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NBA AM: Williams Proves Patience Is Key

After a long journey, Alan Williams has earned every cent of his major payday.

Ben Nadeau

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On Wednesday, the Phoenix Suns officially re-signed restricted free agent Alan Williams to a three-year deal worth $17 million, earning the big man his first-ever NBA payday. For the once-undrafted Williams, his journey took him halfway around the world and back before he got a chance to prove that he belonged in the league. The Suns’ commitment to Williams proves that sometimes all you need is a little luck and whole lot of hard work before those lifelong dreams can finally be realized.

In college, Williams played at UC Santa Barbara for four years, accomplishing a laundry list of broken records and award-winning campaigns. In fact, Williams is the school’s all-time leader in rebounds, an achievement that followed up his Big West Conference Player of the Year honors in 2013-14. During his junior and senior year seasons, Williams led the entire NCAA in rebounds per game. All in all, Williams’ collegiate career ended with a double-double average of 15.5 points and 10 rebounds, even adding 1.9 blocks and a steal per contest for good measure.

Still, the undersized Williams went undrafted in 2015 and he joined the summer league circuit in an attempt to latch on somewhere, anywhere. After playing for the Charlotte Hornets in Orlando and the Houston Rockets in Las Vegas – earning an All-NBA Summer League Second Team selection with the latter – Williams was still unsigned and nowhere closer to reaching his NBA goals. So, Williams turned to China and joined the Qingdao DoubleStar Eagles of the CBA, absolutely dominating the league to the tune of 20.8 points, 15.4 rebounds and 1.6 blocks over his short-lived tenure of 35 games.

That overseas annihilation of China would lead to a 10-day deal with the Suns in March of 2016, an opportunity that eventually turned into a multi-year contract. Williams still flew under the radar for most of 2016-17, as the young talents of Devin Booker, Marquese Chriss and Dragan Bender often earned the few headlines on a poor 24-58 Suns team. Competing for minutes behind Tyson Chandler and Alex Len, Williams only played about 15 minutes per game for the Suns last season but managed to make the most of them by averaging 7.4 points and 6.2 rebounds.

This week, though, as his long and winding road finally reached its conclusion, the new-found security for Williams is something he’s never felt before.

“Unreal,” Williams said to Scott Bordow of AZCentral Sports. “To sign that piece of paper basically solidifies myself as an NBA player.”

Sculpted straight from the mold of an old-school athlete, Williams has certainly earned his place in the NBA for the immediate future. At the age of 24, Williams quickly developed an impressive feel for the professional level, using his strong motor to carry himself defensively against bigger competition. Offensively, his game around the rim has improved too, and Williams’ creative movements allow him to manufacture high percentage attempts without holding any immense athletic advantage.

Given his reputation as a strong rebounder and a worthy “energy” player, Williams had done enough to hang around last season, but his chance to prove that he permanently belonged would not come until late February.

Following the All-Star break, the Suns decided to commit more minutes to both Williams and Len prior to their big offseasons and, once they did, the former blossomed. Williams ripped off 12 double-doubles in the final 25 games of the season and likely earned his multi-million dollar deal based on that unleashed growth alone. Now with three of the five starting positions locked down – Booker, Chriss and rookie Josh Jackson – the Suns have been looking for their center of the future and they may have found a gem in Williams.

In that same piece by Bordow, general manager Ryan McDonough was quoted on Williams’ role on the court and in the locker room, reflecting on just how far he’s come since that initial 10-day contract.

“The thing that stands out to me, when you talk to the guys in the locker room and ask them who their favorite teammate is, who their favorite person in the locker room is, who has their back, who has great energy and belief and spirit when he’s not playing and when he gets on the court he plays his role very well and helps his team win,” McDonough said, “I think Alan is the guy that would get more votes . . . than maybe all the other guys combined.”

But with Chandler turning 35 years old before the season begins in October and Len’s status as a restricted free agent still very much up in the air, Williams has an opportunity to grab an even larger role in 2017-18. Out in the stacked Western Conference, the Suns are most likely headed for the lottery once again, but it’ll be an excellent chance for Williams to learn from the veteran center – who asked not to be traded last winter for that exact reason – and expand his game even further.

