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March 29, 2011
Overlooked
Derrick Williams' Remarkable Season

by Kevin Pelton

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A friendly tip if you're planning to send me "constructive criticism" at any point. Your e-mail is likely to be far more effective if it omits the word "bias." There are few complaints less likely to meet their mark than the notion that a writer actually has something against a player or a team. Sometimes, this gets downright laughable. I believe at one point early in my Basketball Prospectus tenure, I was accused of having something against the Sonics, the team that I had cheered for since childhood and employed me at the time.

There is a difference, however, between the sort of outright bias fans often detect among writers and a more subtle form of unintentional bias that tends to be far more pervasive. Of these, I'm particularly sensitive to the geographic form best known as East Coast Bias. I honestly believe this to be an inevitable result of the fact that a high percentage of media members live where games out West don't begin until 10 or even 11 p.m., exacerbated in the case of my beloved Pac-10 by a TV deal that too often leaves games difficult to find outside the conference's footprint.

All of this is the best explanation I can offer for why the University of Arizona's Derrick Williams was left off the Associated Press' All-America First Team, as selected by voters before the NCAA Tournament and announced yesterday. The All-America First Team featured three guards--Jimmer Fredette, Nolan Smith and Kemba Walker--as well as big men JaJuan Johnson and Jared Sullinger. Kansas' Marcus Morris also topped Williams, who finished fourth among his peers in balloting despite having a legitimate claim to being the country's top post player.

It was a remarkable sophomore campaign for Williams, the Pac-10's Player of the Year for his role in leading the Wildcats to the conference regular-season title. Williams had the country's third-best PER, as tracked by ESPN.com, and was the only player in the top eight--Sullinger was next, in ninth--to do so in a big-six conference.

Williams established himself as one of the country's most efficient offensive players. His 69.0 True Shooting Percentage ranked fourth in the NCAA, lofty territory usually occupied by specialists like the national leader, Ohio State's Jon Diebler. Williams managed to be so efficient despite using nearly 29 percent of Arizona's possessions and drawing regular double teams.

The key was that Williams was able to do so much of his scoring in the two most efficient ways--at the free throw line and beyond the arc. Certainly, Williams created problems by shooting two-pointers (he hit 60.1 percent of them, ranking 10th in the country per DraftExpress.com), including his high-percentage highlight-reel dunks. But he also took more free throws than any other player in the nation and hit them at a more than respectable rate (74.6 percent). Even independent of his high usage, Williams was effective at getting to the line, ranking 11th in the NCAA in free throw rate. And while USC coach Kevin O'Neill complained that the free throws were the result of Williams being "the most protected dude I've seen since Michael Jordan," that ability to win over referees transferred even when Williams left the comfort of Pac-10 whistles for the NCAA Tournament, as he attempted 42 free throws in four games.

The free throws were impressive enough, but to them Williams added this season unexpected accuracy from beyond the arc. As our Ken Pomeroy tracked, Williams flirted with the highest single-season three-point percentage in NCAA history, a record he briefly held while hitting five three-pointers in six attempts in the Pac-10 Tournament against Oregon State. Despite repeating that feat in Arizona's upset over Duke, helping keep the Wildcats in the game in the first half, Williams slumped down the stretch. He missed the last five three-pointers of his season, four of them in the final 5:39 of Saturday's game, including a go-ahead attempt in the closing seconds. As a result, Williams finished at "just" 56.8 percent, the seventh-best three-point percentage ever and best in nearly two decades.

Williams' rare combination of skills and ability to score inside and out made it virtually impossible to entirely shut him down. He was held to single digits just once all season, an eight-point effort against the Trojans that followed O'Neill's quote (Williams shot just two free throws all game, though he was notably passive on offense). Texas did about the best job possible of combating Williams with the length of NBA prospect Tristan Thompson, but while Williams missed 10 of his 14 shot attempts in that game, he still managed to get to the foul line 15 times and score the game-winning three-point play.

In terms of importance to their team, Fredette and Walker alone can compare to Williams. That much was made clear on Saturday, when foul trouble limited his first-half minutes against UConn. Arizona outscored Connecticut by 12 with Williams in the game, but managed just 11 points in the nearly 14 minutes he spent on the bench, during which the Huskies had a 14-point advantage. That period entirely swung the outcome of the game.

By that point, a national audience had already taken notice of Williams' skills. It was hard to miss his clutch plays (he preceded the game-winning bucket against Texas with a block at the buzzer to help the Wildcats elude Memphis, his second game-saving block of the season), monster dunks and threes over the course of Arizona's unexpected run to within a shot of the Final Four. It's just that those of us who follow the Pac-10 had been seeing those kinds of things all season long. All-American voting made it clear the rest of the country was missing out.

Kevin Pelton is an author of Basketball Prospectus. You can contact Kevin by clicking here or click here to see Kevin's other articles.

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