There was excitement in the air at FedExForum on July 29, 2021 for the NBA Draft. The Grizzlies had recently made a trade to move up to 10th in the draft and had a slew of favorite prospects available when it was the Grizzlies’ turn to make their pick. James Bouknight, Moses Moody, Corey Kispert and Chris Duarte, among others, were all available for Memphis, and Grizzlies fans were excited to see who would come to Memphis.
When Adam Silver announced the selection of then 19-year-old Stanford native Ziaire Williams, the Forum fell silent. After a brief moment, the MVPs in the Forum let out a light, confused cheer for the choice, followed by a few whispers. I remember sitting alongside my GBB colleague, Parker Fleming, with the media at the Forum and the word that came to mind when thinking about the reaction to this choice was “interesting”. After a few years of making the “safe” picks in the NBA draft, the Memphis Grizzlies have started a project.
It was written about a ton at GBB and among other places in the Memphis media, but it was no secret that the Grizzlies had long-term goals in mind when drafting Williams. Grizzlies general manager Zach Kleiman and head coach Taylor Jenkins tempered expectations ahead of the start of training camp, essentially admitting that Williams’ role might be limited and acknowledging the work that would need to be done with him. Kleiman went so far as to say that Williams would be a “multi-year process”.
The opportunity came quickly for Williams. With Dillon Brooks out to start the year with injury, Ziaire Williams was in the rotation from night one. Early feedback wasn’t great. A knee injury just 19 games into his rookie season can be seen as a blessing in disguise. Ziaire had to sit down and lean heavily on the film to keep up while his body was on the mend. Williams was a different player upon returning from injury and went on to have an inconsistent but solid rookie campaign. Parker Fleming highlighted Williams’ growth in March.
All of the ups and downs of the regular season led to Ziaire’s biggest moment in Game 2 against the Golden State Warriors. Much was asked of Ziaire earlier this week in his first game after knee pain, with Dillon Brooks sent off 3 minutes into the game for a foul on Gary Payton II. Williams filled in admirably.
In just his 6th postseason game, Williams was the 3rd best player in a critical game the Grizzlies needed to win. Ja Morant was fantastic, scoring 47 points with 8 rebounds and 8 assists. Jaren Jackson Jr., despite a foul, had the Warriors defenders timid around the rim and afraid to attack the basket. But it was Ziaire Williams who had some of the biggest plays to turn the game late for the Grizzlies. Williams finished the game with 14 points on 5-9 shooting 4-8 from beyond the arc while recording 5 rebounds. He’s become primarily a catch-and-shoot specialist again since the playoffs began, but that hasn’t stopped him from being aggressive and letting it fly. Approaching the midpoint of the 4th quarter and Memphis down 3, Ziaire stepped up with two huge triples to put the Grizzlies ahead.
The Warriors were eventually able to respond to Williams’ run and take a slim lead before Ja Morant took over, but it was a huge moment for the Grizzlies rookie to shine in the NBA Playoffs spotlight. . He misses the shot below, but the confidence Williams has from his teammates leads to the confidence to take big shots. Sure, the shot clock is up and it’s an open look, but Williams could easily be coy and try to make the extra pass to a wide-open Desmond Bane in hopes he can shoot in time. Instead, Williams’ confidence (and Ja Morant’s confidence) leads to a great look that was just a little long.
It wasn’t just offensively that Williams shone. He was also solid on the defensive end, where his restlessness and heart were on full display. With Dillon out, Ziaire was one of the players tasked with defending Steph Curry. Williams limited Curry to 3-8 shots from the field and 1-3 from deep. The one done remotely? A banked shot on an offensive tip from Otto Porter Jr. Williams has some way to go in the weight department to fill his frame, but his length has caused the Warriors star issues to look good beyond that. of the bow. Curry attacked Williams out of the dribble and into the paint, but you ultimately live with those looks if you can limit the damage Curry does from beyond the arc. Williams used his length to rack up 3 deflections in 28 minutes, including one on one of the game’s biggest defensive possessions.
What you can’t see in the clip is Ziaire offering a deflection and a dive for the loose ball in the final seconds of the game. Williams doesn’t find the ball in the end, but he doesn’t get out of play. He rushes across the field to get in front of Klay Thompson so he doesn’t have an easy triple opportunity to catch and shoot. Getting in front of Thompson seemed to make him guess the shot, resulting in a travel violation that helped seal the win.
It was a great game for Williams, but it’s still likely he’ll be ready to play a big role in the organization in a few years. The experience he’s gaining in the meantime, however, will prove invaluable once he’s finally ready to step into that role as the Grizzlies continue to chase NBA championships.
Just 9 months from draft night, where his selection silenced the Forum, Williams played some of the best minutes of his young NBA career. FedExForum certainly wasn’t quiet Tuesday night, and it won’t be the last time Williams made big plays that put Grizz Nation on their feet.
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