(First posted at RealGM)
Robert Williams III surprised many with his decision to return for a sophomore season at Texas A&M. After 10 double-doubles in 31 games and a 25.3 PER in 801 minutes as a freshman, the six-foot-eight big man was projected to go in the lottery last June. He is the exact sort of athlete who often wows teams during the organized workout part of the pre-draft process and whose stock rises once there are no more games to evaluate.
But the 19-year-old might have made a good decision coming back for a second year of college. ESPN’s Jonathan Givony ranked him seventh in his latest mock draft last week and Mike Schmitz has mentioned before he believes Williams has a real shot to be in play for the number one pick depending on how much improvement he shows this upcoming season.
Williams is a very appealing prospect because he might be the unicorn teams are looking for to place at center these days; someone who can space the floor out to the three-point line on offense and protect the rim on defense. He will be considered undersized to play that position full time by some due to his height but Williams has a seven-foot-four wingspan and is listed at 237 pounds, measurables that suggest he could be able to play up to standard.
He’s, of course, not that player yet. Despite that weight, Williams hasn’t developed the strength and toughness needed for coaches to feel comfortable having him matchup against centers with prototypical size on an every-possession basis, aside from the fact that his jump-shot and general skill level are mostly theoretical at this point of his development.
As of now, Williams gets most of his production thanks to his athletic prowess, which materializes on defense in his quickness rotating off the weak-side as the last line of help and explosive leaping ability protecting the rim.
Though it sometimes came at the cost of him overhelping or selling out biting on shot fakes, he averaged 3.8 blocks per 40 minutes last season and was probably the biggest reason why opponents shot just 55.9% at the rim against Texas A&M.
But despite his agility and length, Williams hasn’t yet developed into as impactful a defender away from the basket.
He does well sliding laterally against stretch big men and can closeout effectively, sometimes even blocking the eventual jumper. But he struggles containing dribble penetration if these types put the ball on the floor, as he is not yet inclined to playing with the toughness needed to contain his opponent’s momentum.
Picking up smaller players on switches, Williams doesn’t bend his knees to get down in a stance, too spaced out to stay in front in isolation. He also hasn’t shown much in terms of shuffling his feet laterally to prevent dribble drivers from turning the corner guarding the pick-and-roll at the foul line.
That said, Williams has long strides and can keep pace with smaller players on straight lines well enough to block or contest shots effectively from behind thanks to his incredible length, though it’s fair to expect that in the pros he’ll meet more guys who get all the way to the basket before he gets to them.
But the biggest concern about his defense regards his lack of physicality. Williams plays post defense with active hands trying to generate strips but more often than not can’t hold his ground, which is also a problem in the defensive glass, as he struggles with his boxouts, collecting just 21.2% of opponents’ misses when he was on the floor last season.
On the other end, his athleticism is his meal ticket as well.
As a remarkable leaper, Williams can play above the rim as a target for lobs, not just off one foot in transition and sneaking behind the defense spotting up in the dunker’s spot but bouncing off the floor off two feet explosively in a crowd as well, as he averaged 1.44 points per possession as a pick-and-roll finisher.
And yet, what caught people’s eyes the most, perhaps, were the instances where Williams caught the ball on the move and showed impressive coordination to take a dribble before laying it up around a defender trying to wall off the basket. Defenses can’t cover everything and what they are giving up the most these days is the in-between area, so players who do can things like that will become more coveted.
His leaping ability and length also translate in the offensive glass, where Williams collected 13.6% of Texas A&M’s misses when he was on the floor last season. He can rebound outside of his area thanks to that massive seven-foot-four wingspan and has second jump-ability to fight for tip-ins and go up for putbacks, which he converted at a 64% clip.
But as a shot creator, there isn’t much there yet. Due to his lack of physicality, Williams can’t set deep position in the low post and hasn’t shown much ability to back opposing big men down with power moves for short range attempts.
He also hasn’t shown much in terms of shot fakes, launching turnaround fadeaway jumpers and feeling double teams, mostly relying as his go-to move on a simplistic turnaround right-handed hook that has decent touch but isn’t quite a money maker, as he averaged just 0.83 point per possession on post-ups and turned the ball over on 18.2% of his possessions with his back to the basket.
When he was unable of simply catching-and-dunking, Williams still showed nice touch on non-dunk finishes, impressing especially in the aforementioned plays where he needed to navigate his way through the in-between area, converting 72.4% of his 145 shots at the rim.
But as impressive as his finishing is, the chance of him potentially going number one overall in the draft is mostly linked to his ability to turn his jumper into a reality.
In sporadic moments, Williams flashed a catch-and-shoot three-pointer out of the pick-and-pop, a face-up jumper from the mid-post, a catch-and-shoot three-pointer spotting up in the corner and even a fluid stop-and-pop one-dribble pull-up off an isolation move.
But those were only glimpses. He missed 38 of the 47 jumpers he attempted, including 16 of his 18 three-point shots. The touch on his shot is pretty good but he has a methodical release and launches the ball from a low point. The fact he converted just 59% of his 100 free throws also casts doubt into just how real that jumper can really become.
His ability to help facilitate offense is closer to a real asset, though. Williams has can spot shooters on the opposite corner, pass out of the short roll, participate in post-to-post pre-arranged reads and aid dribble hand-offs from the elbows or the high post, assisting on 12% of Texas A&M’s scores when he was on the floor.
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Editor’s Note: Rafael Uehara is the managing editor of ‘Basketball Scouting’. More of his work can be found here or at RealGM, where he is a regular contributor. He can be followed on twitter as @rafael_uehara