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Matt Williams: The Next Best NBA Shooter?

Cody Taylor chats with the Miami HEAT’s Matt Williams about the rookie’s unlimited range.

Cody Taylor

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It wasn’t that long ago when Matt Williams received the green light to shoot. In fact, it was only just last season that UCF head coach Johnny Dawkins told Williams to shoot the ball as soon as he was open.

Based on how his senior season went, Williams took the advice of his head coach and did just that. But while Williams may have been given the green light to shoot, it may be surprising to hear where he was allowed to shoot from.

“If I was two steps above half court and no one was in front of me, he wanted me to shoot it,” Williams told Basketball Insiders. “If I came across half court and there was no one in front of me, he said, ‘If you can shoot it, shoot it.’”

Williams, 6-foot-5, established himself as one of the best shooters in the country last season at UCF. He averaged 15.1 points, 4.3 rebounds and 1.9 assists in 36 games while shooting 39.1 percent from beyond the arc for the Knights.

Williams set the single-season school and American Athletic Conference records for three-point field goals made with 126 and set a school record after knocking down 11 three-pointers against USF on January 17.

He leaves UCF as its all-time leader in three-point field goals with 274.

“Matt is one of the best shooters I’ve seen in person from college until now,” former UCF teammate Isaiah Sykes told Basketball Insiders. “I witnessed him put the work in and I’d put money on him against any shooter out there. He deserves all of the blessings coming to him.”

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Although he is known as a great shooter, those that have had played with him are still sometimes surprised to see him shoot as well as he has. Most will say that they feel like Williams is in range virtually as soon as he steps out onto the court.

“I’ve seen this guy before practice shoot two-to-three feet behind the NBA line and sink 15-20 in a row multiple times,” former UCF teammate Kasey Wilson told Basketball Insiders. “I’m telling you, his shot from anywhere on the court looks the same from 15-35 feet.”

Williams didn’t become the school’s all-time three-point leader by accident. In fact, shortly after Dawkins became the head coach at UCF last year, he told Williams he believed he was a great shooter and wanted him to shoot more. Dawkins and his coaching staff wanted to prepare Williams for the next level.

In practice, the coaching staff put down blue tape on the court to mark the NBA three-point line. Dawkins didn’t want Williams shooting from the college three-point line in practice and wanted him to only attempt his shots from the NBA three-point line. In fact, if he shot from the college line, Dawkins would only count the shot as two points.

Dawkins can be credited to some degree with helping transform Williams to one of the team’s best players last year. Williams nearly doubled his scoring output from his junior year to his senior year and his three-point shot attempts nearly doubled as well. He knocked down 55 total three-pointers during his junior year and more than doubled that number to 126 in his senior year. 

Dawkins established himself as one of the best players to ever play at Duke. He was the school’s all-time leading scorer for several years until J.J. Redick broke his record in 2006. He later joined the university as a member of Mike Krzyzewski’s coaching staff and coached Redick during his time at Duke.

He encouraged Williams to pattern his game after Redick and often showed him film of Redick at Duke. Since Dawkins coached Redick, he would often give Williams the same advice he gave to Redick and Williams credits those film sessions and advice as monumental in improving his game.

“He would always let me know that I can’t mess with your confidence and [tell me] that’s a bad shot,” Williams recalled. “He told me when they coached Redick at Duke, they never told him what was a bad shot or a tough shot or a quick shot because that would mess up his game. That really helped me a lot.”

Several of his former teammates remember that he was constantly in the gym working on his shot throughout the day. He would spend a lot of time at night in the gym and would often stay for long periods of time. It got to the point where he would have to be told to leave because he’d shoot for so long.

“They started putting a time limit on him,” former UCF teammate Tristan Spurlock told Basketball Insiders. “He would shoot for hours so they made him cut his shooting time down to an hour.”

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Now, that green light to shoot has transformed him into one of the best shooters in this year’s draft class. While players like Lauri Markkanen, Luke Kennard and Bryce Alford are mostly talked about as the top shooters in this year’s class, Williams believes he’s in the mix as well. His 126 three-point makes last season were second in the country.

