Grizzlies

How Ziaire Williams Will Be Memphis’ X-Factor This Season

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The Memphis Grizzlies left last season on the brink of title contention.

They pushed the Warriors as far as any other playoff team in the Western Conference Semifinals. If not for a few lost rebounds and a couple of poor shot selections, they may have found themselves in the position for a Game Seven at home to advance to the Conference Finals. And that was without two of their key players playing a single minute together in the series, as both Steven Adams and Ja Morant missed time to injury and illness.

Their ability to play so well without two of their starters was a testament to the depth of the Grizzlies. But in order to take the next step, Memphis will need more than solid depth. They need elite role production to complement Morant, Desmond Bane and Jaren Jackson Jr.

Luckily for them, some of that depth will step up to provide that role production, starting with Ziaire Williams.

Rookie SZN

A Shaky Start

Even from draft night, it was going to be an uphill battle for Williams.

After a tumultuous rookie year at Stanford, Grizz fans were skeptical of taking Williams, especially at the cost of trading Jonas Valanciunas. He had struggled greatly in college, and he did not appear ready to fill an immediate need for the Grizzlies.

In fact, it wasn’t clear that he would ever be ready to play an NBA role at all. He came into the league raw, and he was clearly going to be a project if he panned out at all.

This showed very clearly in the beginning of Zaire’s rookie season. He struggled in every facet of his game, shooting 35.4% from the field and 24.62% from three in his first 19 games. He looked like a net negative for the team, and the numbers agreed— his +/- was a -61 during that first stretch of games.

When Ziaire went down with an ankle injury in the opening minutes of that 19th game, it seemed like he was still years away from being able to contribute. But while injuries are a terrible thing, it ended up giving Williams the exact kind of time he needed.

A Terrific Turnaround

Zaire was out for just under a month with that ankle injury, but it looked like he had made an entire offseason’s worth of improvements.

When he returned, the game had slowed down ten-fold for him. He was in the right spots, making smart cuts, and knocking down shots. He was still obviously a rookie, but he was suddenly contributing for what was turning out to be a very good Memphis team.

Most importantly, the team showed faith in Ziaire, and nothing evidenced that more than Ja Morant’s comments after Williams missed a potential game-winning shot against the Philadelphia 76ers. Ja said he “wouldn’t change it” and that if it happened again he’d “make the same pass.” Although it was a great show of faith by Morant, the Grizzlies had still lost, and fans wanted to see Ziaire prove himself worthy of that faith.

They only had to wait one game.

Just two nights later, Williams looked like one of the best players on the floor against the New York Knicks. He scored 21 points while shooting 81.8% from the floor and 60% from three. He was all over the floor, and he was an absolute difference-maker in that game.

It was a beautiful bounce-back for Ziaire, and it was indicative of how the rest of his rookie season was going to go.

In his 43 games after returning from that ankle injury, Williams shot 48% from the field and 33.9% from three. While those weren’t superstar numbers, they were a drastic improvement from the 35.4% FG% and 24.62% 3P% he had before the injury.

He looked unbelievably better on the court, and just as they did when he looked out of place, the numbers verified the eye-test— Ziaire’s +/- over those last 43 games was a +183.

By the end of the regular season, Williams was showing the potential that the Grizzlies front office had seen when they drafted him.

So, heading into this next season, how much of that potential can he actually reach?

Summer SZN

Expectations were high for Ziaire heading into his sophomore Summer League.

There were hopes that he would show off a shiny new skillset in the form of better shotmaking and ball handling. Much to Grizzlies fans’ delight, he did assume plenty of ball handling duties in Summer League, and Williams had the chance to test his developments in live action.

There were both hits and misses on those tests.

While it was exciting to see Ziaire run the offense, it produced a mixed bag of results. He showed great vision with both timely and accurate passes, and it led to him averaging 4.0 assists, second only to Kennedy Chandler.

This was a great development from Ziaire, and it will serve him well this coming season. He did try to force some things, though, and he rarely looked comfortable with his dribbling. While he showed some flashes, it was clear he was not ready to be a primary ball handler or facilitator for Memphis, and he averaged 4.3 turnovers.

The good news is that the Grizzlies don’t need Ziaire to be a point guard. They need him to score.

