When this season started, then-23-year old Alan Williams was best known for his inspirational story as an undrafted free agent, undersized and fighting for a spot on the Suns roster. He had played only 68 minutes in his NBA career, spot duty in garbage time at the end of last season.
There weren’t many reasons to expect much from the 6’8” center with little athleticism and virtually no offensive game outside the paint. Veteran Tyson Chandler and highly touted youngster Alex Len stood above him on the depth chart, and the Suns have invested significant amounts in each. Williams’ role would be to wave a towel on the sideline. (To his credit, he excels at this.)
Then the Suns’ season followed its predictable path to the Western Conference cellar, and the front office decided to “shut down” veterans Eric Bledsoe, Brandon Knight and Chandler late in the season. Chandler’s last game was #57 of the season, before the All-Star break on February 15. Len was given the starting spot, and Williams the role as primary backup.
By most measures, the unheralded Williams outplayed former #5 overall pick Len, gobbling up rebounds at near Chandler’s superb rate, and showing nifty moves and a floater around the basket. Let’s break down Williams’ game on both ends of the floor:
Williams’ limitations in length and athleticism prevent him from ever being more than a bit player on the offensive end, converting easy, assisted buckets and rebound putbacks. Unfortunately, he lacks a jump shot outside of a few feet, which could really help make up for the lack of height at his position.
Nevertheless, he ranked 4th among regulars on the roster in points/36 minutes at 17.6, posting a perfectly respectable .547 TS%, excellent 19.5 PER and 113 O-Rating. He’s limited, but understands those limitations and plays within himself. As Tyler Ulis earned more minutes late in the season, the pair became an effective tandem, savvy players carving up defenses in a two-man game. Williams also led the team in offensive rebound % at 14.0, besting even rebounding machine Chandler.
His impact on team offense was less impressive, as he ranked 11th among regulars in offensive box +/-. Williams’ lack of range hurts spacing, and the Suns offense generally performs better when they go with smaller shooters. Still, his individual offensive production was solid.
Grade: B+ Expectations matter, and his were the lowest of the low, yet he produced effectively when given the opportunity. If he had added an adequate jump shot out to around 15 feet, I’d have given him an A. There’s still plenty of time for young Sauce to add this skill.
When it comes to NBA big men on the defensive end, rim protection and rebounding are the traits teams desire: one denies easy points in the paint, the other second chance opportunities.
Williams isn’t what you’d expect when you picture a rim protector. He’s short for his position and not an explosive leaper. And while he’ll never be confused for Dikembe Mutombo or even a young Tyson Chandler, he posted a decent 1.6 blocks/36 minutes, good for second on the team behind Len, and better than super-athletes Marquese Chriss and Derrick Jones, Jr.
It’s difficult to quantify defensive performance, but Williams’ 106 D-Rating was the best on the team. His contribution to team defense was also impressive, as he was one of only 5 Suns players to register a positive in defensive box +/-. His heady play and high energy help overcome his physical shortcomings on defense just as they do on offense.
Rebounding is where Williams truly shines, with 14.8 total rebounds per 36 minutes and 10.1 defensive rebounds/36. In the 19 games Williams played at least 20 minutes, he tallied double digit rebounding totals 16 times, including a season high 17 and three 15 rebound performances.
This is elite production, and it continues the monster rebounding numbers he put up for the Gauchos at UC-Santa Barbara. If he had played enough minutes to qualify this season, Williams would have ranked 5th in the NBA in total rebound %, tied for 5th in defensive rebound % and tied for 4th in offensive rebound %.
On the downside, Williams followed the unfortunate pattern of the Suns overall in committing fouls at an excessive rate of 6.4/36 minutes. In other words, all these “per 36 minute” statistics are rendered moot because he would have fouled out before making it to 36 minutes. This is a serious problem he’ll have to rectify, though he did show marked improvement from his rookie season.
Grade: B. I’m counting defensive rebounding as a part of defense, and Williams was sensational in that area. He’s not a shut down defender, not a player who will intimidate opponents from coming into the paint, but is effective at positioning himself and playing smart team defense, then devouring any available rebound close by. Cut down on the fouls, and Williams will be a fine defensive player.
After incumbent, 4-time Dan Majerle Hustle Award winner PJ Tucker was traded at the deadline, Williams was voted this year’s recipient due to his non-stop, high energy play. If he sticks around, it’s possible he can replicate Tucker’s former stranglehold on the award.
A free agent going into this summer, the Suns face a decision on Williams. How much is such a player worth? Will he give the team a hometown discount to stay in Phoenix? He’s proven himself a viable backup, but can he improve to the level of a solid starter?
I’ll leave it to others to guess the salary Williams will command, but would certainly welcome him back for the right deal as a backup to either Chandler or Len, assuming one or the other departs.
On the other hand, if the Suns choose to keep Len instead of Williams, I’ll be disappointed. Len looks the part, has more physical talent, but Williams displays far superior basketball skills, feel for the game and production. The former undrafted free agent surpassed the 2013 #5 pick, and it actually wasn’t even close as the competition unfolded down the stretch.
Williams earns an “A” from me. If anyone had told us one year ago that he’d produce the way he did in 2016-17, we’d all have been ecstatic over it. Again, role and expectations matter, and he nailed his. Now, I’m keeping my fingers crossed the Suns re-sign him and we can watch him continue to blossom as a hometown hero.
All statistics sourced from BasketballReference.com.