Mark Williams Is Too Big to Fail

GREENVILLE, SC - MARCH 17: Mark Williams of the Duke Blue Devils speaks during a press conference at Bon Secours Wellness Arena on March 17, 2022 in Greenville, South Carolina. (Photo by Lance King/Getty Images)
GREENVILLE, SC - MARCH 17: Mark Williams of the Duke Blue Devils speaks during a press conference at Bon Secours Wellness Arena on March 17, 2022 in Greenville, South Carolina. (Photo by Lance King/Getty Images) /

In an NBA Draft that appeared somewhat scripted at the top — Banchero, Holmgren, and Smith were always going to be the top selections — Mark Williams felt like a hidden dragon among crouching tigers.

To understand where Mark Williams huge potential lies we have to start with the promise of his game-changing defense.

A man with helicopter blade arms that spit back shots like a minigolf obstacle

Williams is 7-foot-2 and has a ridiculous 9-foot-9 standing reach. He’s huge and lengthy, but possesses a coordination and reaction time unlike other giants who have come and gone in the NBA.

Defensively, Williams is at his best when he’s near the basket, anchoring the paint and disturbing opposing players who dare to drive. He impresses with traditional stats; averaged 2.8 blocks in just 24 minutes per game. And he impresses most of all with advanced stats; had a had a dominant 11.4% block percentage and his Defensive Box Plus/Minus was just under plus-five.

Everything in Duke’s defense last season revolved around Mark. He was the best in the ACC at playing drop defense on pick-and-rolls; luring ball-handlers into taking inefficient mid-range jumpers by cutting off driving lanes and passes to the roll man. Williams could write a textbook on it.

But is that all he can be? His reactions to threats are savant-like for a 19-year-old and the idea of moving Williams away from the point of attack action is an intriguing one. It would take an adjustment from both him and a hopefully improved roster in the future, but it could prove to be successful. Essentially, Williams would be tasked with guarding a wing or forward while someone like PJ Washington matches up with opposing centers and plays the ball screening action. That would allow Williams to stay low on the weak side and come off a corner man to meet opposing players at the rim. The Celtics recently tried something very similar with Robert Williams and the results speak for themselves.

High-end paint protection is one thing but what makes Williams magical is that he can switch onto smaller guards. You might not think of him as the greatest perimeter defender but he’s not someone that’s automatically a mismatch out there. He lacks the footspeed and hip fluidity of traditional on-ball stoppers but he makes up for it using his body well to shield opponents away from the rim, with his 7-foot-7 wingspan handling the rest.

He’s far from one-dimensional and as a rebounder, Williams’ size and effort allow him to dominate the glass. He has good anticipation, and his ball tracking skills are a rarity among other 7-footers. He constantly beats opposing big men to the spot and seems unbothered by box outs. His 2.6 offensive rebounds per game ranked second in the ACC and there’s no reason for that number to not translate into the NBA.

On offense, summarizing Williams’ appeal in one stat is surprisingly simple: only player in college basketball to shoot 70% or better from the field (72.1%) and 70% or better from the free throw line (72.7%).

Williams plays at the dunker spot and positions himself well to get easy looks right at the rim. His catch radius, dexterity, and movement make him an elite lob-threat. He has had this freakish combination since his early high-school days and his ability to catch at challenging angles is jaw-dropping.

Is he up there with the floating Shawn Kemp, the enormous Shaquille O’Neal, or even the vertical residents of Lob City? No, probably not. But he’s an instant upgrade over someone like Mason Plumlee.

Williams offers an aerial presence that Charlotte has lacked at the 5 in the LaMelo Ball era. He’s an easy target and as long as you throw it close to the rim — Ball will — he’s going to finish it.

Williams led college basketball in dunks last season and posted shooting percentages of 89% on cuts, 71% rolling to the rim, and 60% on put backs. Even so, it was his marked improvement as a free throw shooter, going from 53.7% to 72.7%, that propelled him to the most efficient offensive season in modern collegiate history and gives him potential to one day stretch the floor at the center position — free throw performance can be indicative of future shooting improvement. Bigs like Pau Gasol (77%), Brook Lopez (80%), Myles Turner (77%), and Serge Ibaka (76%) who developed a shot from outside over the course of their careers were always above-average from the line; then you look at the DeAndre Jordans (47%) and Andre Drummonds (46%) of the world, who can neither make a free-throw nor any kind of shot further than the 6-foot boundary, and a pattern becomes apparent.

Mark Williams isn’t a basketball unicorn. He fits more of a throwback mold of big men who will grab a ton of rebounds, be a bully down low, and make the occasional jumper. As with all rookies, growing pains are inevitable, even for someone as “NBA ready” as him. Luckily for Williams, the Hornets have a passing prodigy in LaMelo Ball that will get him the ball in spaces only he can get and make his transition from college to the league much smoother.