At just 6-foot-8, Williams must use his craftiness to compete with some of the game’s largest players, utilizing his soft touch in the paint to make up for that difference in size. Since joining the Suns, Williams has refined and mastered his quirky style in the post, often sneaking into small pockets of space for an easy layup or opting for a silky floater somewhere closer to the free throw line. Per 36 minutes, Williams averaged a whopping 4.8 offensive rebounds in 2016-17, a mark that would even make prime Dwight Howard blush.

Williams’ play isn’t flashy or idyllic, but it puts points on the board and awards his team plenty of second-chance opportunities – something all other 29 franchises would love to bring off the bench this upcoming season.

Even if Chandler returns for another full year, Williams’ role will most certainly expand after his impressive streak to finish off his first 82-game NBA season. But this type of eye-opening run isn’t new from Williams, it’s been here all along. From dominating Division I at UC Santa Barbara to leading the league in rebounds out in China, Williams has excelled in every situation he’s been in. Of course, per-36 numbers are rarely a 100 percent accurate translation of a player’s skills when those extra minutes finally do arrive, but for Williams, those predictions may be grounded in something wholly realistic.

For the tough-as-nails Williams, his skill set allows him to grab rebounds at an elite rate and convert a high percentage of his attempts since he rarely wanders outside of his sweet spots. So while the rest of the league obsesses over finding the next three-point shooting center, Williams is more than happy to fill his niche as a gritty, inventive player that would feel more at home in the physical era of the 1990s. But most importantly, Williams has been that guy for his entire career, both on this continent and on the other side of the planet, grinding it out in hopes of catching the eye of just one NBA franchise.

Now Alan Williams has $17 million examples to prove how his hard work has finally paid off.

Ben Nadeau is a Boston-based writer in his first year with Basketball Insiders. For the last five seasons, he covered the Brooklyn Nets for The Brooklyn Game.

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NBA Daily: Spurs Enter New Territory After Moving Parker To Reserve Role

The San Antonio Spurs are seemingly entering a new phase as Tony Parker has been moved to a reserve role.

James Blancarte

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San Antonio Spurs head coach Gregg made a significant change to his rotation earlier this week. On Sunday, January 21 Popovich placed guard Dejounte Murray into the starting lineup in place of Tony Parker. The Spurs went on to lose the game at home to the Indiana Pacers. The result was the same as a losing effort in Friday’s matchup against the Toronto Raptors in Toronto.

The San Antonio Spurs came into the 2017-18 hoping to bounce back from last year’s playoffs where the team suffered injuries to Kawhi Leonard and Parker and eventually lost to the Golden State Warriors. This season started off with the Spurs surviving without Leonard and Parker as the two continued to rehab from lingering injuries. As of now, Leonard is once again taking time off to rehabilitate after playing in nine games while Parker has been able to stay healthy so far. Unfortunately, being healthy enough to play doesn’t make up for the inevitable decline that comes with age and injuries.

On the season, Parker is averaging a career low in minutes (21.6), assists (4.0) and points (8.2), as well as free throws made and attempted per game. His usage rate, player efficiency rating (PER) and shooting percentages are also all at or around career lows. It’s hard to argue against the notion that Parker, at 35 years old with 17 years of pro basketball under his belt, is in the twilight of his impressive career.

Parker has acknowledged his demotion but seems to be handling it like a true professional.

“[Popovich] told me he thought it was time, and I was like, ‘no problem.’ Just like Manu [Ginobili], just like Pau [Gasol], you know that day is going to come,” Parker said recently. .

Before Sunday’s game, Parker had started 1151 of 1164 games played, all with the Spurs of course.

Popovich was asked specifically if the plan was either to start Murray at point guard moving forward or if this switch in the lineup was a part of some kind of injury management program for Parker. Never known for being overly loquacious, Popovich responded with little detail or insight.

“We’ll see,” Popovich stated.

