K-Rich, Monster Competitor

Last week, when the rest of the Thunder was on the road, Kenrich Williams was back in Oklahoma City, diligently rehabbing the right ankle sprain he sustained the day after Thanksgiving against the Washington Wizards.

Williams took care of his body, working with Thunder Director of Medical Services Donnie Strack and his staff. He took it slow through his workouts and the Thunder didn’t rush him. Kenrich’s return was on his timetable – at age 27 there’s a professional understanding of how he needs to feel physically to go out and be his ferocious self for 20-ish minutes of NBA action.

On Monday the Thunder took on Detroit to start an Eastern Conference road trip that continues Wednesday in Toronto against the Raptors. In his first game back against the Pistons, Williams first subbed into the Thunder’s game against the Detroit Pistons with his team down by 10. Only 6:19 of action had passed in the first quarter and it was clear this was going to be a night when Kenny Hustle needed to rear his head and roar. He attacked in transition, slicing through layers of Detroit defenders for a fast break layup, then capped off the most beautiful ball movement sequence of the night for the Thunder – a drive by Aleksej Pokuševski who dished to Tre Mann who kicked out to Derrick Favors who swung it to Williams – with a catch-and-shoot 3.

It wasn’t the scoring though, it was the energy on the floor that changed when Kenrich stepped on, like it has on most nights he’s played this year. With his scrappy pressuring defense, physicality on box outs and loose balls and timely offense, he helped spearhead an 18-point comeback and a 114-103 road win. The Thunder’s identity this year has been to play hard and remain competitive for 48 minutes, with Williams serving as a conduit for that electricity on a frequent basis.

“That's something I take pride in, picking my teammates up when we need that spark, just going out there and playing super hard and playing to exhaustion,” said Williams. “Once you do that – not only me, if anybody else on the team does that as well – it's contagious.”

“That's just what Kenrich does - he does all the little stuff for our team,” said point guard Shai Gilgeous-Alexander. “In the passing lanes, 50/50 balls, rebounds, and then he has game offensively. He knows his spots and plays within himself.”

In the second half, Williams’ spots were at the elbows or on the block, in his “loads” in help-side defense. Keeping an eye on the ball, an eye on his man on the weak side of the floor and pinching in with active feet to deter drivers, Williams was able to take up a ton of real estate for the Thunder on defense. The shell of the Thunder’s phalanx intact, all Williams had to do was wait in anticipation for some desperate impatience from Detroit.

In rapid succession, Williams was rewarded with three weakly-thrown Pistons cross-court passes that popped directly in his hands, then twice in the fourth quarter found himself behind an unsuspecting driver who was attacking the rim in time to swat their shot out of the vicinity. Separately, after the game, both head coach Mark Daigneault and rookie Josh Giddey called Williams a “monster” for his performance.

“Some of it is circumstance - he’s just in the spot,” said head coach Mark Daigneault. “But he's in his spots.”

“It’s just studying the game, that’s what it comes down to,” said Williams. “I watch a lot of basketball. I play a lot of basketball. In this league, you know guys’ tendencies and it’s just trusting the defensive game plan and sticking to it.”

All four of Williams’ steals and both blocks came in the second half of Monday’s victory, when he played 15 of his 27 minutes, including all but 30 seconds of the fourth quarter. He also added 3 rebounds, 3 assists and 12 points on 5-of-8 shooting in the game, with 7 of those points coming on perfect 3-for-3 shooting during the Thunder’s relentless fourth quarter, where it shot 17-of-19 from the field with 13-straight makes at one point.

Williams was in constant motion, diving to the rim on slicing cuts through the middle of the lane. Rookie Josh Giddey found him twice on those cuts for dunks, though there were dozens more decoy runs that went unrewarded yet held the defense’s attention and opened up other avenues for teammates.

“He takes great pride in the areas of the game that are competitive but invisible,” said Daigneault.

“You never hear about K-Rich complain about nothing,” said Giddey, who reported that he and Williams were replaying their in-game chemistry afterwards in the locker room. “Whether he plays 10 minutes or 30 minutes he gives the same effort every night.”

On Sunday, before Williams had even officially been ruled in for the game at Detroit, Daigneault gave a breakdown of the Thunder’s development arc for young players – load up on minutes early to explore their games, tighten to hone efficiency in smaller roles, then continue to expand minutes so long as their game remains effective. To cap the conversation, Daigneault pointed to Williams as a model for the Thunder’s first through third year guys who are finding their own specific track along that path.

“Most players games are pretty well-defined in terms of how they can impact the team and how they can impact the outcomes of the game,” said Daigneault. “So then it just becomes about really becoming nuanced inside of your own game and getting really good at it. If you do that and impacts the team in a positive way, then naturally your role is going to expand.”

“A tangible example of that is Kenrich,” Daigneault continued. “His role has expanded, but not because his game is expanded. His role has expanded because he's gotten better inside of his role, and he's proven to be a guy that the team is better when he's on the court on both ends of the floor. It makes it hard not to have him in the mix and it makes it hard not to see him as somebody that enhances the other guys that you're trying to develop.”

As the Thunder continues its march through a weighty December schedule with a road game in Toronto on Wednesday, it’ll be another chance for the young core to continue defining their games and channeling their gifts into an asset that helps the team.

For Williams, it’ll be another opportunity to go out and be a monster.