wouldn’t have been there [at 19 or 20]. Coming in young, you just have to figure out how you can contribute, what you can give to the team that can be there every night and then build off of that.”

He added, “The hardest thing for me was understanding how coaches see the game and things could be matchup-based. I came in on a team where we had some significant injuries early and guys were older, so I got to play right away. I remember I was coming off the bench for a while and we sat Kevin Garnett for a few games. I just assumed because I was his backup, that I was going to start, but they kept me in the role of coming off the bench and Reggie Evans ended up starting. It’s about not overreacting to decisions and being ready when you’re called upon.”

Development comes in many different shapes and sizes and isn’t limited to only receiving rotational minutes at the NBA level. Situation plays a major part in everything and for Williams, that meant staying ready behind two healthy veterans who were playing exceptionally well to begin the campaign. Charlotte’s center rotation has been somewhat of a revolving door the past few seasons, but the frontcourt identity has finally started to solidify thanks to the recent play and development of prized rookie center Mark Williams.