In the starting lineup, Murray logged eight points, four assists, seven rebounds, three steals and one block in nearly 28 minutes of action. Murray had previously started before Parker returned from injury earlier this season but eventually relinquished that spot to career reserve guard Patty Mills.

Parker also spoke of the benefit of coming off the bench and potentially mentoring Murray’s growth in his new presumed role as the starter.

“If Pop [Coach Popovich] sees something that is good for the team, I will try to do my best,” Parker said. “I will support Pop’s decision and I will try to help DJ [Murray] as best as I can and try to be the best I can in the second unit with Manu [Ginobili] and Patty [Mills].”

If nothing else, this move will allow the Spurs to see if Parker can be more effective in limited minutes against opposing bench units. Additionally, Parker will hopefully benefit from playing alongside his longtime running mate, Ginobli.

Parker’s willingness to mentor Murray may come as a relief to Spurs fans watching the ongoing dismantling of San Antonio’s former Big-3, which began with the retirement of future Hall-of-Famer, Tim Duncan. At 6-foot-5, Murray benefits from greater size and athleticism than Parker, although Murray failed to keep the starting job when given an opportunity earlier this season. Coach Popovich gave another straightforward answer when asked which areas he thinks Murray can improve in.

“He’s 21-years-old,” Popovich declared. “He can improve in all areas.”

After asking for a trade in the offseason, the Spurs have benefited from focusing their offense around LaMarcus Aldridge, who is having a bounce-back campaign. However, Leonard is now out indefinitely and the Minnesota Timberwolves have now caught the Spurs in the standings. The pressure is on for this resilient Spurs team, which has again managed to beat the odds despite an injured and aging roster.

Parker became a starter for the Spurs at age 19 and never looked back. Now all eyes are on Murray to see how well he performs in his second stint with the starters at a crucial point in the season.

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Sources: Milwaukee Bucks Fire Coach Jason Kidd

Basketball Insiders

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The Milwaukee Bucks have fired coach Jason Kidd, sources ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski.

Source: Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN

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Defensive Player Of The Year Watch – 1/22/17

Spencer Davies checks into the DPOY race with his latest list of candidates.

Spencer Davies

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It’s a new year and Basketball Insiders is continuing its Defensive Player of the Year watch with sample sizes widening and new players emerging in the conversation.

There were a couple of names knocked out of the list, but that gives more of a spotlight to those who have really stepped up since our last edition ran on December 29. Without further ado, let’s get into it.

 6. Hassan Whiteside

After missing nearly a month of action with a knee injury, Whiteside has returned with a vengeance. The Miami HEAT were already a good defensive team before he came back, but he’s really bolstered that reputation even further. Since Dec. 26, the 7-foot center has recorded eight multi-block games. In five of those, he had at least four swats, including a six-rejection performance in a win at Milwaukee. Overall in ESPN’s Defensive Real-Plus Minus, Whiteside owns by far the best rating at 4.73. “Agent Block” is back and daring all comers to try him.

5. Anthony Davis

Slowly but surely, the New Orleans Pelicans are creeping away from the bottom of the league in defensive rating. Once ranked in the bottom five a few weeks ago, they’ve shot up to 18th in the league (108.4) rather quickly. While that’s not the most impressive statistic to provide, the obvious reason for their improved standing on that end of the floor is Davis. He’s been an absolute workhorse for Alvin Gentry in the restricted area as an elite rim protector, with a heavy responsibility and a ton of minutes. Without him on the floor, the Pels are allowing 8.9 more points per 100 possessions, which puts Davis in the 96th percentile according to Cleaning The Glass.

4. Josh Richardson

Notice there are two members of the HEAT on this list. It’s because they are on fire right now, no pun intended, so it’s about time they received some love in the conversation for DPOY. Whiteside was addressed first, but if we’re talking about a greater sample size with consistent evidence, Richardson fits the bill. Opponents are attempting over 11 shots per game against him, yet are only making 38.9 percent of those tries. That’s the lowest conversion rate in the league with a minimum of 10 attempts.

Battling injuries a season ago, Richardson has played in all 46 games for Miami this year. While it’s been a team effort, he is the heart and soul of Erik Spoelstra’s defense, taking on the most difficult assignments each game. For that reason, he deserves long overdue recognition on this list.

