Mark Williams could’ve done all this a year ago.
The NBA Draft, turning pro, making mountains of money: all of it. And why shouldn’t he have? In the final game of Williams’ freshman season at Duke, he broke Ralph Sampson’s freshman record for rebounds in an ACC tournament game, with 19 boards. Over Williams’ last nine games as a freshman, he averaged 13.6 points, 6.6 rebounds and 1.9 blocks, all while shooting better than 70 percent from the floor. So, that metaphorical momentum we all speak of? Williams had plenty of it had he wanted to leave Durham and get a jump-start on the next stage of his basketball journey.
But he didn’t. He explored the draft process a year ago before ultimately deciding to return for a sophomore season with the Blue Devils. And with his return came goals — literal ones, that he even took the liberty to write down.
“Things that he wanted to accomplish,” says Duke associate head coach Chris Carrawell. “We held him accountable.”
On the list: to be named as an All-ACC honoree … and to be conference defensive player of the year… and Naismith Defensive Player of the Year … and to win a national title … and, eventually, to become a first-round draft pick.
Well, over the last 12 months, Williams checked off damn near every one of those boxes — and now he’s got the last one ticked, too, courtesy of the Charlotte Hornets selecting him No. 15 in Thursday’s NBA Draft.
What makes Williams arguably the best true center prospect in this year’s class? A handful of things. Start with his physique, namely that the 20-year-old stands at 7-foot-2 in shoes, with a monstrous 7-7 wingspan and 9-9 standing reach. (Since Williams’ departure this spring, Duke has fittingly installed a new wingspan sign in its facility bearing his picture.) It’s that frame that makes Williams such an attractive lob threat on offense, and what forms the basis of his defensive identity.
So, let’s dig in there. Defensive identity. You mean, as one of the best shot-blockers and rim-protectors in this class? Williams had the No. 17 block percentage in college basketball last season, per KenPom, averaging 2.8 blocks per night. In fact, he had almost twice as many multiple-block games in college (41) as he did games with just one or no blocks (21).
“We built it from the inside out,” Carrawell says. “You’ve got to protect our paint.”
Perhaps even more interesting than Williams learning how to block shots was learning when not to. At points earlier this season, Williams would go so hard for blocks on seemingly every 2-point attempt that he was putting himself out of position for defensive rebounds off misses. Instead, Mike Kryzewski and his staff had to teach Williams when not to go for “hero” blocks, and instead to get in position for follow-up rebounds.
But that’s not where Williams’ defensive growth ended. Williams struggled earlier in the season with defending quicker wings and forwards on the perimeter — Duke ended up having to play drop coverage and even zone in the NCAA Tournament to accommodate — but improved once the staff gave him a specific drill. Spencer Hubbard, a 5-8 guard on the scout team, would dribble around the perimeter … and Williams, over a foot taller, had to try to keep up. It wasn’t a perfect fix — how well Williams will hold up as a switching perimeter defender is a point of argument among scouts and evaluators — but there was still serious growth.
That’s without even mentioning Williams on the offensive end, where he’s the epitome of a rim-runner. Per KenPom, Williams had the No. 2 offensive ratings in college basketball last season, aided by the fact that he hit 2-pointers at the fifth-best rate (72.3 percent) in the sport. Digging deeper into Williams’ metrics only reveals more upside. He was one of the rare players to measure in the 100th percentile of scoring efficiency, per Synergy, averaging 1.308 points per possession (PPP). Most of his scoring came in traditional methods — post-ups, lobs, transition and as a roller — but there may also be some shooting upside here down the road. How much is in the eyes of each individual front office, but given that he hit 72.7 percent of his free throws and flashed some potential from elbow range, it’s not out of the question that Williams grows into more of a shooting threat.
The basis of this pick, though, is for a low-usage, high-efficiency offensive, big who also can protect the paint with the best of them. It’s not hard to envision Williams catching lobs and running the floor in transition from Day 1, in addition to the obvious shot-blocking and deterrent inside. So even if his offensive game never extends all the way to the perimeter, what’s a fair expectation for Williams’ career?
“He should be a starter in the NBA for a long time,” Carrawell says, “and a really good player.”
(Photo: Kelley L Cox / USA Today)