At this time two years ago, Latavious Williams would have been suiting up for a high school game. After being selected in the second round of the NBA Draft last year and in his second season with the Tulsa 66ers, the 22 year-old power forward continues to make strides. Coming on strong late last season while learning on the job, Williams has gone from an unseasoned high-school prospect to one of the most efficient role-players in the D-League, making many of the strides we mentioned in our feature on him last spring.
Much of Williams' success has to do with the fact that he's stuck to what he does well. A physical specimen with his excellent strength, long arms and solid athleticism, Williams has added some weight to his frame, only adding to his ability to clean the glass at a high rate. Still becoming more polished on both ends of the floor, Williams has continued to pull down rebounds at an exceptionally high rate, ranking amongst the most prolific per-40 rebounders in the NBADL for the second straight year.
Offensively, Williams has shown marked improvement, looking significantly more under control and clearly understanding his role much more thoroughly. He's converting 65.8% of his field goals this season, good for the top spot in the NBADL and up from just 52.8% last year. An excellent finisher thanks to his length and leaping ability, Williams gets most of his touches in catch and finish situations. Though he's become more adept at converting shots around the rim, he'll need to become more versatile offensively by developing a post repertoire and midrange jump shot to take the next step offensively.
On the other side of the ball, Williams has continued to grow as well. Depending on which of Oklahoma City's young 7-footers is assigned to the 66ers, Williams has had opportunities to defend both power forwards and centers. Showing solid lateral quickness in defending the perimeter, Williams has the capacity to effectively defend stretch-fours and face-up scorers alike at this level. He still needs to add lower body strength to improve his ability to fight for position on the block, and has a lot to learn in terms of fundamentals, but the tools are there for him to be a solid NBA defender if he continues to improve.
Considering his age, Williams still has plenty of time to refine his game, and he's already made some clear strides that leave room for optimism. He has the makings of a fine role-player, but his ability to get stronger, improve his fundamentals defensively, and become a more versatile player offensively will dictate his potential at the NBA level.
24 games into the D-League season, weve likely reached the point where its safe to begin drawing conclusions about Latavious Williams rookie season of professional basketball, and what that might mean for his NBA draft stock this spring.
Its been a long road for Williams to reach the point hes currently at, a regular member of the Tulsa 66ers rotation. Hes averaging 21 minutes per game since the New Year rolled around, after logging several disappointing DNP-CDs early on in the season.
From what were told, Williams came into training camp with little to no concept of the nuances of playing professional basketball. He was just asked to run and jump in high school, and things like half-court spacing, defensive rotations, advance scouting and other basic concepts were largely a mystery to him. Had he shown up in Europe in this state, there is little doubt that he would have been on the first plane back home before the jet lag could even set in.
According to everyone weve spoken with, hes been a very willing student all season long, responding extremely well to coaching and showing an excellent work ethic, two things that definitely bode well for his future.
For a guy like Williamswho obviously wasnt all that interested in the academic side of being a collegiate student-athletebeing able to spend all his time and energy on playing, practicing, studying film and working individually on his skill-level probably isnt a bad thing at all, especially since he was a severe long-shot to qualify to play at Memphis in the first place.
The following is an interview we conducted with Williams at the D-League Showcase in Boise this past January:
While the mainstream media lost interest in Williams just about as quickly as they learned his name, there is no doubt that hes improved considerably in his time in the D-League, something that high school players around America should surely take note of.
The most intriguing things that Williams brings to the table clearly revolve around his excellent physical profile. A legit 6-8 with long arms, an excellent frame, and superb athleticism, Williams definitely looks the part of an NBA player.
The place where that shows up first and foremost is on the glass, where Williams impressively ranks #1 in the entire D-League in rebounding on a per-minute basis. His combination of length, athleticism and activity level make him an absolute force here, and he gets it done on both the offensive and defensive end.
While there is plenty to be said for the poor quality of the big men that are found in the D-League and the often inflated numbers that are produced for that reason, its tough to ignore the terrific nose for the ball that Williams shows going up against players often 3-5 years older than him. All things considered, this is something we can probably expect to translate in some capacity to the NBA level.
Other than the work Williams does on the offensive glass, running the floor in transition or on simple dives to the rim, hes largely a limited offensive threat, rarely touching the ball in Tulsaa half-court offense, and struggling badly to create his own shot when he does. Billed as a potential small forward by some of the high school recruiting services, Williams has spent most of his time at the power forward position, and has even seen some minutes at center. While he shows a nice first step, his ball-handling skills are weak, relegating him to straight-line drives and making it difficult for him to change directions with the ball or execute advanced moves.
Hes also not as good of a finisher as you might expect with his excellent physical tools, not appearing in tune with the nuances of knowing how to use his body to shield off defenders, initiate contact, draw fouls or use crafty moves in traffic.
As he gets stronger, smarter and more experienced he will likely improve in this area, but for now he often looks like a 20-year old going up against grown men, seeing his shot blocked at the rim a decent amount, converting an underwhelming (in this league) 48% of his 2-point attempts, and not getting to the free throw line at a very good rate. When he does get to the charity stripe, he makes just 55% of his attempts. His post game is largely non-existent at the moment, meaning hed be wise to work on his footwork and post-moves down the road.
