Undrafted Pelicans rookie Kenrich Williams making big impact

Kenrich Williams wasn’t a lottery pick last June. The TCU product wasn’t a draft pick, period.

Yet if you scan through the most recent NBA.com rookie rankings, Williams is listed just below the likes of international hoops superstar Luka Doncic (selected No. 3 overall in 2018), Phoenix No. 1 pick Deandre Ayton and Sacramento’s Marvin Bagley (No. 2). Stunningly, after going undrafted and appearing in just 12 of New Orleans’ first 48 games, it’s taken Williams only two weeks of significant playing time for Pelicans teammates such as Jrue Holiday to describe the 24-year-old as “a star, really. Someone who can come out and fill up the stat sheet. Offensive rebounds, defensive rebounds… he can lock up your best player.”

Amid an array of New Orleans injuries and other distractions, Williams has emerged as a welcomed bright spot on the court, averaging a well-rounded 12.9 points, 9.4 rebounds, 3.1 assists and 1.1 blocks since he began logging major minutes seven games ago. During the same stretch, he’s shooting 48.6 percent from the field and 38.5 percent from three-point range, helping the Pelicans remain competitive by contributing in virtually every category.

It’s still very early in his pro career, but so far Williams is merely repeating what’s been his background in the sport. After going unselected in the draft, he gave this reaction to his hometown newspaper, the Waco (Texas) Tribune-Herald: “It feels good to be the underdog and come in and work. It’s like high school all over again. I didn’t get a scholarship out of high school, so I’ll just work hard and try to get in the NBA.”

Williams has immediately become a Pelicans fan favorite by bringing that attitude to the court, aggressively defending, outhustling opponents for loose balls and contested rebounds, while also showing an offensive skill set that was not evident during his brief cameos early in 2018-19. As a result, since Jan. 29 he’s had 16- and 13-rebound performances, a five-game streak of knocking down multiple three-pointers, as well as a 19-point second half vs. Minnesota on Friday.

“That’s what I want to do every game,” said Williams, soft-spoken off the court, but relentless on it. “I want to come out and play hard, get all of the 50-50 balls. Give it all I’ve got every time I’m on the court. It’s just a blessing to get the opportunity to come out and show what I can do. My main thing is go out and play hard. I let everything else take care of itself. Whatever happens, happens.”

What’s happened since Williams stepped into a much more prominent role has been exceptionally positive and a surprise to many. The 60th-ranked prospect on NBADraft.net’s Big Board last summer, Williams is now making a much bigger impact than the vast majority of players who heard their names called on draft night.

“He played a good game tonight,” Pelicans fourth-year head coach Alvin Gentry said after Saturday’s 99-90 defeat in Memphis. “He is going to play a good game most every night because he is going to do something on the floor that can help you.”

As Holiday referenced during his “star” description, many of Williams’ contributions can be measured in numbers – he approached a triple-double against the Grizzlies with 10 points, 13 rebounds and seven assists – but he’s also played unselfishly, run the floor well and been a gritty defender. New Orleans has been much more effective recently on the defensive end, an area that plagued them throughout ’18-19.

“He loves the challenge, honestly,” Holiday said of Williams’ defensive mindset. “Takes it on every single day. You saw it from the beginning of training camp, where he was coming at me. I like that. I like guys who are going to step up to the plate and take on the challenge. He’s been doing a great job.”

“Every time you’re on the court and you get to play, there is going to be a situation that comes up that’s going to help you down the line,” Gentry said of Williams’ invaluable playing time. “He’s doing what good basketball players do, especially ones with high IQ – they get better every game. Not necessarily have better stats, but get better every game from the standpoint of playing a complete game and being a complete player.”