Derrick Williams plays a non-position

At the moment I am compiling certain statistical averages for the pool of NBA draft candidates. Based on the insight I have gained doing NBA Win Charts, I divided the pool into three basic categories: (1) Small Guards (guards who either exclusively play point, or who are shooting guards who are too small to rotate into the front court); (2) Swingmen (players who would be expected to play both shooting guard and small forward); and (3) Big Men (players who either exclusively play center or who play power forward and have the size to play minutes at center).

What I have discovered doing my Win Charts is that most NBA players are required to play more than one position, unless the player is either a pure point guard or pure center. The NBA has little use for “specialists” outside of those two positions (which presents a challenge to small shooting guards like Kemba Walker or Jimmer Fredette, because, among the “combos” listed above, the point guard and shooting guard combo is the one that asks players to perform radically different roles). 

Besides the three basic combinations, there is also another, rarer combination that teams ask a few players of a certain height/weight and skill set mix to manage.  I call this rarer combination the “Combo Forward”.  

Combo Forwards generally stand in the height range of 6-7 to 6-9 and weigh between 225 to 245.  Generally, Combo Forwards are stronger players who are a little smaller than the ideal power forward, and athletic enough to cover the average small forward.

Arizona’s Derrick Williams falls into that range, and fits that profile. He is projected to play Combo Forward. I have a hard time projecting Combo Forwards. An accurate projection depends not only on the distribution of minutes between the positions, it also depends upon the player’s mindset when switching between positions. 

Prominent NBA Combo Forwards include: Gerald Wallace, Andrei Kirilenko, Danny Granger, Wilson Chandler, Carmelo Anthony (sometimes), and Marvin Williams. Each of the aforementioned manages his task a bit differently. But one thing is clear. In order to play a productive “Combo Forward”, the player must essentially play a power forward’s game at both positions. Meaning, the player must maintain a rebounding and high percentage shooting mindset no matter whom he is guarding.  As I continue to work on my historical Win Chart project, I am noticing that players used to make this transition easily.   I think it is because the small forward position was considered, a “smaller power forward”, with similar “forward” duties. At some point in time, the small forward position morphed into something more like a “bigger shooting guard”, and thus took on duties that distinct from classic forward duties, duties that I would refer to as “perimeter duties”.

If Derrick Williams plays Combo Forward, there are two paths he might take: the Gerald Wallace path or the Marvin Williams path. Gerald Wallace plays the Combo position to perfection. He plays a classic forward’s game at both forward positions. Thus he produces excellent results.  If Williams follows the Wallace model, he projects out very well.

However, Williams could follow the “Marvin Williams” model. Williams played power forward in college, but analysts projected him as a professional small forward who would play some power forward.  Marvin Williams produced numbers in college that were just a bit under Derrick Williams numbers. Projecting those numbers to small forward made M Williams look like a highly productive prospect. The same is true for D Williams.

The problem is, when Marvin Williams plays small forward, he ignores his greatest asset at the position (size) and instead of playing a classic forward game, he tries to play a perimeter game, something he is just okay at playing. Thus he wipes away any productive advantage he could have had from the downscale positional move.   

What will happen with Derrick Williams?  It is hard to project. He was a great college shooter and penetrator, so one might expect something like a Carmelo Anthony model. That would be okay, but not ideal. The ideal model would feature Williams incorporating aspects of a perimeter game into a basic power forward’s game. My gut tells me he will be a better player than Marvin Williams, but I do not know.

Footnote: After I finished this post, I thought of the worst modern example of the Combo Forward: Michael Beasley of the Timberwolves. Beasley’s exceptional college numbers have not translated at all to the professional ranks because in the NBA he plays the power forward position like an out-of-place small forward, and he plays the small forward position like a shooting guard. Beasley could be a very productive player if he sets his mind to rebounding and taking the ball inside, but he chooses to do neither.

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