Alan Williams is back. With a vengeance.
...Okay. So maybe not a vengeance. If anything, maybe a roar of delight. The always effervescent center was given a partially guaranteed contract towards the end of last season, and when the Phoenix Suns chose not to cut him before training camp that contract became fully guaranteed. It appears pretty likely he is here to stay, at least for this year.
Given the construction of the Suns roster, keeping Williams makes sense. He'll be 24 in January, and has played just one year professionally. There is still some development potential. At the same time, Williams is well known for his attitude, receiving accolades for his practice work ethic, his bench demeanor and his acceptance of his role. Being the third center on the roster isn't likely to faze him.
Williams never got a particularly strong introduction to Suns fans last season, as he was brought in at the tail end of a forgettable season. What does he bring to the table?
Williams is an undersized center, in the mold of a Chuck Hayes. He is a below average scorer, with relatively limited range beyond 8-12 feet. His lateral quickness isn't actually that bad for a center (he was middle of the pack at his draft combine by most measures), but because of his height disadvantage taller, more agile players can usually score around him. Part of this is an issue of defensive form, which I will return to shortly.
Williams' top level skill is his offensive rebounding. At 260 pounds, Williams is the largest player on the Suns roster. And while Williams might have a height disadvantage on the boards, he makes up for it with a really impressive 7'2 wingspan. Using his weight and his long arms, Williams is often able to simply force taller players out of the way in order to grab rebounds. This was on display during the recent game against the Utah Jazz. Williams struggled offensively, hitting only 2/7 shots, but had 7 offensive rebounds. On one possession, he rebounded his own miss 3 times.
If Williams wants to solidify at least a minimal role in the regular rotation, he is going to have to learn to focus on his rebounding strength. Big Sauce is always going to have problems scoring through contact, over taller players, and so should be focusing on retaining possession rather than getting quick put-backs. This emphasis on rebounding and kicking the ball back out is a tough sell for any player, especially those that are used to being the focal point of the offense, as Williams was both in college at UCSB and in China, but it will be a key for Williams to build on-the-court trust with his teammates and coaches.
Williams must also improve on the defensive end. He doesn't have the best form on defense, often playing too rigid and not always taking the best positions or angles. Given his limited athleticism and lack of size, these are errors that will seriously impinge on his playing time. Luckily for Williams, improving here is much more of a mental challenge than a physical one. Investing the time into studying defensive patterns, player tendencies and the like will help Williams to better position himself for limited playing time.
Make no mistake, Williams is not competing for a rotation spot, but he is competing for a role. Both Tyson Chandler andAlex Len have had recent histories of injury. None of the rookies is a natural center, and even the 7'1 Bender is unlikely to be very successful in that role if Chandler or Len have to miss time given his slight frame.
Williams' challenge this season isn't to get minutes, but Earl Watson's trust. A successful season will be one in which Watson isn't hesitant to use Williams when Len or Chandler are hurt, or need rest. If Williams can focus himself on shoring up his defensive activities while narrowing his offensive ambitions, I think that trust is likely to come.