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Jalen Williams is the Thunder’s skeleton key

Williams’ varied skill-set means that he is one of the useful players on the Thunder roster

NBA: Preseason-Dallas Mavericks at Oklahoma City Thunder Alonzo Adams-USA TODAY Sports

Jalen Williams, the guard out of Santa Clara, played an excellent preseason and has firmly cemented himself in Coach Daigneault’s rotation going into the season. Williams is not the typical Sam Presti pick and his unusual route could explain why he figures to be such a valuable player.

In the last three years, Presti has focused on taking players from the international circuit or college players out of highly competitive conferences. Williams played at Santa Clara who play in the West Coast Conference and the only player to go pro out of Santa Clara was Steve Nash nearly 26 years ago.

The West Coast Conference is typically dominated by Gonzaga and it is not a power conference like the PAC-12. It is not a conference that has a rich history of producing high-quality, blue-chip NBA prospects.

It is also worth noting that the colleges who play in the WCC are largely Catholic, private universities who play basketball and baseball but crucially no football. The conference is overshadowed by it’s high-profile big brother, the PAC-12, who boast glamour colleges such as UCLA, Arizona and USC.

Both of these factors have led to the conference being under-scouted which means that gems such as Jalen Williams do not emerge until late in the Draft process. It also means that schools in the WCC are very focused on player development over a three-year period rather than simply stacking the deck with prodigious one-and-dones.

Jalen was able to work on his game in his own time and develop a skill-set ready for the NBA. Williams grew into being a polished, playmaking guard during his time in California and became the sort of talent that all NBA teams covet. Williams flew up draft boards weeks before the Draft and the Thunder were lucky enough to select J-Dub at #12.

Williams is now sadly injured; he suffered an orbital fracture on opening night and will miss some time. It is a shame as Williams’ preseason showed his worth to the Thunder and where he can add value to the roster.

Coach Daigneault surprisingly placed Jalen in a role in which he led the floor for the backups in preseason. It was an unusual decision as many fans expected Daigneault to stagger Giddey and Shai so that the Thunder could have an elite playmaker on the floor for all 48 minutes.

It is a strategy that the Houston Rockets employed with Harden and Chris Paul with great success. In the 2017-18 season, Houston won 65 games and Mike D’Antoni was able to maximise the guard pairing by tailoring schemes to match their talents.

When James Harden was the sole initiator on the floor, D’Antoni spread the floor and called isolation after isolation so that Harden could play 1v1. It was brutally simple play calling but it was effective. Harden produced good shots for himself and teammates at an abnormal rate.

Chris Paul is a different sort of player to James Harden. Paul plays at a slower-pace and uses screens to massage open passing angles. D’Antoni went back into his playbook, dug up the old Nash sets from Phoenix and put Chris Paul in situations over and over again where Paul received screens.

The success of this approach made staggering Giddey and Shai seem like the natural thing to do. Coach Daigneault instead placed the ball in J-Dub’s hands and let him orchestrate the offense. The early results from preseason would suggest that this approach is working.

Williams is a savvy pick and roll operator but most notably, he is a patient player who controls the tempo of the game. Jalen is never rushed and allows the progressions of the game to play out before making his move. By playing at his own pace, he is able to find gaps in the defense and pass his teammates into open space.

He averaged 5.2 assists in 26 minutes per night in preseason with relatively decent ball retention. Jalen’s passing was not flashy but he consistently made good reads and brought others into play. You could see that J-Will thrived playing next to him and the same could be said for Tre Mann.

Williams’ ability to pass over the top of the defense meant that Mann was able to attack from the weak-side of the floor and attack a less crowded space with good results. A scorer like Tre only gets better when he has more space.

Williams’ physicals are also impressive and allow him to play multiple positions in this fluid, pass-happy Thunder roster. Jalen could feasibly play all the way up at the 4 if Coach Daigneault wanted to put a lineup on the floor where every player can create from the perimeter.

Williams’ ability to move between different positions, run the offense and score efficiently make him such a useful utility player for the Thunder. You can rely him to play unselfishly and make good decisions in whatever role he plays; that is such a valuable skill to have and it fits neatly with the Thunder’s philosophy.

When Jalen Williams eventually returns from injury, I think his temperament and skill-set will take a lot of people by surprise. J-Dub was an unusual pick for Sam but it might be one of the best he has done in a while.