Based on what we've seen so far this season, it would be really easy for me to tout 2010-11 as the year of the little guy.
First there was Kemba Walker's spectacular performance in Maui, one that lifted Connecticut from unranked to the top 10 in the span of a few days. Not to be outdone, Duke freshman Kyrie Irving has been amazing in his own right, up to and including his masterful 31-point performance against Michigan State in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge. And while he may not command the level of attention that Walker and Irving receive, Xavier guard Tu Holloway has attracted at least a little awe of his own for the incredible numbers he's posted thus far. (For one thing Holloway's averaging 41 minutes a game. Yes, the Musketeers have played some OT's. Still, that is Lou Gehrig-esque if it keeps up.)
Walker, Irving, and Holloway are all listed between 6-0 and 6-2, and they've all been magnificent. In a normal season any Player of the Year discussion would start and end with performances like these. But this hasn't been a normal season. In this year of the little guy there's a big man who, so far, has outperformed all those pesky little guards. If (I say if) he can keep it up, he'll have rewritten our expectations for what a featured big man can do for his team.
That big man is Derrick Williams of Arizona. If there was a moment where we can say the 6-8 Williams "arrived," perhaps it was last Saturday. Ironically the Wildcats lost to Kansas 87-79 in Las Vegas that day, but Williams scored 27 points in 29 minutes against a Jayhawk frontcourt long on NBA prospects. Maybe that explains the reaction I got this week when I said that Williams is the most under-hyped player in the country. I was flooded with responses from KU fans all saying more or less the same thing: "I'd never even heard of this guy before but he carved us to pieces, glad he fouled out," etc.
The game that Williams had against Kansas merely proved that the big guy could perform at his usual level against top-quality competition. In truth he's been playing that way all season long. Williams' draft stock is, quite rightly, soaring, and I know the professional ranks are taking him seriously because I'm already starting to hear the usual NBA-style fretting about what position he'll play (and guard) at the next level. For what it's worth we Prospectus types think that kind of fretting is often a classic instance of missing the forest for the trees. Anyway, a little like DeJuan Blair before him, Williams may well make the fretting moot with his on-court performance.
Williams stands tall
Through games of December 1
2FG% 3FG% FT% %Shots
Derrick Williams 65.0 80.0 79.2 30.4
Kemba Walker 56.9 40.5 88.3 35.1
Kyrie Irving 57.1 44.0 88.1 22.2
Tu Holloway 61.2 32.5 83.1 25.3
I'm going to go out on a limb and predict that Williams will not continue to make 80 percent of his threes for the entire year. But what's remarkable to me about his perimeter shooting isn't that Williams has started the year hot (8-of-10) while attempting an occasional three. No, what's amazing is what that periodic three-point shooting says about his offensive rebounding. So far this season Williams has personally hauled down 21 percent of Arizona's misses during his minutes. That is off-the-charts good and, incredibly, that number would be even higher if Williams would just stay camped down in the paint 24/7 on offense.
What a strange 18 months it's been for Williams. In the spring of 2009 the La Mirada, California, product was all set to attend nearby USC, but that was before coach Tim Floyd resigned his post amid allegations surrounding the recruitment of former Trojan O.J. Mayo. With SC facing an uncertain future, Williams elected to play at Arizona instead. Unlike, say, Walker or Irving (both of whom were McDonald's All-Americans), Williams was not commonly regarded as an elite recruit coming out of high school. He quickly set to work changing that perception, however, leading the Wildcats in points and rebounds and earning Pac-10 Freshman of the Year honors.
Williams was a nice surprise last year, but this season he's made the jump to a true force of nature. In the process he's propelled the Arizona offense to new levels of efficiency. For the year the Wildcats are scoring 1.23 points per trip, a number helped along by team-wide 62 percent shooting inside the arc.
There is however one weakness in Williams' game. He's fouled out of his last two contests and indeed this season he's averaging right at five fouls per 40 minutes. This has limited Williams' playing time to just 24 minutes a game. Not that an active big man is going to log Holloway-level minutes, of course -- Williams' "natural" playing time would figure to be somewhere in the 28 to 30 minute range. It is in head coach Sean Miller's best interest to analyze the tape, adjust Williams' actions accordingly, lobby the refs, and get his star those extra four to six minutes. Arizona's performance, especially on offense, improves dramatically for every additional possession that can be squeezed out of Williams.
He may not have entered the season as a household name, but Derrick Williams is changing that state of affairs even as we speak. In a year with no shortage of stellar little guys, the big man from Arizona quite simply stands above the rest.
John also gives voice to his man-crushes on Twitter: @JohnGasaway. College Basketball Prospectus 2010-11 is now available on Amazon.
John Gasaway is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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