The Thunder’s draft night in 2022 was broadly defined by two storylines. OKC landing Chet Holmgren was shocking, everybody expected Orlando to pass up Paolo and take the Gonzaga center.
The other story was the Thunder’s decision to trade three firsts for the 11th pick, Ousmane Dieng. The trade itself seemed like lopsided and there was a lot of discourse about whether Sam Presti overpaid for the talented, young Frenchman. The Dieng selection meant that Presti’s next pick flew under the radar.
For Jalen Williams, this has been the story of his career so far. For three years, Williams diligently worked on his game for Santa Clara, a school renowned for producing Steve Nash but crucially no other NBA players.
He played in a conference that is under-scouted due to it’s geography and competitive imbalance. The West Coast Conference is dominated by Gonzaga and it’s 10 schools are spread over three states.
These factors meant that Jalen Williams was not mocked highly in the 2022 NBA Draft until his pre-draft process where Willams blew away the competition. At the Combine, teams were able to see the polish in his game and his fit in the modern NBA.
His performances were enough to justify a selection from the Oklahoma City Thunder and J-Dub has not looked back. Among his rookie class, Williams compares nicely. He is fourth in points per game, 10th in rebounds per game, fourth in assists per game and leads all rookies in steals per game (1.2).
His raw numbers back up the eye test; Williams has played an assured, impactful year of basketball across the board but the advanced numbers is where J-Dub shines. Williams is in the 71st percentile for effective field goal percentage, he is in the 85th percentile for block percentage and 81st percentile for steal percentage.
The numbers do a decent job of summing up his two-way play for the Thunder. Williams has been a legitimate positive on both ends of the floor for Oklahoma City; this is a rarity for rookies.
In most cases, rookies tend to struggle on either end of the floor. Aleksej Pokusevski’s rookie season was difficult offensively as Pokusevski struggled to make baskets. Josh Giddey got cooked on defense last season far too often.
With Williams, there have been few pronounced struggles. His only weakness that been 3-point efficiency but even that seems to be improving of late. For the month of February, Jalen is shooting 37% from downtown.
It is fair to say that Williams’ play elevates his stature within the team and creates more certainty about his future with the Thunder. There is nobody else on the roster with his blend of skills.
The Thunder’s defense is built off ball pressure and tight spaces. Oklahoma City want to force the opposing team down narrow alleyways and disorient the ball-handler. Williams’ quick feet and length mean that he is able presser who often racks up deflections. He rarely allows the other team to settle.
On the offensive end of the floor, Jalen’s finishing at the hole is beautiful to watch. His finishing package is simple, J-Dub likes to use his length and nail hanging dunks. It is his preferred method but there is more craft in his bag.
Williams will often use a hard dribble to accelerate the tempo and get an uncontested layup at the basket. He pounds the ball into the floor and uses the travel of the basketball to pull away from the defense into a simple finish.
His finishes often come off the drive but Williams is also selfless on the ball. Over the last three months, we have seen his chemistry with Josh Giddey and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander just grow hugely. J-Dub tailors his game to meet the occasion.
With Gilgeous-Alexander, Williams will drift over to the deep corner, behind the defense before diving to the rim for a dunk against the collapsed interior. His sense of timing makes the cut so effective, Williams notices when the defense is preoccupied with Shai and understands when his window is open.
In lineups with Giddey, Jalen will often play as the trailing big and crosses the timeline last. This situation provides ample opportunities for cuts to the basket as the trailer role allows Williams to knife through the weak-side of a defense.
Josh Giddey doing Josh Giddey things.— Thunder Film Room (@ThunderFilmRoom) February 25, 2023
what a pass to a cutting Jalen Williams. pic.twitter.com/oUiYqG7Ixc
The brief moment of eye contact is enough communication between the two players. Williams knows to attack the space and Josh knows to push the ball into the space behind the opposing big.
J-Dub is playing at such a high level and his skill-set should mean that he is a long-term fit with the Thunder’s starting group. I am very excited to see how his game develops going forward, I still believe that there may be further improvement for him as an outside shooter.
Williams was unheralded on Draft Night but it is not a stretch to say that he has been one of the best players in his class. He might even have an All-Star ceiling if everything works out as the Thunder intend. J-Dub is here to stay.