3. Kevin Durant

This isn’t a case where Durant is slipping because of his performances. He’s only ranked third this time around because of the job others have done outside of him. The Golden State Warriors are still a juggernaut on both sides of the court. He’s still a top-notch individual defender. The numbers don’t suggest otherwise and the eye test certainly confirms it.

In isolation situations, Durant is allowing only 0.53 points per possession, which is second in the NBA to only Tony Snell. When it comes to crunch time, he’s always locking up. In fourth quarters, he is limiting the competition to shooting less than 30 percent—and his defended field goal percentage and field goal percentage discrepancy is the best in the league at -17.2. He’s got as good of a chance as anybody to take home DPOY.

2. Joel Embiid

Everybody loves to focus on the off-court antics and hilarities that come with Embiid, but the man deserves his due when it comes to his reputation in the NBA as a truly dominant big. The Philadelphia 76ers have won seven out of their last eight games and it has started on the defensive end of the floor.

Take the games against Boston, for example. Al Horford is a crucial part of the Celtics offense and has had problems getting going against the 23-year-old. In the 22 minutes per game, he’s been on the floor along with him, Horford has been held to below 30 percent from the field on an average of nine attempts. With Embiid off, he’s converted nearly 73 percent of his tries.

Another matchup you can examine is with Andre Drummond. The two have had their fair share of words with each other, but Embiid’s had the edge one-on-one. Similar to Horford, the Detroit Pistons big man has had a rough time against him. Embiid has limited Drummond to under 38 percent on five attempts per game in an average of over 23 minutes on the floor together. When he’s not playing, Drummond has had close to a 78 percent success rate.

Regarding centers, Embiid ranks second in ESPN’s DRPM and fifth in Basketball Reference’s Defensive Box Plus-Minus. Citing Cleaning The Glass, the Sixers are allowing 10 more points per 100 possessions when he’s sitting, which slots Embiid into the 97th percentile.

He’s altering shots. He’s blocking shots. He’s forcing kick outs. And that’s a big reason why the NBA gave Embiid its Eastern Conference Player of the Week honors. Trust The Process.

1. Paul George

Basketball Insiders was well represented this past Saturday in Cleveland when the Oklahoma City Thunder decimated the Cavaliers in their own building. The focus was on the “OK3” exposing a terrible defense, but the real story in this game was how in-tune and sound George was on both ends of the court. He was sizzling shooting the basketball, but perhaps more defining was shutting down LeBron James on a day that was supposed to belong to him.

Any time 23 got the ball to try and get the Cavs going, George was there. He suffocated him with pressure, forcing James into bad decisions and contested shots. The talk of the day was the 30,000-point mark, but PG-13 had other ideas.

“I was hopeful that it took two games for him to get to that,” George said after the 148-124 win at Quicken Loans Arena. “I actually didn’t know that stat until right before coming into [Saturday]. They told me he needed 25 to go to 30,000. I’ve been a part of a lot of those baskets that he’s had, so that’s an achievement or milestone I didn’t want to be a part of.”

Thunder teammate Steven Adams spoke to his prowess on that end of the floor.

“He’s a really good defender man,” Adams said. “It was like a perfect matchup, honestly. He played LeBron really well in terms of our system and what we want him doing. He did an amazing job there.”

Oklahoma City head coach Billy Donovan is a huge fan as well.

“He really I think puts forth good effort,” Donovan said pre-game. “He’s long, smart. He’s disruptive. He’s got good feet. He’s a physical defender. He’s hard to shoot over. Certainly, with he and Andre [Roberson] on the wings, that’s certainly bolstered our defense.”

That was one performance, but it’s obvious how much George brings to the table as one of the toughest guys to score on in this league. He’s got a league-leading 188 deflections and is tied with Eric Bledsoe at the top of the NBA with 2.2 steals per game.

Recently, the Thunder have allowed 91 points at most in three of their last four games. They are also in the top three allowing just 104.7 points per 100 possessions and George has been a huge part of that.

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