“I feel like I’m at the top,” Williams said. “I was just kind of a little unknown going into the draft and things like that but I don’t feel like anybody can outshoot me. That’s god’s gift to me is my shooting ability; I try to work on it as much as I can. I don’t feel like anybody can outshoot me.”

As one of the best shooters in the country at UCF, that success carried over into the Summer League last month. With the Miami HEAT, Williams averaged 9.8 points and 2.6 rebounds in eight Summer League games while shooting 39 percent from three-point range. His 23 made three-pointers ranked third among all Summer League players.

An ankle injury kept him out of the first two Summer League games in Orlando and he feels like he could have done even more.

“I just feel like I could have done more because the ankle injury set it back awhile,” Williams said. “I couldn’t really practice and get a flow in so from my situation, I feel like I did pretty good.”

Williams signed a one-year deal with the HEAT on July 24 that is non-guaranteed for next season. The deal can be converted to a two-way contract if the two sides agree to do so. Starting this season, NBA teams can retain up to 17 players during the regular season with two of those players signed to two-way contracts. Players signed to two-way contracts can spend up to 45 days with the NBA club, with the rest of the time spent with the team’s G League affiliate.

For Williams, the opportunity to develop within the HEAT organization is what appealed to him most. The HEAT have a proven track record of developing players in the NBA and he already sees himself as a member of the HEAT culture. He looks at players like Tyler Johnson, James Johnson and Rodney McGruder as guys that were nearly in the same position as he is.

“The way those guys work, they all kind of came from out of nowhere,” Williams said. “I kind of feel like I fit the mold of the HEAT guys just with the mentality that they have – all hard work. I just feel like I fit right in.”

Based on how successful the HEAT have been in transforming relatively unknown guys into meaningful players, Williams could find himself next in line.

Cody Taylor is an NBA writer in his fourth season with Basketball Insiders, covering the NBA and NCAA out of Orlando and Miami.

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The Case for Upperclassmen in the NBA Draft

College upperclassmen are becoming increasingly viable options in the NBA Draft, writes David Yapkowitz.

David Yapkowitz

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Each year when the NBA draft comes around, there seems to be an aversion to taking upperclassman with a top selection. More specifically, it’s college seniors who often find themselves getting drafted in the second-round if at all.

It can be understandable. NBA teams are clearly looking for a home run pick with a lottery selection. They’re looking for a player who they can build a foundation around for years to come. College seniors often project as solid role players to strengthen a team once that foundational superstar is already in place.

However, recent years have seen the entire first round dominated almost entirely by freshmen and sophomores. In 2017, a college senior wasn’t drafted until the San Antonio Spurs took Derrick White with the 29th pick. The Los Angeles Lakers followed that up with Josh Hart. Hart ended up having a better rookie season than a few of the underclassmen taken ahead of him.

A few other upperclassmen, Frank Mason III, a senior, and Dillon Brooks, a junior, both had better rookie seasons than many of the freshmen taking before them as well. Junior Semi Ojeleye is playing a major role for the Boston Celtics who are in the Eastern Conference Finals.

In 2016, Malcolm Brogdon, another college senior, was taken in the second-round with the 36th pick by the Milwaukee Bucks. He went on to win the Rookie of the Year award and was a starter for a playoff team.

Senior Tyrone Wallace was taken with the last pick in the draft at No. 60 that year. When a rash of injuries hit the Los Angeles Clippers this season, Wallace stepped in right away as a starter at times and helped keep the team afloat in the playoff picture.

There were a few college seniors that went undrafted in 2016, players such as Fred VanVleet Yogi Ferrell that have had better NBA careers to this point that a lot of the underclassmen taken ahead of them.

This isn’t to say that NBA teams should completely abandon taking young, underdeveloped players in the first-round. The Spurs took Dejounte Murray, a freshman point guard, over Brogdon, Wallace, VanVleet and Ferrell. That’s worked out well for them. It’s more a testament to having a good front office and scouting team than anything else.

