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June 20, 2011
Finding a Position
Derrick Williams

by Kevin Pelton


One of the handy things about Google search trends is they can show how a meme develops. This is instructive in the case of Derrick Williams, the Arizona forward who is overwhelmingly likely to be taken second overall in Thursday's NBA Draft. Through early this year, Google News Archive search shows just one reference to Williams and "small forward" in any meaningful sense--Washington head coach Lorenzo Romar talking about the defensive effort of center Aziz Ndiaye against Williams by noting the Wildcats' star occasionally plays a little like a small forward.

Somewhere along the way, as Williams emerged as a top prospect, he went from undersized power forward to tweener to perhaps primarily a small forward. I've always thought of Williams as a four who can step outside, but it became more difficult to deny the talk when the Minnesota Timberwolves landed the No. 2 pick. If the Timberwolves take and keep Williams, they will likely play him at small forward alongside Kevin Love, a plan Williams himself endorsed during the workout process, telling reporters he's a three who can play the four instead of the other way around.

Can history tell us anything about where Williams really belongs? To answer that question, I started with the DraftExpress player measurement database, which is ridiculously robust. I narrowed things down to players since 2000, which is essentially the cutoff for complete measurements, and looked strictly at players who were drafted and played in the NBA.

To me, the most relevant measures are Williams' height without shoes (6'7.25"), his wingspan (7'1.5) and his standing reach (9' even). Squaring the differences in each category and subtracting them from 100, here are the 10 closest matches for Williams:

Player            Year    Pk     Sim     Ht     Wing    Reach
Hakim Warrick     2005    19    99.8    79.3    86.0    108.0    
Mike Sweetney     2003     9    99.5    79.3    85.0    107.5    
Trevor Ariza      2004    43    99.4    79.0    86.0    107.5    
Darius Songaila   2002    49    98.9    80.0    85.0    108.5    
Carlos Boozer     2002    34    98.9    79.8    86.3    108.5        
Julian Wright     2007    13    98.9    78.5    86.3    108.0    
Lonny Baxter      2002    43    98.8    78.3    85.5    107.5    
James Jones       2003    49    98.8    79.3    86.5    107.5    
Derrick Brown     2009    41    98.7    79.5    86.5    107.5    
Luol Deng         2004     7    98.7    79.0    84.5    108.5    

This group fails to provide much in the way of definitive answers. Five of the players are primarily power forwards, four have mostly played small forward and Derrick Brown has swung relatively interchangeably between the two positions. Of course, there's an important bit of context here that explains why Mike Sweetney and Trevor Ariza played different positions despite similar measurements: Weight. Adding this as a factor (divided by 100, to put it relatively on the same scale) generates a different list:

Player            Year    Pk     Sim     Ht     Wing    Reach     Wt
Darius Songaila   2002    49    98.3    80.0    85.0    108.5    240
Carlos Boozer     2002    34    97.9    79.8    86.3    108.5    258
Patrick Patterson 2010    11    97.7    80.0    85.3    107.0    240
Mike Sweetney     2003     9    97.5    79.3    85.0    107.5    262
Richard Hendrix   2008    49    97.5    78.8    87.0    108.0    250
Nick Collison     2003    12    97.3    80.8    85.5    108.0    255
Ryan Gomes        2004    50    96.9    78.5    86.0    106.5    248
DaJuan Summers    2009    31    96.9    79.3    84.8    106.5    243
Michael Beasley   2008     2    96.6    79.0    84.3    107.0    239
Matt Freije       2004    53    96.5    80.3    85.0    108.5    234

Welcome to the only draft preview that will compare Derrick Williams to Darius Songaila. There's a little more clarity here. The six players most similar to Williams' measurements have all been big men in the NBA. Williams weighed in at 248, which is going to be the biggest impediment to playing on the perimeter. Only one heavier player has primarily played small forward--Toronto's James Johnson, listed at 258 pounds. Former Timberwolf Ryan Gomes, who is a good match for Williams' measurements, is second. It's fitting that the player Williams could replace, Michael Beasley, also ranks high on this list.

The larger takeaway from looking at these numbers is that positions often have less to do with size than they do with skills. Take the example of Brandon Bass and LeBron James. James is an inch taller than Bass and has a standing reach essentially identical. Bass has a two-inch wingspan advantage, but the two players weighed in at 245 and 246 entering the league (James has surely since grown). Yet James plays small forward, while Bass is a power forward and sometimes even a center. The difference lies mostly in James' superior skills, which allow him to excel on the perimeter despite his size. And while James may be a superhuman athlete, the same pattern recurs with more average athletes.

So then, let's talk about Williams' skills. I've identified the 75th and 25th percentiles of players in my college database by position. Any place a prospect is above the 75th percentile is considered a strength; anywhere below the 25th percentile is a weakness. As a power forward, Williams has a pair of weaknesses: shot blocking and foul rate. Consider him a small forward, and while Williams adds a strength (rebounding) and his shot blocking is no longer a weakness, he adds two new ones in assist rate and steal rate. It's Williams' ballhandling that figures to be the biggest issue on the perimeter. His assist rate would rank him in the bottom 10 among small forward prospects. Though that's hardly a death sentence (Kevin Durant handed out even fewer assists in college), it's a concern nonetheless.

For another perspective, we can turn to the similarity scores I've used with college prospects. I removed the height and weight factors, since we specifically want to ignore them, as well as the age limit because we're more concerned with how players play than their overall ability. (As a result, these prospects are almost entirely worse than Williams. That makes sense because all of them save Carlos Boozer and Gordon Hayward were much older during their final college seasons; Carl Landry was actually three and a half years older.) Here's the top 10:

Player            Year    Pk     Sim 
Paul Davis        2006    34    98.6
Gordon Hayward    2010    18    97.9
Wayne Simien      2005    29    96.8
Carl Landry       2007    31    96.8
Glen Davis        2007    35    96.7
Alan Anderson     2005    UD    96.5
Nick Fazekas      2007    34    96.4
Joey Graham       2005    16    96.3
Craig Smith       2006    36    96.2
Carlos Boozer     2002    34    95.8

There are a couple of small forwards here in Hayward and Joey Graham, and somehow wing Alan Anderson snuck in, but for the most part these guys are big men with some shooting ability. Six of the 10 have played power forward, with Davis primarily a center

However you consider the numbers, history mostly points toward Williams being a power forward in the NBA. That leads to our last question: Does this discussion matter? After all, as a card-carrying believer in the positional revolution, I'm disheartened to spend this much time talking about an arbitrary designation. Why not put Williams and Kevin Love together in a frontcourt where they can trade off in the post and on the perimeter?

The example of Beasley is one reason. A monster statistical prospect at Kansas State, Beasley has never been an efficient NBA player, and his position seems to be a key factor. Playing on the perimeter has encouraged Beasley to rely on midrange jumpers and has kept him from ever coming close to matching his college rebounding. The sample size is tiny, but the supersized small forwards on the measurement list above (Beasley, Gomes and Dajuan Summers) have all underachieved relative to their college projections. So too has James Johnson.

Until we have truly reached the point where players don't change their spots on the court based on their positions, they will make a difference. Williams' shooting ability and his athleticism give him the potential to be able to play small forward in the NBA. He is most likely to thrive, however, as a power forward.

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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