June 07, 2019
The first observation anyone will make when you ask them about Grant Williams is usually centered around his intelligence. In the moments following the conclusion of his Sixers workout on Saturday morning, that was the place Senior Director of Scouting Vince Rozman went first.
"The bet with Grant is just that his basketball intellect is so high, whether you call him a three or a four, or you just assume he kind of fits somewhere," Rozman said, "that he's so smart and knows the game so well and plays so hard that he just kind of figures it out."
If Grant Williams didn't decide to play basketball, you get the sense he would have figured out a way to be successful at something else. He grew up in a house with two baby grand pianos, and learned to play the keys, violin, drums, and an assortment of other instruments alongside his grandfather. Williams told PhillyVoice his grandfather used to wake the family up in the morning by playing ragtime, and that jazz music was a foundational part of his upbringing. He was a nationally-ranked chess player, appeared in musicals in high school, and had offers to play at Ivy League schools if he had preferred that route.
But he ended up in basketball, and that was influenced by family, too. Damon Stoudamire and Salim Stoudamire are cousins of Williams on his father's side of the family, his dad's family has New York roots, and Williams grew up in North Carolina, one of the most hoops obsessed states in the country.
All along, his mother — an engineer with NASA — told him that no matter what he pursued, he could translate things he learned in other disciplines to whatever he decided he was passionate about.
"[Music] was just something that helped me growing up. If you can learn off of the court, my mom always said, you can learn on the court," Williams told PhillyVoice on Saturday. " I love to learn no matter what it is, whether it's a conversation, learning a board game, or learning on the court."
(His favorite board game, by the way, is Settlers of Catan. "It's amazing...I hope that in the future I can do something with it because I love the game so much.")
The Tennessee product may just be the hardest guy to figure out on this year's draft board. People who cover the draft for a living, like Sam Vecenie of The Athletic, have him in the top-15 of their big board while acknowledging he may slide all the way to the back of the first or the early second round. He was a dominant college player, but there are concerns about how he'll fit in the modern NBA, and those concerns apply to the Sixers, too. He was an interior-focused player in college, and he's not the cleanest fit on a Sixers team that needs an abundance of floor spacers around their stars.
But Williams has some traits that are hard to miss when you watch him play. He is strong as they come, he is a hyper-intelligent player, and he has a high-level touch for a player with those two traits. Those three things tend to lead to success, and Williams hit a level of production at Tennessee few college players are able to match. He was the SEC Player of the Year in back-to-back years, and he earned that distinction big time.
Going on measurements alone, he's a bit too small (six-foot-seven-and-a-half inches in shoes, per combine measurements) to be a true big and you probably can't count on him to be a solo rim protector. Transitioning to the wing full time would be tough, where he'd be asked to switch onto quicker guards who are probably going to leave him grasping at air at times. And offensively, a lot of his offense was generated out of the post at Tennessee, and that seems unlikely to be viable for him with the Sixers specifically.
Williams downplayed fit concerns on Saturday. Having played with Harry Giles during his high school days, Williams has spent considerable time on the floor with another guy who wants the ball on the interior, and he believes the unselfishness of Philadelphia's stars would make his transition to the pros easier.
"You look at Joel, he's not a ball-stopper. He's a guy who knows how to get the ball to his place and score the basket, and he also knows how to pass the ball really well. Same with Ben Simmons, he makes his teammates better," Williams told PhillyVoice. "So it's about being able to space the floor, as well as give those guys breaks on the other end because Joel doesn't necessarily need to guard the best player every single night or play."
The case for Williams rests on a cliche — "he's just a basketball player." His capacity to learn new things is rather exceptional, and he is already capable of a lot as his game matures. During the small portion of the workout we saw on Saturday, Williams blocked multiple shots on drives, confidently knocked down threes from multiple spots on the floor, and threaded a beautiful bounce pass through traffic to find Villanova's Eric Paschall for an open layup.
It is one thing to possess intelligence and another to weaponize it. That's where Williams sets himself apart. He was all over the box score at Tennessee, scoring, dishing, rebounding, stealing, and blocking his team to wins over and over again. He has put in the work to make improvements in his game, with his free-throw percentage climbing from 66.7 percent his freshman year up to 81.9 percent on higher volume in his junior year. That number, along with his touch and high-release point, give some scouts confidence he will expand his range and knock down threes consistently in due time.
Smarts and strength rule the day for Williams on D. You simply aren't going to go through him, and his block and steal numbers reflect what the tape says: he is most often in the right place at the right time.
"I've never really believed in positions much because in this league nowadays it's not what you can play on offense it's what you can play on defense," Williams said. "No matter how big you are or how small you are, if you can guard multiple positions and be versatile, I feel like you have a place in this league. So for me, it's just been about showing I can defend 2-5, and even switch onto smaller point guards and be better at that, it's still something I can improve on."
Williams is also a high-level competitor. With the numbers he put up in college, he could have easily sat out of a lot of the combine activities in Chicago this year, as a lot of players in his position choose to do. But as Williams explained to reporters on Saturday, he does not want to let an opportunity to compete pass by.
"I love basketball, I want to play. You think about five-on-five, you won't be able to play until Summer League," Williams said. "If you have that competitive edge in you, you want to play, you're going to play no matter who it is. Those guys are talented players, they're high-level college basketball players that are trying to get into the league as well. I've always said I'm not going to shy away from competition."
"I wanted to show I improved on my perimeter defensive abilities, as well as how great of a teammate I am with guys I may not have played with, as well as showing it doesn't matter what [draft] range you're in, you're going to be able to play against no matter who it is. You're going to compete with these guys in workouts, why can't you do it at the combine?"
Are the Sixers the team where he'll be able to make the leap as a shooter, opening up the rest of his game? That's a tougher case to make. A perfect situation for Williams would involve him playing next to a guard with pull-up equity, and boy is Ben Simmons far from that. If you can't turn Williams loose as a roll man with playmaking and scoring ability, it is going to be hard to maximize his offensive potential. He will be a tricky player to fit within their star-studded core. Who is he a natural fit next to on this roster?
But in many ways, he is the sort of player the Sixers claim to covet. He is experienced, intelligent, productive, and is still extraordinarily young for an outgoing junior, with his 21st birthday coming this November.
Williams is not a guy you plug into the Sixers lineup with ease. But he is the sort of player who will reward any team he plays for with hard work and intelligence, and his history suggests the Sixers would be wise to bet on that combination.
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