When it was announced that Derrick Williams was joining the Cleveland Cavaliers, most met the news with tempered expectations.
On the one hand, adding a young talent that was a second overall pick inevitably draws some intrigue. On the other, there is a pretty significant sample size suggesting that Williams is not the player many thought before the draft. However, his play since joining the Cavs has caused many to pause and reflect on how effective he can be in the right role.
Since joining the Cavaliers, Williams is averaging 8.7 points and 2.7 rebounds per game. While the numbers don’t jump out at you, he’s shooting 53 percent from the floor and 41.9 percent from three - meaning that he is making the most of the opportunities he’s receiving.
While his 21 minutes per game since joining the team is likely inflated due to Kevin Love’s absence, however the energy he’s provided likely has cemented a spot in the rotation even when this team is healthy.
I reached out to Nekias Duncan of Miami Heat Beat on his thoughts about Williams as a Cavalier, as well as his time with Miami. He had the following to say:
“Derrick Williams was mostly an "Eh, why not?" kind of gamble. His athleticism and hunger to stick somewhere made him an attractive project for Miami; we all know how much they like those. Though he didn't work out -- his jumper never came around, and he was still a deer in headlights on defense -- the two things I appreciated the most was his overall effort, and how good of a teammate he was. He didn't play as much as I thought he would, but he gave 110% effort every second he was on the floor -- even if that worked against him at times.
He's looked almost like a new player in Cleveland; playing for a title contender, with LeBron James, and surrounded by shooters can have that effect. He's fit in nicely as a transition finisher that can occasionally give you a bucket in the half court.
I think we'd all love him to become more aware defensively, and to improve his three-point shot. Even if he doesn't, he's still athletic and skilled enough to be a decent backup forward for Cleveland. They'd just have to make sure most of his minutes come with those LeBron-plus-bench units.”
Overall, I feel this is a fair assessment of who Williams is as a player. The first thing to realize is that his current three-point shooting likely isn’t here to stay. 83 percent of his three-point attempts have been classified as open, or wide open. On his open shots, he is shooting 45.8 percent from three. While the quality of the shots should help his percentage, he shot below 31 percent last season on open three pointers. The year before, he shot just over 33 percent on open three point attempts. While not all open shots are created equal, it’s safe to assume that these numbers will come back down to Earth at some point.
Regardless of how Williams performs from deep, it’s the impact he’s had in other aspects of the game that will determine how successful his tenure with the Cavs will be. As we’ve seen with Iman Shumpert, the team is willing to put up with inconsistent shooting if you are bringing something else to the table.
However, Shumpert is also an example that if you don’t consistently bring whatever that other trait is, you will lose your minutes in favor of someone else that is able to fill that role.
To me, what has made Williams successful with the Cavs is reminiscent of former power forward for the team: J.J. Hickson. Hickson was a popular player while playing alongside LeBron James due to his ability to find open spots in the defense and finish at the rim. Williams has shown intelligence moving without the ball and has been rewarded with passes that lead to high percentage looks. While with the Cavs, 43.4 percent of his shots have come within 10 feet of the basket and he is finishing at a rate of 66.7 percent.
Many of the opportunities Williams has generated for himself with his off ball movement has come in transition. While trying to play with pace has been a slow process for the Cavs, the energy Williams has brought and his willingness to leak out for transition baskets has helped jump-start a sometime plodding offense.
During Tuesday night’s game against the Detroit Pistons, general manager David Griffin discussed his desire for the Cavs to play quicker. He specifically pointed out Kyrie Irving’s tendency to play slow and control the pace. He took some responsibility for that, citing that the absence of a backup point guard for most of the season has meant Irving paces himself throughout a game. But said eventually he wants shorter shifts with more energy from the team, as he believes this style of play would be beneficial for both Irving and James.
Should the Cavs transition (pardon the pun) into a more uptempo offense, having young players like Williams who consistently bring energy and a willingness to run is a necessity. It gives the Cavs wing depth that can help keep the regular season minutes down for veterans like Richard Jefferson, so that they can be fresh when the games matter.
While all of this has been positive for Williams, it’s unlikely that the Cavs would have taken the gamble on him if they didn’t believe in his potential as a defender. It was mentioned at the time of his acquisition, and is often brought up whenever Tyronn Lue or anyone else involved with the team discusses what he brings.
In his career, Williams has failed to make a consistent impact on defense. As a tweener, he typically has been too slow to stick with perimeter assignments, and lacking the size to deal with more traditional power forwards. But as the game gets quicker and lineups get smaller, Williams’ skillset has begun to fit more into today’s NBA.
Nobody thinks Williams is going to transform into Kawhi Leonard, but the early returns from his defense have been positive too. While the defense has been better when he sits, his individual numbers have been positive. Opponents are shooting 1.9 percent worse than expected with Williams on them and 5.7 percent worse within 10-feet of the basket since joining the Cavs.
His effort on defense has been consistent since putting on a Cavs uniform. He still makes mistakes and can be prone to committing silly fouls, but his desire to play good defense has been evident.
It feels likely that the team believes Williams can make a difference in the Finals with his length on defense. Whether it be as another body to throw at Durant, or any other wings that the Cavs face. While what he brings on offense is a welcomed addition, it’s how he performs defensively that will truly determine his role and minutes.
Low-risk gambles like Williams will be absolutely necessary for the Cavs if they want to extend their championship window. With limited avenues to add young talent, identifying players whose skills can fill a specific need is one of the best ways to improve the roster. Beyond veteran additions, it will be up to David Griffin to continue to roll the dice on young players to try and keep the team fresh for when it matters.