Eric Williams of Wake Forest and Al Horford of Florida went at it from the very start and showed us sparks of what NBA scouts like and dislike about their physical characteristics and style of play, along with some glimpses of how it might translate to the NBA.
Madison Square Garden. Semi-Finals of the Coaches vs. Cancer Classic.
Eric Williams, a rugged 6-8 ½ senior center from Wake Forest and Al Horford, a 6-9 ½ sophomore from Florida. See links section of scouting reports for more background information.
Both Horford and Williams came out ready to play in this game and went right at each other from the very beginning, both being responsible for guarding each other on both ends of the floor. Florida looked to involve Horford early and often in their offense, and he delivered by scoring 6 early points in the first three and a half minutes in the paint, all of them with Williams right in his face. He showed surprisingly good footwork and touch around the basket in the process. It started with a nice back to the basket move and kiss off the glass in the paint, continued almost identically with a strong move and finish plus the foul, and ended with a good catch and finish off a pick and roll, Floridas bread and butter throughout the game tonight.
On the other end Williams ran the floor well and presented himself time after time perfectly for a catch and strong finish with a dunk right underneath the rim. Wake Forest exposed Williams to some extent in the first half by pulling him out on the perimeter and involving him in the team ball-movement, as Williams looked completely out of his element all night long when forced to touch the ball outside of the paint. He would receive the ball on the perimeter uncomfortably and look to pass off as soon as he got it. Both Horford and Williams are strictly inside players at this point and looked very happy banging mercilessly down low when the refs would allow them to.
Defensively Horford did a fine job, challenging numerous shots around the rim and coming up with two excellent blocks on Wake Forest before picking up a foul going up for his third consecutive block in a row in one particular possession. Florida Coach Billy Donovan sat him down after 5 minutes to give him a breather and let the other big men in his strong frontcourt rotation try to do some damage as well. Horford came back with 10:30 to go in the first half and announced his presence immediately by skying for a terrific rebound in traffic with his incredibly long arms fully extended. He made a few nice passes and a few forced ones that his teammates just could not handle. Both teams looked very nervous in the first half on the big stage and had over 20 turnovers between them in the first twenty minutes of action. After less than two minutes Horford was punished for aggressively using his body to battle and deny Williams inside and picked up a cheap 2nd foul off the ball. His half was over with 6 points, 2 blocks, 2 rebounds and 1 steal in 8 minutes of action.
Williams took advantage of weaker matchups to score off another dunk or two before the half was over and finished the half with 8 points and 4 rebounds playing almost the entire first half and doing a good job staying out of foul trouble. The only jump shot seen in this entire game between the two big men was an ugly looking attempt from 14 feet out by Williams that clanked.
The 2nd half saw more foul trouble for Horford until the decisive moments of the game. What would have been a very nice screen to set up teammate Corey Brewer for an open dunk was called off as an offensive foul, Horfords 3rd of the game. Horford didnt come back and make his presence felt until about 8 minutes left in the game where he absolutely shined. He came up with a couple of huge rebounds on both ends of the floor that proved to be decisive in his team withstanding Wake Forests late push for the win, along with their inability to hit free throws. A powerful offensive rebound and the follow-up two handed jam put the Gators up by 5 with 2:30 to go. On the very next possession Horford showed off his terrific defensive ability before caressing the rebound in traffic with his arms fully extended and igniting the fast break on his own. Horford handled the ball perfectly past the half-court line before dishing it off with a beautiful bounce pass to a streaking Corey Brewer for the dunk that essentially sealed the game. This was the #1 play on Sportscenters highlight reel that night. He calmly knocked down a couple of free throws after Justin Gray hit two miracle three pointers from beyond NBA range to seal the deal for the Gators.
On Williams end, the 2nd half saw much of the same with him scoring almost at will in the paint mostly when Horford was saddled with foul trouble. He showed outstanding hands and footwork in the post and very nice balance and body control to maneuver his way and finish time after time with his long reach and excellent touch around the basket. A go-to move of his, a face-up half-hook shot from 5-6 feet out has become a very nice weapon for him to use to get his shot off thanks to his high release point He got a bit quiet down the stretch and deferred to the streaky Justin Gray, but finished the game with 20 points and 7 rebounds on 9-16 shooting.
Both Horford and Williams showed off their strengths and weaknesses to the fullest as NBA draft prospects, with neither looking like they are ready to make much of an immediate impact in the much more athletic and physical NBA.
Williams is still a 6-8 center at the end of the day, although he is aided by his strength, outstanding 7-4 wingspan and 9 foot standing reach. At 280 pounds he is almost too wide and muscular for his own good, although Coach Prosser will surely disagree. Williams will likely have to continue to slim down as an NBA player as might not quick or mobile enough to make the transition to playing power forward on either side of the floor at the NBA level. Offensively he is extremely limited every time he steps outside of the paint and defensively he lacks the lateral quickness to guard the more athletic NBA power forwards that will surely pull him outside of the paint. While he can score at will around the basket at the NCAA level, things will be much different in the NBA where everyone at his position is just as strong as him but usually taller, meaner and much more explosive. Any resemblance of a jump shot to keep defenses honest will certainly help his stock. He has always been an average to below average free throw shooter as well. Williams will get his fair share of looks in the first round, but will have to continue to improve his overall skill level leading up to June. His hands, footwork and touch around the basket are all excellent, but it will take more than that to be considered a sure fire NBA prospect.
Al Horford, on the other hand, is significantly less polished on the offensive end, but makes up for that quite a bit with what he brings his team in all other facets of the game. The fact that he is two years younger leads you to believe that he has quite a bit of room to improve here as well.
Horford is long armed as well, but quite a bit more athletic and he uses this well to make his presence felt both rebounding the ball and altering shots around the rim. He is surprisingly cool and calm playing defense, not trying to send every shot in his area to the 4th row like many young big men do, instead preferring to use his wide base and terrific footwork to do the work for him instead. Horford has outstanding hands and this was on display a number of times throughout the game tonight. He is able to snag down rebounds at the apex of his vertical leap with arms fully extended in traffic, and then ignite the break with his shockingly good ball-handling skills and all-around composure with the ball. He is an able passer both out of the paint or dishing off from the high post (with 7 assists in the game prior to this one against Albany), showing an excellent feel for the game in almost everything he does. He has yet to show off much of a jump-shot, but has improved his free throw shooting this year to the point that you might think that that will come too in due time. Offensively he only takes high percentage shots at this point in his career, as evidenced by his ridiculous 82% field goal percentage so far this year. All in all Horford still has a ways to go as a basketball player and would probably benefit from at least another year in college, but the NBA draft drums are getting stronger with national hype already picking up and NBA scouts regularly attending Florida practices this year. If he turns the corner and puts up double digits on a nightly basis, those drums could end up being too hard to ignore. His work ethic, athleticism, and the way he has dramatically improved his skill-level over the past two years leads at least this writer to believe that he still has a substantial upside to continue to improve.