NBA Draft

SLAM x Panini Rookie Spotlight: Ziaire Williams

“y’all still acting like ZW8 ain’t out here huh? smh.” 

Superstar Ja Morant tweeted that a few weeks ago. “ZW8” refers to rookie Ziaire Williams, who wears No. 8 for the Grizzlies. The tweet alludes to the fact that Williams was not selected to participate in the Rising Stars Game at All-Star Weekend in Cleveland—a clear snub, in Morant’s opinion. ZW8 has been a starter for Memphis—one of the best teams in the League at 43-21—since the beginning of January. 

As part of the three-team trade involving Steven Adams, the Grizzlies also acquired the rights to the No. 10 pick in the 2021 Draft, where they landed Williams. The 20-year-old didn’t have an exceptional freshman year at Stanford, but with his size (6-9) and athleticism, it was easy to see his potential. He developed a reputation as a solid shooter in high school, when he was a teammate of Bronny James at Sierra Canyon and the No. 8 overall prospect in his class (the highest-ranked recruit ever to commit to Stanford). That didn’t carry over to college—Williams shot just 37 percent from the field and 29 percent from three for the Cardinals. Still, he displayed an impressive ability to score at all three levels. And he occasionally did stuff like this:  

Williams was in the Grizzlies’ rotation from day one. His shooting has been erratic, as it was at Stanford, but it’s clear that the rookie is getting more and more comfortable with the flow of the NBA. His confidence is rising. He is finding rhythms. He is figuring out how to impact winning.

Head coach Taylor Jenkins likes Ziaire’s versatility on both ends. Offensively, he spreads the floor for Morant and runs with him in transition (the two have quickly built strong chemistry). Defensively, he can guard multiple positions, using his 6-10 wingspan to be disruptive (he has already matched up with Stephen Curry, Khris Middleton, Brandon Ingram, Luka Doncic and more elite scorers). Coaches and teammates have praised his work ethic and willingness to learn.

The result? Williams has steadily improved and his role has steadily increased. He has been in the starting lineup for 23 games, 16 of which the Grizzlies have won. In the month of February, he averaged 9.7 points and 2.3 rebounds per game, shooting 58 percent from the field and 46 percent from three. He put up a career-high 21 points (on 9/11 shooting), 4 rebounds and 3 assists in a 120-108 victory over the Knicks on Feb. 2.   

“He just has continued to work, continued to believe in himself, started playing with confidence,” Morant said about Williams. “He knows the work he puts in. He knows the shots he can make. He knows what he’s capable of. And now everybody’s getting to see it and I’m proud of it. I’m a proud big brother!”

Three weeks later, on the road against Minnesota, Williams went off for 21 points again (on 7/11 shooting)—this time in a 119-114 loss. 

“I think the number one thing is we want him to play to his strengths,” Jenkins told reporters afterwards. “The way he can run the floor, he’s got a great connection with the guards, especially Ja—all those transition lobs and easy looks in transition. He started off shooting it well [from the] corner. Not so great from the wings. So we told him, just keep putting in the work, man. Keep putting in the work. He’s getting a lot more comfortable with the NBA line all around. Then his ability to shoot off the bounce is at a really high level—we knew that coming out of college. Getting in there, midrange pull-ups, but then getting to the free throw line, knocking down big free throws on small volume, but those are big shots for him. So he’s expanding his game, not just being a guy who just stands in the corner. I’ll also say defensively expanding his game. Tonight’s a great learning lesson where he can be better, we can be better. But he always responds and brings a better effort the next time.” 

Jenkins opted to go with John Konchar over Williams in the fourth quarter of that game for defensive purposes. Williams had, according to his coach, just made “too many mistakes” in coverages.

The rook understood. He likes to be coached that way—to be held accountable, so that he can continue to grow.

“I’ll never forget my first press conference with the Grizzlies, I promised [Jenkins] that I was going to give him everything that I had, and I told him that I want him to coach me as hard as possible,” Williams said. “Constructive criticism—that’s the only way I can get better, that’s the only way the team can get better.

“I definitely [welcome it] from all of the coaches, not even just Coach Taylor,” he added, “to push me to my limits and beyond.”

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