Mark Williams's Pick-and-Roll Defense | The Friday Screener
Mark Williams continues to prove that he is one of the most NBA ready center prospects through his stellar pick-and-roll defense.
Mark Williams burst onto the scene late last season, but he has firmly cemented himself this year as one of the best center prospects in the 2022 NBA Draft. Williams is a low usage center who has some of the best hands in the country, consistently runs the floor, and dunks everything. While his offensive game is easy to implement in any rotation, NBA teams will covet him for his defense. While Williams is an exceptional shot blocker (fifth-highest block percentage among high major conferences), his pick-and-roll defense is what sets him apart from most centers in the country.
Williams is highly effective as a pick-and-roll defender because of his footwork, awareness, and knowing how to use every inch of his 7’7” wingspan. He isn’t a freak athlete who will switch everything. Still, with his superb footwork and balance, Williams consistently allows himself to recover on a play regardless of how badly he initially gets beaten.
Here, Williams is forced to switch on the ball-handler because Trevor Keels gets taken out of the play. Williams pauses at his opponent’s hesitation move, allowing the much quicker guard to blow past on a drive. Williams is beaten, but he doesn’t panic or abandon his fundamentals. Instead, Williams perfectly slides his feet to usher the ball handler to the baseline while keeping his arms up to exhibit his length. The ball handler kills his dribble under the rim and pivots back to where he came from for what he thinks is an open layup. However, since Williams never lost his balance because of his footwork, he is able to recover and use his length to turn away the shot.
Rim protection is frequently diluted down to blocks because they are easy to measure, and it’s always fun when broadcasts pick up the emphatic “gimme that shit” after a big block. What often gets overlooked, though, is the separate branch of rim protection that is rim deterrence. While a block shows up in the stat sheet, completely intimidating an opponent to the point of them not even taking a shot has the same result: no points. With his length and footwork, Williams constantly turns opponents away from the paint because they want nothing to do with him.
Here, Williams is playing drop coverage and shows off his footwork. Once he sees Wendell Moore get taken out by the screen, Williams immediately gets low in his stance and slides his feet to contain the ball handler. Unsure of how to attack the seven-foot monster, the ball-handler kills his dribble. Williams proceeds to mirror each pivot move and extends the proper hand to deter any shot attempt on each fake. The ball-handler reluctantly passes out of the paint, and Williams knows he’s executed that possession to perfection.
For some reason, though, ball-handlers still have the notion that they can attack Williams out of the pick-and-roll. Here, the ball-handler sees an opportunity to attack a seven-footer in space. What the ball-handler doesn’t take into account, though, is that this seven-footer has pristine footwork that allows him to stay stride for stride with the ball. Williams slides his feet to perfection as his opposition attacks, ensuring that Williams stays on balance and doesn’t allow a clear path to the rim. As the ball-handler attacks, he never gets into Williams’s body, allowing Williams to swat away the shot relatively easily.
This wasn’t a particularly shrewd attack by the ball-handler, but it is a good example of how Williams continues to react and move his feet while in the drop. The opponent’s lack of craft made the block relatively routine, but it is everything that Williams did leading up to that moment that was impressive and imperative for him to make the block.
A common way for skillful at-rim finishers to negate shot blockers is for them to attack the body of the rim protector. By doing this, the ball handler limits the rim protector’s ability to elevate and stay in proper position to block the shot. While this should theoretically work against Williams as well, Williams continues to prove that he is strong enough to absorb the contact and still use his strength to deter and block shots.
Here, we see Williams yet again slide his feet perfectly to wall up at the rim. Instead of avoiding contact, though, the ball handler tries to get into Williams’s chest to negate his shot-blocking prowess. It doesn’t work. Not even close. Williams reads Blake Wesley’s momentum perfectly and times his jump to perfection. Additionally, as Williams drops in coverage, he keeps his right hand high and in position to block a shot at any time. By doing this, he eliminates wasted motion and the possibility of being late on a block attempt if his hand was at his side and needed to be brought up. Williams consumes Wesley and turns away the shot like a dad bullying his six-year-old son in the driveway.
As we’ve seen, attacking Williams at the rim out of the pick-and-roll has proven to be a futile endeavor. A reasonable counter would be to force the switch, dribble back out, and pull up for a jumper. Here, Williams yet again effortlessly contains the drive, and the ball-handler retreats to the perimeter. As the ball-handler gets to the corner, he thinks he’s pulled a fast one and has an open jumper. Williams thinks otherwise as he promptly reacts to the movement and uses every inch of his 7’7” wingspan to block the jumper.
So far, we’ve seen Williams confidently and capably contain the ball-handler out of the pick-and-roll. However, when playing drop coverage, the drop defender must also be cognizant of the roller. The cat-and-mouse game that the drop defender must play is an art that few consistently execute. It requires awareness, a high IQ, balance, and quality footwork.
Here, Williams is unfazed as his assignment slips the screen in the dribble hand-off. Williams flows with his man, staying between him and the rim, while the ball-handler attacks downhill. Williams isn’t overeager with his rotation, but once he sees Paolo Banchero lagging in his recovery, Williams slides over to meet the ball-handler. By rotating when he does, Williams eliminates a significant amount of momentum the ball-handler would have generated if Williams had waited for another second or two. This allows Williams to keep his verticality and then swat away the shot once the opportunity presents itself.
Given Williams’s proficiency at defending the pick-and-roll, opposing offenses are constantly going to look for ways to counter. Meeting him at the rim has proven futile, as has pulling up for jumpers. By denying the screen, ball-handlers may find opportunities to catch Williams out of position.
Here, we see Sahvir Wheeler try exactly that. As the screen is set, Williams is much higher than he typically is. Williams’s positioning combined with the point of attack defender’s square stance gives Wheeler a lovely opportunity to deny the screen. With his quickness, Wheeler has no issues beating his defender. However, we see the impressive reactions and footwork from Williams. The second that Wheeler denies the screen, Williams initiates his recovery. Williams stalks Wheeler to the rim and pins the shot on the backboard.
While Williams regularly displays proficient drop coverage in the pick-and-roll, he isn’t always perfect. We just saw a glimpse of how his initial positioning can cause issues which isn’t an entirely uncommon theme.
Here, as the ball-handler comes off the screen, Williams turns his hips too much to force the ball to the right. This positioning creates a gapping window for a pocket pass that the ball-handler astutely makes. Once this pass is made, Williams should be taken out of the play because his body is facing the opposite direction of where the ball now is. After this pass is made, most defenders would try to spin back over their right hip to chase where the ball is going. Williams, however, takes the unorthodox but quicker path by spinning over his left hip, allowing for a speedier recovery to block the dunk.
I know your initial reaction after seeing that is: “well, obviously he rotated that way; it was quicker.” I agree, he did the right thing, but most players don’t react like that. Every instinct tells players to turn and chase the ball. At a young age, soccer players constantly have to get this drilled out of them, or else they’ll get burned in give-and-gos regularly. It’s a different way of thinking that isn’t our immediate response. It’s also another display of Williams’s impressive footwork and balance.
Mark Williams has a few rough spots that he needs to iron out in his pick-and-roll positioning to ensure he doesn’t give up easy baskets at the next level. However, his footwork, instincts, balance, and length make him one of the most NBA-ready pick-and-roll defenders in the country. There is plenty of Williams’s game that will translate to the next level, but his pick-and-roll defense will provide a value that not many rookies can.