The big man is back in fashion in the NBA. Nikola Jokic, Joel Embiid and Giannis Antetokounmpo fought for this year’s MVP. The Warriors and Celtics boasted their versatile defensive frontcourts to defeat them, with Al Horford and Robert Williams III starting for Boston and Kevon Looney and Draymond Green at Golden State. Although speed, space and small balls continue to define the league, the big players have now migrated to the periphery, just as the smaller players first did years ago.
More big men with perimeter skills are on the way. Two could hear their names in the top 3 of the 2022 NBA draft on Thursday. Gonzaga’s Chet Holmgren is one of the best shot blockers to break into the league in years – and he can burn 3s. Dukes Paolo Banchero is an advanced goalscorer for his age, both as a playmaker and goalscorer. Even 6-foot-10 forward Jabari Smith Jr. could play about 5 in his future. The steady increase in star bigs also requires a response from teams to find bigs to match the inside size and switch to perimeter scorer.
“It shows how much basketball has evolved,” says Mark Williams, a 7-foot, 242-pound center who is expected to walk midway through the first round. “There was a time when it was all about going small and before that you had more of a traditional 5. Now it’s a combination of guys who can do a little bit of everything.”
Williams, who played alongside Banchero, averaged 11.2 points, 7.4 rebounds and 2.8 blocks in his sophomore year at Duke. On a baseline, he’s a high-flying shot blocker who can fulfill his duties as a big attacking player by running across the floor, rolling hard to the rim, finishing inside, and snapping offensive boards.
With a wingspan of 7ft 7 and a standing reach of 9ft 9, he’s more suited to a fallback form, the second tallest in recorded history behind Tacko Fall. Players like him are doing what they can to adapt to a changing league where defending a 7-footer who can create perimeter shots is the norm.
When asked which game last season best showcased his overall skills, Williams pointed to a preseason Duke win over Gonzaga. “We were both undefeated at the time. It was in Vegas, a really big stage. And of course there was a lot of hype in the run-up to the game,” says Williams. “I feel like I was able to show everything in this game. I also simplified things in this game. I defended without foul play, caught lobs, just did a little bit of everything.”
Williams blocked six shots and displayed the ability to stretch his arms straight up to challenge shots from efficient college post-scorers like Drew Timme. His assist defense was excellent, turning in color to deny shots to the rim. He looked like a center back but also displayed the switchability that makes Time Lord an all-defensive team player for the Celtics and not just a weak shot blocker. Ditto for Looney, who transitioned from crashing the boards to joining Luka Doncic in the West final. Bigs have to be able to survive, at least on the outside.
At Duke, Williams was inconsistent when attempting to move laterally with outside goalscorers. But he improved after his freshman season to become proficient as a sophomore. He rushes and shows the ability to carry out various plans, be it the drop or a hedge. While training in Miami this summer, he says he’s working on his mobility so he can be as versatile as possible.
The team that designs him will help him make a significant step in this department, just like the Nets with Jarrett Allen or the Jazz with Rudy Gobert. With players in Williams form in demand, particularly with affordable contracts, the second-year Duke has established itself as a potential lottery pick. Memphis center Jalen Duren is also expected to be drafted, while three other centers (Walker Kessler, Christian Koloko and Ismael Kamagate) are expected to play late in the first round or early in the second round. But either Duren or Williams will be the first center picked after Holmgren and Banchero.
“Of course it would be pretty cool to be drawn in the lottery. It’s definitely something I want,” Williams said. “But at the end of the day, fit will be the most important thing.”
Last week, Williams told reporters in Washington that his preliminary training sessions included the Wizards, Spurs, Knicks, Hornets and Bulls. Everyone chooses between ninth and 18th place.
Williams has one sister, Elizabeth, who graduated from Duke and finished fourth in the 2015 WNBA draft. She won the Most Improved Player title in 2016 and became an All-Star in 2017. Mark saw his sister achieve her dreams when he was still in ninth grade and watched basketball change before his eyes. That same year, Roy Hibbert played his final season in the NBA at the age of 30, just three years after being named an All-Star. Gobert was turned into a meme by Steph Curry. And what was a post shooter at Brook Lopez suddenly became a depth shooter. The league changed. Bigs had to defend themselves on the perimeter and hopefully shoot 3s. Williams never had to shoot throughout his career. But it’s something he’s been working on in preparation for the NBA.
“It gets to the point where I have the confidence to execute the shot when a defender is stepping down,” Williams said. “I’ll continue to develop and be confident in getting shots but I think right now it’s definitely seen as more of the icing on the cake than the foundation of my game.”
As a sophomore, he met five of his nine jumpers, according to Synergy. It’s a tiny rehearsal, but he also went from 53.7 to 72.7 percent off the line after making that a focus of his training the previous summer. Williams has transitioned from a scheduled election in his 20s to his mid-teens, in part due to his advances. He hit some impressive shots in college, including a turn off the right baseline against Michigan State. With the pros, all he has to do is shoot standstill 3s like Lopez, Jonas Valancinuas, or any of the many bigs who have stretched their games behind the line so he can play with anyone on the apron.
“I work the way I want to right away,” Williams said of success in the NBA. “Obviously that won’t be the case. But I have to keep working on my game, even if I don’t get the opportunity right away.”
If Williams is drafted by a team that has a higher-usage pick-and-roll creator like LaMelo Ball in Charlotte or DeMar DeRozan in Chicago, his primary role would be to check and finish with power on the edge. Against Gonzaga, he put Holmgren on a poster.
As tempting as Williams’ highlights are, he says he’s just as content doing the little things a center is asked to do, like tip-outing an offensive board.
“It might not be cute, but it helps you win,” he says.
The NBA has changed, but the great man was never dead. A wave of superstars and stars in their roles have just entered the league. The team drafting Williams hope he can be another great player who does a little bit of everything.