He was drafted with the 15th pick of the second round.
“I used to have to run through everybody,” Williams said. “Now, I don’t feel like I do. Just trying to outsmart guys.”
The last guard drafted directly out of high school, Williams has quietly refined his game. His athleticism has declined with age, but gone too is a recklessness to his play. He largely makes the plays he can and doesn’t try to make the ones he can’t.
Williams is the Lakers’ best player. As a result, he’s also one of the league’s bigger trade chips as Thursday’s trade deadline approaches.
He leads the Lakers with 18.6 points per game, and they come in just 24.2 minutes per game. He makes that time count with a historic combination of volume and efficiency.
Both his usage percentage (30.6) and true shooting percentage (60.9) lead the team. The only regularly-used players to produce full seasons with a usage percentage of at least 30 and a true shooting percentage of at least 60 are or will be Hall of Famers:
- Michael Jordan (four times)
- Kevin Durant (four times)
- LeBron James (four times)
- Larry Bird
- Karl Malone
- Shaquille O’Neal
- Yao Ming
- James Harden
- Stephen Curry
Williams flies under the radar, because he usually comes off the bench for Los Angeles — though that offers special opportunity for recognition later in the season.
Already a Sixth Man of the Year winner (2015 with the Raptors), Williams leads eligible players in win shares this season:
Williams and Dwight Powell (Mavericks) are the only reserves leading their teams in win shares.
In fact, Williams has been so much better than his teammates, he could maintain his team lead even if traded. His 5.1 win shares rank well ahead of the 3.3 by Nick Young (another trade candidate) and 2.2 by Larry Nance Jr.
But there’s still a relatively high likelihood he gets moved. The Lakers are focusing more on player development, and the 30-year-old Williams could help a team ready to win now.
He’s locked in for a bargain $7 million next season. So, his more-than-just-a-rental status could help the Lakers land a first-round pick.
“I just go out and play,” Williams said. “I let the powers make deals or if they don’t.”
There’s a patience in Williams’ game that has developed in recent years. He attributes some of it to a torn ACL in 2013. No longer as quick, the pick-and-roll ace has been forced to play smarter.
Williams has mostly eliminated long 2s from his game, getting more shots at the rim, 3-pointers and free throws. His craftiness fits the modern game.
But there are still concerns about how he’ll translate to a better team.
He’s a defensive liability, and his size limits paths to reliability on that end. Not only is he 6-foot-1, he often needs to play shooting guard because his playmaking for others is only so-so for a point guard.
But as poor as he’s been defensively (400th of 450 players in defensive real plus-minus), he has been even better offensively (13th in offensive real plus-minus behind only All-Stars and Nikola Jokic). Still, he relies heavily on drawing fouls, and his tricks might not be so effective during a playoff series with plenty of time to scout him.
There are risks in acquiring Williams. But getting another player having a special season — like, say, Jimmy Butler — would be tremendously more costly. As long as a team has a plan to accentuate Williams’ strengths and hide his weaknesses, he might be one of the best bargains on the trade market.