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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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Dejounte Murray: The Spurs’ Latest Steal

The Spurs have a history of drafting talented players late in the draft. Dejounte Murray is emerging as their most recent steal, writes David Yapkowitz.

David Yapkowitz

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It seems like almost every NBA season, the San Antonio Spurs end up selecting a player late in the draft who unexpectedly goes on to become a valuable contributor, sometimes even a star. The entire draft in itself can often be a crapshoot, but the lower the pick, the lower the chances of a team finding a solid rotation player. But with the Spurs, it’s as if they hit far more often than they miss.

Their pick from a year ago is shaping up to be no exception as the injury to starting point guard Tony Parker has opened up a huge opportunity for Dejounte Murray; one that he is taking advantage of.

There is a lot of preparation by analysts leading up to the NBA draft. Several mock drafts are created up until draft night itself. Murray was often projected to be a high first-round pick, possibly even a lottery pick. He had a solid freshman season at the University of Washington where he averaged 16.1 points per game, six rebounds, and 4.4 assists.

Draft night arrived and he ended up slipping to the bottom of the first round (29th overall), far later than he had anticipated. Following his selection, LeBron James himself, who is represented by the same sports agency as Murray, tweeted out some words of encouragement for the young rookie. He let Murray know that he may not have been drafted where he wanted to, but that he was with the best organization in the league.

Murray pretty much rode the bench last season as a rookie, which is not at all uncommon for a first-year player on a veteran team with championship aspirations. He was inactive for most of the final two months of the season. In the first round of the playoffs against the Memphis Grizzlies, and most of the second round against the Houston Rockets, he was relegated to garbage time duty. Perhaps if he’d been drafted as high as initially projected, he might have had a bigger opportunity at getting minutes right away.

That all changed, however, against Houston in Game 2 when Parker went down with the injury that he is still recuperating from. Murray was thrust into the starting lineup and he responded as well as an inexperienced rookie under the bright lights of the playoffs could. In Game 4, although the Spurs lost, he had eight points on 50 percent shooting along with three assists. He actually didn’t play in Game 5, but in the Spurs closeout Game 6 win, he poured in 11 points, ten rebounds, five assists and two steals while shooting 50 percent from the field.

Even though the Spurs were ultimately swept in the Western Conference Finals against the Golden State Warriors, Murray continued his steady play with 8.3 points, 3.8 assists, and three steals.

At the start of this season, Murray has taken his momentum from the end of last season and carried it over. He was given the starting point guard spot in place of Parker on opening night against the Minnesota Timberwolves. He responded on national television with 16 points on 7-8 shooting from the field, five rebounds, two assists and two steals.

It’s still too early to tell, but it’s highly possible that the Spurs have found their starting point guard of the future once Parker eventually decides to hang it up. At 6-foot-5, Murray is a tall point guard and his length gives him the potential to develop into an elite defensive player. He can score the basketball and he is improving his court vision and playmaking.

One area he could improve in is his outside shooting. Although he did shoot 39.1 percent from the three-point line last season, he only took 0.6 attempts. In his lone college season, he shot 28.8 percent from downtown. If he can improve his range and really begin to put together his entire package of skills, we’ll be talking yet again about how the Spurs bamboozled the rest of the league and found a draft-day gem.

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NBA Saturday: Jabari Bird Experiences The NBA Whirlwind

Jabari Bird entered a hostile environment Friday night after being on his couch just three days before.

Dennis Chambers

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When Gordon Hayward suffered a season-ending injury six minutes into the Boston Celtics’ season on Wednesday, he wasn’t the only player who saw his season changed in the blink of an eye.

“I was at home in California watching the game as a fan,” Jabari Bird said.

Bird was the 56th overall pick in last June’s NBA Draft. After playing his college ball at the University of California, the Celtics gave the 6-foot-6 swingman a shot to continue his career. After impressing throughout the preseason, Bird was signed to a two-way contract with Boston and returned home to the west coast.

That didn’t last long.

“After the game was over my phone was going off that I had to get on the quickest flight to Boston,” Bird said about opening night. “Got in 7:30 the next morning, suited up against Milwaukee, now I’m here in Philly.”