But maybe NBA teams should start expanding their horizons when it comes to the draft. There appears to be a stigma of sorts when it comes to upperclassmen, particularly college seniors. If a guy can play, he can play. Of course, college production is often not the best means of judging NBA success, but it does count for something.

With the 2018 NBA draft about one month away, there are a few interesting names to look at when it comes to college seniors. Players such as Devonte’ Graham from Kansas, Theo Pinson from North Carolina, Chandler Hutchinson from Boise State, Jevon Carter from West Virginia and Bonzie Colson from Notre Dame are all guys that should be on NBA team’s radars.

Sure, none of those guys are going to turn into a superstar or even an All-Star. But you’re probably going to get a player that becomes a solid contributor for years to come.

Again, it’s understandable when teams take projects in the lottery. After a long season of losing, and in some cases years of losing, ownership and the fanbase are hungry for results. They don’t want a top pick to be used on a player that projects as only a solid contributor.

But after the lottery, the rest of the draft gets a little murky. A good front office will find an NBA caliber player whether he’s a freshman or a senior. The NBA Draft isn’t an exact science. Nothing is ever for sure and no player is guaranteed to become the player they’re projected to be.

College upperclassmen tend to be more physically developed and mentally mature for the NBA game. If what you’re looking for is someone who will step right in and produce for a winning team, then instead of wasting a pick on the unknown, it might be better to go with the sure thing.

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NBA Daily: Are the Houston Rockets in Trouble?

Game 2 of the Western Conference Finals may have been the perfect storm for Houston, writes Shane Rhodes.

Shane Rhodes

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The Houston Rockets took a gut punch from the Golden State Warriors, but they responded in Game 2 of the Western Conference Finals.

After they dropped the first game of the series, Houston evened things up at one apiece Wednesday night with a 127-105 blowout win over Golden State. With the Warriors struggling on the offensive end and Houston rebounding from a less than stellar Game 1, the Rockets rolled through the game with relative ease.

But was their improved demonstration a fluke? While fans may not want to hear it, Game 2 may have been the perfect storm for Houston.

The Rockets’ gameplan didn’t change much from Game 1 to 2. They attacked Steph Curry relentlessly on the offensive end, James Harden and Chris Paul took plenty of shots in isolation and their role players got shots to drop that just weren’t going down in Game 1. Eric Gordon, Trevor Ariza and P.J. Tucker exploded for 68 points while shooting 66.7 percent from three after scoring just 24 the previous game. The trio averaged only 35.8 points collectively during the regular season.

Meanwhile, Golden State couldn’t buy a bucket; starting Warriors not named Kevin Durant scored just 35 points. Curry shot just 1-8 from downtown while Klay Thompson, Draymond Green and Andre Iguadola combined for just 19 points while shooting 35 percent from the floor. All of that will undoubtedly change.

So, going back to Oakland for Game 3, where do the Rockets find themselves? Not in a great place, unfortunately.

Golden State did their job: they stole a game — and home-court advantage — from the Rockets at the Toyota Center. Now, as the series shifts back to Oracle Arena and, assuming the Warriors return to form in front of their home crowd, Houston will have their work more than cut out for them. If Curry, Thompson and Durant all have their shot falling, there isn’t much the Rockets can do to keep up

The Warriors, aside from Curry, played great team defense in Game 2, something that will likely continue into Game 3. The Rockets hit plenty of tough, contested shots — shots that won’t drop as they move away from the energy of the home crowd and shots that Golden State would gladly have Houston take again and again and again. Harden and Paul didn’t exactly bring their A-game in Game 2 either — the two combined for a solid 43 points but took an inefficient 38 shots to get there. If the two of them play like that at Oracle, the Warriors will abuse them in transition, something that can’t happen if the Rockets want to steal back the home-court advantage.

