Draft preview: Tennessee’s Williams highly regarded & decorated, but not a projected top-20 pick

Tennessee’s Grant Williams, a two-time SEC Player of the Year, is a case study in the values of production vs. potential.
Andy Lyons/Getty Images
by Keith Langlois
Web Editor

AUBURN HILLS –Toronto will challenge Golden State’s reign in this year’s NBA Finals for one overriding reason: the 15th pick. If it hadn’t been the Raptors, it would have been Milwaukee and for the season reason: the 15th pick. Toronto’s Kawhi Leonard and Milwaukee’s Giannis Antetokounmpo were both 15th picks two years apart, Leonard in 2011 and Antetokounmpo in ’13. Two-time MVP Steve Nash was the 15th pick in 1996.

Nobody else comes close to their class, though, among the 65 players drafted 15th overall since the NBA began seeding rosters via an amateur draft. Perhaps Al Jefferson
is the next most accomplished player, though he never made an All-Star team.

The Pistons have had the No. 15 pick four times in their history. Rodney Stuckey (2007) made the most immediate impact and probably wound up having the best career, though Phil Hubbard (1979), a great college player at Michigan before a catastrophic knee injury after his sophomore season, has a case.

The others taken with the 15th pick by the Pistons are Al Eberhard, back in 1974, and Austin Daye in 2009.

Last year’s 15th pick was Troy Brown, who played sparingly for the Washington Wizards. Brown profiles as the type of player most likely to be the pick of the Pistons this year: a teen with one year of college experience and little expectation of offering significant immediate help.

The four No. 15 picks prior to Brown were Justin Jackson, traded from Sacramento to Dallas in February, who shows promise as a rotation player heading into his third season after a three-year career at North Carolina; Juan Hernangomez, who’s shown flashes of promise but has yet to establish himself as part of Denver’s rotation in three NBA seasons; Kelly Oubre, who’ll be a restricted free agent after being traded from Washington to Phoenix at the trade deadline; and Adreian Payne, out of the NBA after being drafted by Minnesota out of Michigan State.

Our draft preview series, which began last week, continues today with a profile of Tennessee junior forward Grant Williams – a case study in how NBA teams value production vs. potential.

FIRST-ROUND CANDIDATE: Grant Williams

ID CARD: 6-foot-7½ forward, Tennessee, 20 years old

DRAFT RANGE: Ranked 24th by ESPN.com, 23rd by The Athletic, 37th by SI.com

SCOUTS LOVE: By production alone, Grant Williams deserves to be a top-10 pick. There’s a lot to like here. He’s a two-time SEC Player of the Year. He’s a three-year starter – and, despite those three years in college, Williams is younger than most sophomores in the draft and won’t be 21 until Nov. 30 – who averaged 18.8 points, 7.5 rebounds and 3.2 assists while shooting 56.4 percent for a team that spent time at No. 1. Williams draws raves for his leadership and character. He’s been a nationally ranked chess player, plays a number of musical instruments and is fluent in Spanish. He did the bulk of his work with the ball at Tennessee in the post, which likely becomes a less effective means of scoring for him in the NBA though should still serve him well against prevalent switching defenses. But Williams’ passing, screening, movement and sense of spacing and intelligence should make him an easy fit in modern NBA offenses. He is regarded as a stout defender, as well. Williams was the highest-ranked player to participate in 5-on-5 scrimmages at the NBA draft combine, and while the frenetic nature of those affairs makes it nearly impossible for a player who thrives in team settings to stand out it spoke to Williams’ mindset and won him admirers even as it reinforced some of the questions about how his game will translate.

SCOUTS WONDER: Williams played more as a power player at Tennessee, doesn’t have great length and had a pedestrian vertical jump of 31½ inches as tested at the NBA draft combine, though his agility and speed tests were stronger and better than some point guards. There are questions about where Williams would play defensively and doubts about his ability to guard most of today’s small forwards. He shot just 103 3-pointers in 104 games at Tennessee over three seasons, 46 as a junior when he hit them at a 32.6 percent clip. If you’re looking for reasons why someone with Williams’ level of productivity in a major conference for a team that won 57 games over the past two seasons isn’t viewed as a lottery pick, that’s why.

NUMBER TO NOTE: 14 – The number of awards Williams was honored with over his three years at Tennessee. In addition to the two-time SEC Player of the Year awards, Williams was a first-team All-American as a junior and a finalist for the Wooden, Naismith and USBWA Player of the Year awards that went to presumptive No. 1 pick Zion Williamson of Duke.

MONEY QUOTE: “I’m a competitor. I’m a guy who doesn’t think that two days will define a player’s career. These teams have seen 40 games, a full body of work, maybe more than that throughout the past two or three years. They’re not going to base you off of how you play and shoot the ball today. It’s about how you compete and I just wanted to show that’s the type of player I am – that I wanted to win. I like playing the game of basketball. It’s something I love to do. Any chance I get to play, I’m going to play right now. It’s one chance to play 5 on 5 in a structured setting until the Summer League. I wanted to be different. I wanted to be my own man and compete with the guys who are just as deserving, who had great careers. I just don’t feel I’m a guy that thinks they’re better than anybody.” – Grant Williams on why he chose to play in scrimmages at the NBA draft combine after having a tough shooting day

PISTONS FIT: The fit would be cleaner if the Pistons see Williams as a player who can fit alongside Blake Griffin and guard at least some small forwards. Williams says he feels comfortable guarding small forwards, power forwards and centers and admits that getting switched off to point guards is a challenge. Williams’ basketball IQ would fit with any team, but in Dwane Casey’s offense – where quick reads are needed as part of Casey’s “point-five” dictum that asks decisions on whether to pass, shoot or dribble be made in a half-second – it would be especially valuable. At minimum, Williams would fit as Griffin’s backup. He’d need to develop his 3-point shot – no reason to think he won’t be at least an adequate 3-point shooter – but his passing, screening and anticipation would allow the Pistons to eventually use Williams as a facilitator at power forward with the second unit as they do with Griffin in the starting group. Williams also appears perfectly capable of playing as a small-ball center.

BOTTOM LINE: Williams has drawn comparisons to players like P.J. Tucker, Jae Crowder and Draymond Green – players who were also difficult to categorize coming out of college yet have become major contributors to playoff teams over their careers. Mock drafts have Williams going no higher than the early 20s and some not until the second round. Given the analytics revolution that’s taken hold of the NBA, it seems unlikely that a player who contributed to winning at high levels with production in line with his wouldn’t satisfy the analytics modeling of a franchise or two much higher than that. Is 15 too high to bypass other players with more conventional profiles in favor of Williams? Maybe not in a draft that has bunching among prospects as tight as this one.

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