If the NBA season ended today, the Atlanta Hawks (18-21) would make the playoffs for the first time since the 1998-99 season. Now, obviously, this speaks more to the inadequacy of the Eastern Conference beyond its top 2-3 teams than anything else, but the Hawks still deserve credit for at least partially emerging from the hole they've dug for themselves ever since trading Steve Smith to Portland for Isaiah Rider way back in 1999. One of the biggest reasons for Atlanta's improvement has been the emergence of third-year forward Marvin Williams, who is finally cashing in on the promise he showed when Atlanta drafted him 2nd overall in the 2005 NBA Draft. Last night, Williams scored a career-high 33 points in a win over Seattle, and he has been one of the Hawks' catalysts all season long. Today we're going to look at Williams game, and highlight the improvements Williams has made to turn from a draft bust to one of the better young forwards in the game.
Physical Tools: Williams has never lacked in this area -- he's 6-9 with good quickness and leaping ability. If anything, the knock on him has been that he lacks strength, but he's improved that in recent years, and the Hawks have also been masking this problem by having him check fewer power forwards than they did a year ago.
Offense: This is where Williams has improved markedly in 2007-08. First, the stats: (glossary)
Season Age Tm ORtg %Pos DRtg ------------------------------------------------------ 2005-06 19 ATL 108.5 16.5 111.7 2006-07 20 ATL 101.3 19.5 109.5 2007-08 21 ATL 113.1 20.4 106.0
In his rookie year, Williams was not asked to take a big role in the offense and responded with a decent level of efficiency, but when forced to make more plays in his second year, he looked pretty lost out there. This year, though, Williams has made a quantum leap, increasing his offensive role and posting a big leap in efficiency, making him one of the most improved players in the league so far this season.
How has he done it? Well, mainly he's been more assertive in going to the basket. He's settling for fewer jumpers, attacking the rim more (his dunks are up as well), and finishing much better inside. Williams' ballhandling has never been a major strength, but he's turning the ball over much less despite having the ball in his hands more frequently. He's also gotten a lot better at taking guys off the dribble, especially when going to his left. As a result, Williams has been drawing fouls at a very high rate and generally feasting at the free throw line, where he's a career 79% shooter. Any time you can attack the basket and either finish strong or draw a foul, you're going to be successful on offense, and that's exactly what Williams is doing more often this year.
Defense: Despite his length and athleticism, defense has never been a particular strength for Williams, but you can see his improvement this season when you look at the Hawks' overall defensive performance, as well as how their defense changes when he's off the floor. A few years ago, Atlanta was a laughingstock at that end, but they've quietly become one of the 10 best defenses in the league so far this year. Williams' individual improvement may not be apparent from the raw numbers -- aside from a slight increase in his steal rate, his box score defensive stats look identical to that of past seasons -- but he's making his biggest impact in ways the box score can't measure. In the past, Williams' presence on the floor made a bad defensive team even worse, but this year a decent Atlanta D has been even better with Williams in the game. Now, many of his minutes have come alongside defensive standout Josh Smith and solid rookie Al Horford, but you can't discount the effect of Williams' defensive improvement on the Hawks, either. He's tall and quick enough to guard multiple positions, and his improved understanding of team defensive concepts has really helped the Hawks become a solid defensive team. Remember, Williams would be a senior in college if he had stayed in school, so it's no surprise that he's just now coming into his own as a player, especially when it comes to the mental aspects of the game.
Williams may never escape the shadow of the man he was drafted over, Chris Paul -- especially since Paul is having an MVP-caliber season in 2007-08 -- but he has done a good job of adapting to the NBA game in his third year, and is finally on his way to proving worthy of the hype that surrounded him coming out of North Carolina. If the Hawks do end up stopping their playoff drought this year, it will be because Williams has improved so dramatically over the form he showed in his first two seasons.