The aforementioned trio of Gordon, Ariza and Tucker are unlikely to replicate their Game 2 performance as well, and relying on them to do so would be foolish on the part of Rockets head coach Mike D’Antoni. Devising a game plan that will keep the offense moving while not leaning heavily on the role players will be of the utmost importance — if the offense returns to the bogged down effort that Houston gave in Game 1, the Rockets stand no chance.

Meanwhile, Warriors head coach Steve Kerr will likely adjust his defense in an effort to limit the Rockets effectiveness in the isolation while also trying to find somewhere to hide Curry on the defensive end. It almost certainly won’t be the same sets that Houston throttled in Game 2 which will take another toll on the Rockets offense, especially if they fail to execute.

Not everything looks bad for Houston, however. Faced with a do-or-die scenario, Harden, Paul and co. were the more aggressive team from the jump. Pushing the pace flustered the Warriors and forced some pretty bad turnovers consistently throughout the night. If they come out with the same kind of energy and pace, the Rockets could have Golden State on their heels as they did in Game 2.

Budding star Clint Capela also has plenty of room to improve his game, as he has averaged just 8.5 points and eight rebounds through the first two games of the series — the Rockets need him to play his best basketball of the season if they want a chance to win.

Still, the Warriors are virtually unbeatable at home. The team has lost three games this postseason, just four times over their last two playoff trips and not once at Oracle, making the Rockets’ task even more daunting than it already was. Like Game 2, Game 3 should be played as a do-or-die situation for the Rockets because, if they don’t come out with the same aggressive, up-tempo energy, things could be over quickly.

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NBA Daily: Hope Not Lost for Mavs

The Dallas Mavericks were the lottery’s biggest losers, but VP of basketball operations Michael Finley still believes the team will land an elite talent.

Joel Brigham

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Dallas Mavericks vice president of basketball operations Michael Finley knows what it’s like to be on the other side of the draft process. In 2018, he’s an executive for the third-worst team in the league that somehow slipped to the fifth overall pick in Tuesday night’s NBA Draft Lottery, but in 1995 he was a kid from the University of Wisconsin hoping to get drafted.

Finley was a first-round pick that summer, ironically selected by the Phoenix Suns, who won the first overall pick in the 2018 NBA Draft earlier this week, but he says he doesn’t even remember the lottery. The lottery wasn’t the event then that it has since become.

“The lottery wasn’t this big when I was in the draft,” Finley told Basketball Insiders. “I don’t even remember how the lottery process played out when I was coming out of college. It’s grown so much, but the league has grown. It’s good for fans, and it’s good for people to get excited about this process.”

Of course, the irony in getting excited about a draft pick isn’t lost on him.

“It’s kind of weird that [fans] are celebrating the losing process, isn’t it?”

Not surprisingly, Finley wasn’t especially thrilled to see his team fail to reap the rewards of a Dallas Mavericks season that was stepped in that losing process. The lottery odds will change next year, and Finley believes that’s a good thing.

“It’s a good thing to change the system a little,” he says. “It will help keep the integrity of the game intact, especially toward the end of the year. It also will be even more suspenseful than these lottery events have been in the past.”

That’s next year, though. This year, the Mavericks are tasked with finding an elite player at a pick lower than they expected. Finley’s trying to look at things optimistically.

“It could have been sixth,” he said. “It’s still in the top five, and going on what we did this season, we don’t want to be in this position next year, so hopefully the guy we pick at #5 will get us out of the lottery and back into the playoffs.”

In fact, having that selection doesn’t preclude the team from finding a star, especially in a draft this loaded. Most agree that Luka Doncic and DeAndre Ayton are the prizes of the draft, but there are other guys available with All-Star potential. Marvin Bagley, Trae Young, Michael Porter, Jr., and Mo Bamba all have incredibly high ceilings. The Mavs may yet do something meaningful with that selection.

“It’s a strong draft, and a lot of the draft is going to go with what player fits what team in a particular system. If you’re lucky enough to get that perfect combination, the players that are in this draft are really good and have the capability of helping a team right away.”

That’s what Finley and the rest of the Mavericks’ organization hopes will happen in 2018-2019.

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