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Every NBA team needs a great like Mark Williams

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The big man is back in fashion in the NBA once again. Nikola Jokic, Joel Embiid and Giannis Antetokounmpo squared off for this year’s MVP. The Warriors and Celtics flaunted versatile defensive fronts to beat them, with Al Horford and Robert Williams III starting in Boston, and Kevon Looney and Draymond Green in Golden State. Although pace, space and the small ball continue to define the league, the big boys have now migrated to the perimeter as well, just as the smaller players did years ago.

More big men with perimeter skills are on the way. Two could hear their names in the top three of Thursday’s 2022 NBA draft. Gonzaga’s Chet Holmgren is one of the best shot blockers to come into the league in years, and he can hit 3-pointers. Duke’s Paolo Banchero is an advanced shotmaker for his age as a playmaker and scorer. Even 6-foot-10 forward Jabari Smith Jr. could play as a 5 in his future. The constant rise of big stars also requires a response from teams to find big ones that can fight interior size. Y switch to perimeter scorers.

“It shows how much basketball has evolved,” says Mark Williams, a 7-foot, 242-pound center projected to go midway through the first round. “There was a time when small was important, and before that you had more of a traditional 5. Now it’s a combination with guys that can do a little bit of everything.”

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Williams, who played alongside Banchero, averaged 11.2 points, 7.4 rebounds and 2.8 blocks during his sophomore year at Duke. On the baseline, he’s a high-flying shot-blocker who can fulfill his duties as a great attacker by running down the floor, rolling hard to the rim, finishing inside and snatching offensive boards.

He fits more of a retro mold with a wingspan of 7-foot-7 and a standing reach of 9-foot-9, the second-highest in recorded history behind Tacko Fall. Players like him are doing what they can to adapt to a changing league where defending a 7-footer who can create perimeter shots is the norm.

When asked which game last season best showcased his overall skills, Williams pointed to a Duke win over Gonzaga earlier in the season. “We were both undefeated at the time. It was in Las Vegas, a really big stage. And obviously, there was a lot of anticipation in the game beforehand,” says Williams. “I feel like in that game I was able to show everything. I simplified things in that game too. I defended without fouling, I caught lobs, I just did a bit of everything.”

Williams blocked six shots, showing the ability to stretch his arms to challenge the shots of efficient college scorers like Drew Timme. His help defense was excellent, rotating to the paint to contest shots. He seemed like the role of an inside runner, but he also showed the change-up ability that makes Time Lord an all-defensive team player for the Celtics and not just a weakside shot-blocker. Ditto for Looney, who went from breaking the boards to trading Luka Doncic in the West finals. The big ones need to be able to at least survive outside.

At Duke, Williams was inconsistent when trying to move laterally with outside scorers. But he improved after his first season to become proficient in his second year. He rushes in and shows the ability to execute different schemes, be it the drop or a cover. While training in Miami this summer, he says he’s working on his mobility so he can be as versatile as possible.

The team that drafts him will help him take a significant step in that department, just like the Nets did with Jarrett Allen, or the Jazz with Rudy Gobert. With players in Williams’ mold in demand, especially on affordable contracts, the Duke sophomore has cemented himself as a potential lottery pick. Memphis center Jalen Duren is also expected to be drafted, while three other centers (Walker Kessler, Christian Koloko and Ismael Kamagate) are projected to go either late in the first round or early in the second. But Duren or Williams will be the first centers selected after Holmgren and Banchero.

“Obviously it would be great to be chosen in the lottery. It’s definitely something I want,” Williams said. “But at the end of the day, the adjustment will be the most important thing.”

Last week in Washington, Williams told reporters that his pre-draft workouts included the Wizards, Spurs, Knicks, Hornets and Bulls. All of them select between ninth and eighteenth.

Williams has a sister, Elizabeth, who graduated from Duke and placed fourth in the 2015 WNBA draft. She won Most Improved Player in 2016 and became an All-Star in 2017. Mark saw her sister achieve his dreams when he was still in ninth grade, watching basketball change before his eyes. That same year, Roy Hibbert would play his final season in the NBA at age 30 just three years after being named an All-Star. Steph Curry turned Gobert into a meme. And a post shooter in Brook Lopez suddenly became a deep shooter. The league was changing. Bigs needed to defend on the perimeter and hopefully shoot 3-pointers. Throughout her career, Williams has not been asked to shoot. But it’s something she’s been working on in preparation for the NBA.

“It’s getting to the point that if a defender is backing up, I have the confidence to shoot,” Williams said. “I’m going to continue to develop myself and be confident to take shots, but I think right now it’s definitely perceived as more of an icing than a foundation of my game.”

As a sophomore, he made five of his nine jump shots, according to Synergy. It’s a small sample, but she, too, went from 53.7 to 72.7 percent from the line after focusing on that in her training last summer. Williams has gone from a projected pick in his ’20s to his mid-teens in part because of his progress. In college, he hit some impressive shots, including a spin from the right baseline against Michigan State. In the pros, he’ll just need to shoot 3-pointers like Lopez, Jonas Valancinuas or one of the many greats who have stretched their games behind the line so he can play anyone up front.

“I work how I want right away,” Williams said of being successful in the NBA. “Obviously, that’s not going to be the case. But I have to keep working on my game, even if I don’t get a chance to do things right away.”

If Williams is drafted by a team that has a higher-use pick-and-roll creator like LaMelo Ball in Charlotte or DeMar DeRozan in Chicago, his primary role would be to block and finish with power at the rim. Against Gonzaga, he put Holmgren on a card.

As attractive as Williams’ highlights are, he says he gets just as much satisfaction doing the little things a center is asked to do, like tipping an offensive board.

“It may not necessarily be pretty, but it helps you win,” he says.

The NBA changed, but the big man was never dead. A wave of superstars and stars in their roles has just entered the league. Whichever team drafts Williams will hope he can be another great who does a bit of everything.

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