The big man is back in style in the NBA once again. Nikola Jokic, Joel Embiid, and Giannis Antetokounmpo duked it out for this year’s MVP. The Warriors and Celtics boasted versatile defensive frontcourts to defeat them, with Al Horford and Robert Williams III starting for Boston, and Kevon Looney and Draymond Green in Golden State. Though pace, space, and small ball all continue to define the league, bigs have now also migrated to the perimeter, just like shorter players first did years ago.
More big men with perimeter skills are on the way. Two could hear their names called in the top three of Thursday’s 2022 NBA draft. Gonzaga’s Chet Holmgren is one of the best shot blockers to enter the league in years—and he can drain 3s. Duke’s Paolo Banchero is an advanced shot-creator for his age as both a playmaker and scorer. Even 6-foot-10 forward Jabari Smith Jr. could play some 5 in his future. The steady increase of star bigs also necessitates a response from teams to find bigs who can battle interior size other switch onto perimeter scorers.
“It shows how much basketball has evolved,” says Mark Williams, a 7-foot, 242-pound center projected to go in the middle of the first round. “There was a time going small was the thing, and before that you had more of a traditional 5. Now it’s a combination with guys that can do a little bit of everything.”
Williams, who played alongside Banchero, averaged 11.2 points, 7.4 rebounds, and 2.8 blocks during his sophomore year at Duke. At a baseline, he is a high-flying shot blocker who can fulfill his duties as a big on offense by running the floor, rolling hard to the rim, finishing inside, and snatching offensive boards.
He fits more of a throwback mold with a 7-foot-7 wingspan and a 9-foot-9 standing reach, the second tallest in recorded history behind Tacko Fall. Players like him are doing what they can to adapt to a changing league where defending a 7-footer who can create shots from the perimeter is the norm.
When asked which game this past season best displayed his overall skills, Williams pointed to an early-season Duke win over Gonzaga. “We were both undefeated at the time. It was in Vegas, a real big stage. And obviously, a lot of hype went into the game beforehand,” Williams says. “I feel like in that game I was just able to show everything. I simplified things in that game too. I defended without fouling, caught lobs, just did a little bit of everything.”
Williams blocked six shots, showing the ability to stick his arms straight up to challenge the shots of efficient college post scorers like Drew Timme. His help defense was excellent, rotating into the paint to contest shots at the rim. He looked the part of an interior enforcer, but also showed the switchability that makes Time Lord an All-Defensive-team player for the Celtics and not just a weakside shot blocker. Same goes for Looney, who went from crashing the boards to switching on to Luka Doncic in the West finals. Bigs need to be able to at least survive on the outside.
At Duke, Williams was inconsistent when trying to move laterally with outside scorers. But he improved after his freshman season to become competent as a sophomore. He hustles and displays an ability to execute different schemes, whether it’s the drop or a hedge. While training in Miami this summer, he says he’s working on his mobility so that he can be as versatile as possible.
The team that drafts him will help him make a significant stride in that department, just like the Nets did with Jarrett Allen, or the Jazz with Rudy Gobert. With players in Williams’s mold on demand, especially on affordable contracts, the Duke sophomore has solidified himself as a potential lottery pick. Memphis center Jalen Duren is also expected to get drafted, while three other centers (Walker Kessler, Christian Koloko, and Ismael Kamagate) are all projected to go late in the first round or early in the second. But either Duren or Williams will be the first center selected after Holmgren and Banchero.
“Obviously, it’d be pretty cool to be drafted in the lottery. It’s definitely something I want,” Williams said. “But at the end of the day, fit is gonna be the most important thing.”
Last week in Washington, Williams told reporters that his predraft workouts have included the Wizards, Spurs, Knicks, Hornets, and Bulls. All of them select between ninth and 18th.
Williams has a sister, Elizabeth, who graduated from Duke and went fourth in the 2015 WNBA draft. She won Most Improved Player in 2016, and became an All-Star in 2017. Mark saw his sister achieve her dreams while he was still in ninth grade, watching basketball change before his eyes. That same year, Roy Hibbert would play his last season in the NBA at age 30 just three years after being named an All-Star. Gobert got turned into a meme by Steph Curry. And a post scorer in Brook Lopez was suddenly turned into a deep-shooting marksman. The league was changing. Bigs needed to defend on the perimeter, and hopefully shoot 3s. Throughout his career, Williams has not been required to shoot. But it’s something he’s been working on in preparation for the NBA.
“It’s getting to the point that if a defender is backing up, I have the confidence to take the shot,” Williams said. “I’m gonna continue to develop, and be confident to take shots, but I think right now it’s definitely perceived as more of a cherry on top than more of a basis of my game.”
As a sophomore, he hit five of his nine jumpers, according to Synergy. It’s a tiny sample, but he also went from 53.7 to 72.7 percent from the line after making that a focus in his training the summer prior. Williams has gone from a projected pick in the 20s to the mid-teens in part due to his progress. In college, he hit some impressive shots, including a turnaround from the right baseline against Michigan State. In the pros he’ll just need to shoot standstill 3s like Lopez, Jonas Valancinuas, or one of the many bigs who have stretched their games behind the line so he can play with anyone in the frontcourt.
“I work like I want it immediately,” Williams said of succeeding in the NBA. “Obviously, that’s not gonna be the case. But I have to continue working on my game even if I’m not getting the opportunity to do things right away.”
If Williams gets drafted by a team that features a higher-usage pick-and-roll creator like LaMelo Ball in Charlotte or DeMar DeRozan in Chicago, his primary role would be to screen and finish with power at the rim. Against Gonzaga, he put Holmgren on a poster.
As enticing as Williams’s highlights are, he says he gets just as much satisfaction doing the little things a center is asked to do, like a tip-out for an offensive board.
“That might not necessarily be cute, but it helps you win,” he says.
The NBA changed, but the big man was never dead. A wave of superstars and stars in their roles have just entered the league. The team that drafts Williams will be hoping he can be another big one who does a little bit of everything.