If you were making a list of the 1,000 things the Portland Trail Blazers needed most in their pursuit of a championship, it’s likely that the name “Giannis Antetokounmpo” would be atop of that list, and the term “6-foot-2, score-first guard” would be among the very bottom. But in a 2021-22 season in which normalcy hasn’t been worth relying on, it’s exactly what the Blazers have gotten.
Saddled with injuries and roster turnover, the Blazers, now without all eight of their top points per game scorers from 2020-21, have been forced to churn out a “Who He Play For?” lineup on a nightly basis. The results — losses by 37, 32, 30, 14, and 43 — have been about what one would expect. Though, in uncovering the few positives from that stretch, Brandon Williams has stood out in a major way.
Williams, who signed a two-year, two-way contract on Feb. 21, has slotted in admirably, averaging 17.2 points, 3.0 rebounds, and 2.2 assists per game on 48.2 percent shooting from the field, 38.1 percent from 3-point range (on 4.2 attempts) and 75.0 percent from the charity stripe since then.
Once upon a time, the Blazers were a team filled with shot creators capable of inundating any defense the league had to offer. Now, they’ve become a team whose best chance to score is simply to out-energize the opponent and beat them down the floor with speed. To illustrate: post All-Star break, they’ve ranked fifth in pace, but dead last in offensive rating. That’s made the need for a capable shot creator in the halfcourt all the more important, a role Williams has stepped into with positive results.
Perhaps no statistic illustrates that better than looking at Williams’ ability to get to the free throw line. Since earning that two-way, two-year deal, Williams has accounted for almost half(!) of the Blazers’ free throws attempted (48.7), a number that puts him among the NBA’s top-10, alongside charity stripe hunters like LeBron James, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Joel Embiid and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander.
Though, make no mistake about it. The former Westchester Knicks star has done a little bit of everything. If Anfernee Simons or Josh Hart aren’t in the game, or the Blazers aren’t working Trendon Watford through a dribble hand off, you’re more likely to find a reasonably-priced gas station than an open shot in the halfcourt for this Blazers offense in 2022. There’s still work to be done in this category, but Williams has also averaged 6.4 potential assists per game, often setting the table with nifty dishes, as shown later in this clip.
Brandon Williams has been a stud. Not a ton of 1-on-1 creators on this active roster, but he’s stepped up to that challenge.— Marlow Ferguson Jr. (@meloferg) March 5, 2022
A neat mix of fearlessness, poise, and talent.
(Peep the sidestep 3. )
— 12.7 PPG on 46-44-80 percentage splits since the two-year, two-way deal. pic.twitter.com/ptYG9QBzs5
It speaks to how difficult times are as a Blazers supporter, uncovering plays and positives from a player who has yet to win an NBA game. Playing devil’s advocate, though, how many teams do you see pick up bad habits during what appears to be a lost season? Williams, in particular, has looked poised and in control, and it could be beginning to showcase itself in the box score. To illustrate: here’s how Williams’ plus-minus margins look in comparison to the actual box score.
- +14 in a 15-point loss (29-point positive)
- +6 in a 15-point loss (21-point positive)
- -26 in a 37-point loss (11-point positive)
- -12 in a 32-point loss (20-point positive)
- -1 in a 30-point loss (29-point positive)
- -16 in a 14-point loss (2-point negative)
- -25 in a 43-point loss (18-point positive)
Adding those together, the Blazers’ point margin in seven games Williams has played in is a whopping minus-186. But when the former Arizona Wildcat is on the floor, that number sits at “just” minus-60. It’s obvious that he’s having some sort of effect. With the roster as currently constructed, the Blazers are positioned to lose big on a night-to-night basis, but with Williams on the floor, they’ve gone from Steve Urkel — disaster-after-disaster — to Stefon Urkelle, a more calming force. (Apologies in advance to any readers born in the 2000s.)
It’s also noteworthy that in short time, Williams has already shown a capability to check many of the requisite boxes for a point guard in today’s NBA: the ability to read and maneuver through pick-and-rolls and make quick decisions, a deceptively-quick first step and counters for tight defense, and a level of aggressiveness in hunting mismatches against bigs in switches. There’s a little bit of everything in this two-minute clip.
Williams, not too removed from becoming a 22-year-old, even admitted that he was a bit “anxious,” still working in allowing the game to come to him naturally in his recent press conference. Though, as the Blazers work to transition from this year’s group to the 2022-23 group, it’s reasonable to consider that Williams’ ascension has helped make the backup guard a tad bit easier if his sample size of production extrapolates over the entirety of his season and going forward.
And if that turns out to be the case, Stephen Curry and his record-setting 3,000 3-pointers will soon be in immediate danger.