With the massive hole Hayward left in Boston’s roster due to his injury, the Celtics are going to have to turn to some unlikely performers throughout the season to pick up the slack. Bird didn’t light up the scoreboard or stuff his stat sheet, posting just three points and one rebound in 13 minutes of play. But down the stretch in a close game against the Philadelphia 76ers Friday night, Bird came up big on defense.

As the Celtics trailed the Sixers 61-53 with six minutes remaining in the third quarter, Bird subbed in for Jaylen Brown and was tasked with guarding J.J. Redick, who was in the midst of carrying Philadelphia with his lights out shooting.

After wiping away the Sixers lead and gaining an 86-84 advantage in the fourth quarter, the Celtics still had Bird sticking Redick. The Sixers’ shooting guard — and highest paid player — rose up for another three-point attempt which would’ve given Philadelphia a late lead and a momentum shift at home with a raucous crowd behind them. Only this time, Bird’s hand was in his face and the shot attempt didn’t find the back of the net.

In a big-time moment on the road, for a team facing a potential three-game losing streak to start the season, the unlikely rookie answered the call.

“Like I said before, he’s one of the best shooters in the NBA, really good perimeter scorer,” Bird said of Redick. “For the team to trust me with that responsibility, with us being down on the road needing to get a win, I was hyped up and ready to go. I was ready for the challenge.”

Placing such a responsibility like guarding Redick on a night where it seemed like the Sixers marksman couldn’t miss on a player who was sitting on his couch three nights ago seems like a bold strategy. Head coach Brad Stevens, however, knew what he was doing.

“All the way through preseason and training camp I felt like he was one of our better perimeter defenders,” Stevens said. “I think he has huge upside. His rebounding spoke for itself in preseason practices. His ability to guard off the ball, especially shooters coming off screens is just really good. He’s not afraid, and you knew he’d step up.”

Going from the couch to a red-eye flight from California to Boston, to the bench in Milwaukee, to the court in Philadelphia is nothing short of a whirlwind experience. With such a series of events, it’s hard to be coached into that moment. As a player, sometimes you have to just go out and play.

“I wasn’t prepared at all for tonight. Mentally I just had to lock into the game,” Bird said. “Coach just looked at me and said ‘Bird get Jaylen.’ ‘Alright.’ So that’s what I did.”

After signing Hayward to $127 million contract this summer, the Celtics were expecting the small forward to provide an elite scoring 1-2 scoring punch with Kyrie Irving. Obviously, at least for this season, Boston will need to move forward without that possibility. An opening night loss, followed by another defeat to Milwaukee the following night, had the Celtics 0-2 heading into Philadelphia and searching for answers a lot sooner than they may have anticipated just a week ago.

Bird’s journey during his first week in professional basketball represents how quickly things can change, and how the ripple effects of injuries and other moves have far outreaching waves.

“I was already packed, I was ready to go to the G-League,” Bird said. “We had training camp coming up. My bags were already packed, I was ready to get out the house. Then I got the call to go to Boston and I was like alright I’m ready to go, just gimmie a flight. And that’s what happened.”

All-star point guard, and Bird’s new teammate, Kyrie Irving doesn’t foresee the rookie leaving the clubhouse anytime soon. With the adversity the Boston Celtics have felt in the first week of the 2017-18 season, Bird’s addition and impact are a prime example of being ready when your number is called, and the culture this team is looking to create.

“Jabari is now probably gonna be on every trip with us,” Irving said. “Guys are gonna be called up and called upon to be ready to play. We just have to have that expectation that when we come into the game we’re gonna be able to play, and we trust one another and have each other’s backs.”

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Mavs Guard Devin Harris on Personal Leave from Team

Basketball Insiders

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Guard Devin Harris will take an indefinite leave from the Dallas Mavericks after the tragic death of his brother, Bruce.

“I was with him yesterday and just encouraged him that when he’s ready to come on back,” coach Rick Carlisle said. “I don’t know when that will be. He can take as long as he needs.”

Source: Tim MacMahon of ESPN

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