As a jump-shooter, Williams shows sparks of potential, but still has plenty of room to improve before he can be considered a reliable threat from the perimeter. Hes yet to make a 3-pointer at this juncture, only attempting two on the season. D-League rules use the much further NBA 3-point line rather than the collegiate arc, which surely doesnt help matters.
With that said, Williams shows solid shooting mechanics and does not appear to have bad touch on his jumper. In the extensive amount of film we took in thanks to Synergy Sports Technology, we saw him knocking down a number of mid-range and even college range jumpers, making about 50% of the limited amount of attempts17 in 12 games. The majority of those shots came in spot-up situations where Williams had his feet set and his defender daring him to shoothardly the stuff legends are made out of, but probably enough to keep NBA teams intrigued for now.
The interesting thing about Williams is that he does not seem to get caught up in the selfishness that often plagues the D-League. While he surely deserves credit for this, this is just as much a testament to his coaching staff (led by the well-respected Nate Tibbetts) and the entire Tulsa organization, as they refused to just spoon-feed him minutes early on in the year and really made him earn his playing time by doing things the right way. Hes bought into being a role player, which is a good sign since that is almost certainly what hell be if hes able to carve out a niche for himself in the NBA. His feel for the game is still quite limited, but hes not a terribly turnover prone guy and seems to understand his limitations.
On the defensive end, Williams has been fairly impressive considering the circumstances, and shows nice very potential to continue to improve. His excellent physical attributes (body, size, length, athleticism) give him a big advantage here, affording him the versatility to guard multiple positions, or attack the pick and roll in a variety of ways.
Williams shows very nice lateral quickness staying in front of athletic forwards on the perimeter, showing a good activity level in the process. His long wingspan gives him a nice cushion to contest shots while not easily getting beat off the dribble. When his matchup does get by him, Williams athleticism often allows him to recover in time to come up with an impressive block.
While not the type to shy away from contact, Williams is still much younger and not as physically developed as pretty much any player hes forced to go up against at the D-League level. Hell get taken advantage from time to time in the post for that reason, but still puts up a pretty good fight regardless.
All in all, there is a lot of things to be impressed about when evaluating Latavious Williams first season out of high school, even if he obviously still has a long ways to go. Many will look at his unremarkable per-game numbers (5.5 points, 6.7 rebounds in 17.6 minutes per game) and want to close the book on him, but digging deeper does reveal some intriguing things.
Its unfortunate that (according to the rules) Williams name will be automatically entered into the NBA draft pool this spring, as he clearly needs another year (if not more) of seasoning before hes ready to be fully evaluated as an NBA prospect. Spending another year in Tulsa wouldnt hurt anyone, but the NBA for some reason feels the need to protect the NCAAs ironclad monopoly on American teenage basketball players, something the NBA Players Association should definitely look into in the next round of negotiations for the new Collective Bargaining Agreement.
Regardless, Williams could be an interesting player for an NBA team to take a gamble on somewhere in the second round, as his upside is likely higher than the usual crop of seniors and automatically eligible Europeans we typically find in that range.
The fact that he turns 21 in March does damper our enthusiasm a bit (he's the same age as most college juniors, not really a freshman), but clearly he's not an experienced guy. Asking him to then spend another year in the D-League without taking up a coveted roster spot would be an ideal solution, but thats something that Williams and his camp would have to agree to in advance.
Either way, there will be plenty of high school players, parents and NBA agents looking to see how this situation unfolds, as it could provide an interesting alternative to the NCAA for some players, since most smart European teams obviously have no interest (or benefit) in simply renting a pet project for a year. Theres no question that this is the route that Renardo Sidney, for example, should have chosen from the very start.
The name on this list most likely to garner national interest is that of Latavious Williams. To refresh your memory, Williams was the highly regarded power forward prep school recruit who committed to the University of Memphis, but decided to renege on the decision based on the expert advice of those around him.
"It was a difficult decision," Williams said in a press release. "But after consulting with a number of people, and taking my family situation into consideration, playing overseas is the best move for me."
"It will not be an easy transition, but I have surrounded myself with a core of very competent people who I trust and who have my best interests at heart, so I am confident that things will work out very well."
Williams mentor/advisor Trey Godfrey, who he knows thanks to his AAU ties, told Jeff Goodman of Fox Sports back in July that the decision was purely a financial one.
"He made the decision when taking into account his family situation," said Godfrey. "He wants to put himself in a situation where he can help out and he saw this as a good opportunity."
Goodman also quoted Godfrey discussing his belief that Williams will be able to garner a contract in the six-figure range, and was mentioned having a lot of interest from Europe and the Far East.
Fast-forward three months, and Williams finds himself in the D-League draft pool, holding onto a B-level non-guaranteed contract for $19,000. Surely this isnt the way he expected things to turn out?
The cold harsh reality is that European basketball teams are not all that interested in players of Williams caliber: a raw, unproven athlete without a defined position and plenty of off-court red flags. Being steered through the process with a rookie agent like Godfrey surely didnt help.
The good news is that this is anything but the end of the road for Williams, even though he has no choice but to become automatically-eligible for the draft this upcoming June. He will be scouted extensively by all 30 NBA teams this season, and should receive plenty of opportunities to play and improve all year long. The level of competition hell be facing on a game by game basis going up against seasoned pros is surely higher than what he would have seen at the college level. Playing in the D-League could be a humbling experience for him as well, and could force him to mature rapidly.
This will surely be one of the most interesting story lines to follow in the 2009-2010 D-League season.