And score, he did.

As stated earlier, Ziaire improved his efficiency greatly within his rookie year. In Summer League, Ziaire remained efficient, which was the base level of expectations for him. What really impressed were his improvements to his shot creation— specifically with regards to his size advantage.

Ziaire is athletic, a good shooter and a good defender. But his greatest advantage is his size. For him to become truly integral to Memphis’ plans, he needs to learn how to utilize that advantage.

And in Summer League, he took the first steps in doing that.

He didn’t worry about whether or not he was wide open. He consistently recognized when a smaller defender was on him and used his length to shoot over that defender.

Whether it was in the mid-range, on a runner or even in the low-post, Ziaire actively sought out ways to create his shot with a defender in his space, and he thrived doing it. He averaged 15.0 points while shooting 47.2% from the field and 36.4% from three, all while working on his facilitation skills. Ultimately it resulted in a few Summer League masterpieces such as his scoring performance against the Celtics below.

Z-SZN

So what does this all mean for Ziaire heading into this next season?

Good things— lots of good things.

With Jaren Jackson Jr. out to begin the season, it makes sense to start Ziaire at forward next to Dillon Brooks. This will be helpful to Memphis for a number of reasons.

Defense

One of those reasons will be Zaire’s fantastic defensive length.

His ability to use that length will pair very well with Brooks’ physicality. They will be able to switch seamlessly and disrupt opposing offenses.

Ziaire specifically will be able to somewhat compensate for the lack of Jaren’s defensive length. While no one will be able to match his defensive prowess, Williams’ ability to use his quickness to keep up with guards and use his verticality to contest shots close to the basket resembles Jaren’s strengths to an extent.

This will be sorely needed while Memphis waits for Jackson’s return.

Offense

Another reason starting Ziaire makes sense for Memphis is because of his improved scoring.

The absence of Jackson means Memphis’ third-best scorer will be missing from the rotation. While Brooks will take some of those shots, Williams will be able to take on some of that scoring load, as well.

Williams’ improved creation will be useful, but it is not likely needed much by Memphis, yet. Rather, his improved three point shooting and ability to work off-ball will work well next to Morant.

And perhaps most importantly, Zaire’s mid-range shot will open up another level for the Grizzlies’ offense.

While Memphis is not a prolific three-point shooting team, the presence of Desmond Bane alone forces defenses to respect them from deep. Ja Morant forces defenses to respect the paint. And the rest of the team fills in most of the gaps.

But the mid-range game is something that only Dillon Brooks has been able to execute well for Memphis, and it’s never been elite.

Ziaire has a chance to change that for Memphis. His length allows him to get shots off against some of the longest defenders in the league, and it adds a type of controlled creation that no one else on the team can make. If his improved confidence and efficiency can translate from Summer League into the actual season, then he will have a shot that is nearly impossible to contest.

Time For Takeoff

Zaire is a unique talent with a unique skillset. Zach Kleiman and the Grizzlies’ front office took him with the expectation that he would be able to fulfill his potential and capitalize on that skillset.

His rookie season showed that he can be a quick study and improve at a rapid pace. Summer League showed that he understands his length advantage and how to use it.

Soon fans will get to see what his sophomore season will show us. And based on his performances so far, it’s a safe bet that he will continue to prove Kleiman right and take another leap in some part of his game.

Ziaire has the tools to be a special player, and he has a chance to take a Bane-esque jump this season. There are a lot of different ways he could help this Memphis team, and he’s shown the potential to successfully fulfill all of them.

While some have implied the Grizzlies will take a step back next season, it’s likely the Grizzlies are counting on internal development to carry them. Morant, Bane, Jackson and others will play a big role in this, but there may be no one who will be have to step up more than Ziaire.

The good news is he has already stepped up to the plate in his young career, and he likely will do it again.

So get ready Grizz fans, because Z-SZN is on the way. And there will be a whole lot of sequences like this coming with it.

Craving More Grizzlies?

Check out last week’s Deep Dive Piece on Ja Morant by Ian Sparks (@icsparks22), Morant Primed To Make Another Leap In Memphis. And be sure to check out the Grizz 901 Podcast, where the Grizz Lead guys get on to discuss these Deep Dive players and much, much more!

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