What’s wrong with Deron Williams?
Technically, there’s nothing wrong with him. Deron Williams is a spectacular basketball player. He’s still one of the best point guards in the NBA and when he’s at the top of his game, it’s hard to definitively say there are better point guards than him.
The problem is he hasn’t been near the top of his game since he was jettisoned to the Nets. When the Jazz decided to avoid any trade drama with their star player, they beat everybody to the punch by quietly dealing him in the blink of an eye.
It was the start of a new era in Utah. Jerry Sloan was gone, their eventual free-agent franchise player was a borderline malcontent, and they wanted a fresh start. And with that they shipped him off to New Jersey, where he joined one of the worst teams in the league.
Since that time, Williams has been very good (even earning an All-Star nod last season), but he wasn’t quite the same franchise star we had seen by the Great Salt Lake. Deron went from playing in one of the most free-flowing offensive systems this league has ever seen in Jerry Sloan’s flex offense to the stagnant molasses that is Avery Johnson’s style.
The lower quality of teammates and the sluggish style of play are probably the reasons for his less efficient and less effective play. He went from being the head of Voltron to one G.I. Joe action figure that didn’t have his thumbs break off so he can still hold the plastic gun.
He’s still really good but anybody that watched him in Utah knows he isn’t the same player that was challenging Chris Paul for the point guard title.
So what is keeping Deron Williams from being the star he was in Utah? And how can the Nets get him from just being one of the better players in the NBA back to being one of the best players in the NBA?
Scoring in Transition
Here’s a hilarious quote from Avery Johnson’s section of the book “NBA Coaches Playbook” (via NetsDaily.com):
The system I wanted to implement sprang from my overall philosophy of being the aggressor, not a reactor, on the basketball court.
After a missed shot by the opponents, with the ball in our possession, we want to go.
Why is this quote hilarious? Because Avery Johnson’s teams have never gone. Avery took over the Mavs in 2005 for the final 18 games of the regular season. Since his first full season as a head coach, his teams have finished 27th, 28th, 24th, 24th and 23rd in pace.
The Nets under his control have been 27th and 22nd, respectively, in fast break points the last two seasons. Avery Johnson teams strictly do not push the ball.
This should be especially troublesome for someone like Deron Williams, who was used to getting the ball in the open court in Utah then unleashing his strength and destructive crossover on the break against helpless defenses.
During the 2009-10 season, Williams scored 1.21 points per transition possession, making 56.4 percent of his shots. He drew a shooting foul an astonishing 21.7 percent of the time on transition plays that season.
While still a member of the Jazz in 2010-11, his transition scoring dipped to 1.12 points per possession and his shooting was slightly down to 54.1 percent. He was getting shooting fouls 14.7 percent of the time. But he was still above average in terms of the rest of the league.
Here’s part of the reason that made Deron so great. He was always in attack mode as soon as he got the ball in the backcourt. Williams was always good at digging down in help to create steals or grabbing a loose ball and turning the pressure back up the court. But when he was just receiving outlet passes, whether they were long passes or short, he was instantly putting pressure on the defense.
Williams was always fantastic at squaring himself up to the defender, not showing himself leaning toward choosing a side to attack. Most players are so worried about protecting the ball and not turning it over, but Williams was confident in his dribbling ability.
If you hesitated on choosing a side, he chose it for you. If you guessed he’d crossover to the left, he’d punish you on the right. And of course as such a big and strong point guard, he was able to absorb contact and still finish off the plays.
He was so opportunistic under Jerry Sloan, they’d have him running off of makes. When Williams came to Utah, Sloan immediately matched his team’s style of play to benefit Williams’ skills. The Jazz went from the bottom of the league in pace to being a top 10 team within two years of Deron getting drafted.
Again, Williams make you hesitate to pick because he’s squared to the defender. He catches them literally on their heels. Then he can go around you and his body control is so good around the rim that he can effortlessly go to the other side for the layup.
This video is just a small glimpse into his crossover. It seems simple enough but it’s actually quite deadly. He doesn’t waste a lot of movement with dramatic fakes out to the side of his body. He just turns it over from one hand to the next with a hard dribble and lets his size and strength take over. And he still maintains the body control around the basket.
When Williams was traded to New Jersey, he was still pushing the ball but it was a lot more ineffective. His points per possession dropped down to 1.00 and he was making just 44.4 percent of his shots.
There were two big problems with Deron pushing the ball when he got to New Jersey. The first problem was guys weren’t used to running. He wanted to stretch his legs a bit and everybody else just kind of watched him do it.
The second problem is there was a lot of poor spacing and instead of Williams deciding to pull the ball back out and start up the offense, he ended up forcing shots. Maybe he felt pressure because of Jay-Z’s presence or he was desperate to make the Nets a winner all of a sudden.
Watch that video one more time. What is Brook Lopez doing crowding the area Deron is driving to? There was a lot of this in which his own teammates were just in the way.
And whatever the reason, his decisions were mostly terrible on the break and you weren’t seeing the same instinctual attacker. During the 2011-12 season, his transition numbers dropped to 0.91 PPP and 43.3 percent shooting. To drop 0.2 points per possession in a couple of years is a HUGE fallout.
Shooting in a Pick-and-Roll
One thing that suffered almost immediately when DWill was traded from Utah to New Jersey was his ability to knock down jumpers in the pick-and-roll.
When he was on Utah, Williams seemed to have more of a rhythm to his shot. He was rocking and firing, shooting straight up off the dribble and really bouncing into his shot attempts. It was this rhythm that kept him so deadly out of a pick-and-roll.
During the 2009-10 season, Williams shot 46.5 percent from three-point range when running a pick-and-roll. As you can see in the video, he’s rising straight up into his shot after planting his feet.
It doesn’t matter how he’s coming off of that screen or how he’s using it, everything he’s putting up is coming from a shooting form that is straight up and down.
Watching this video with him on the Nets, there is a definite change in his three-point shot off the dribble. There’s absolutely no balance to it. He’s fading to the right, he’s leaning back on his attempts, and he’s turning his body to the side.
This is a big part of the reason he’s dropped to 33.9 percent on pick-and-roll three-pointers since joining the Nets. It’s not so much a product of the system as it’s a flaw in his mechanics.
Something like this seems extremely easy to correct if someone can relay to him that he’s not jumping straight up.
Coming Off Screens
One of the things Jerry Sloan’s offense was great at utilizing was Williams curling off of screens for jumpers. In the 2009-10 season, he was ranked 19th in the NBA with 1.02 PPP coming off screens. He made 51 percent of his shots on these plays.
This was a set the Jazz ran a lot. Part of the beauty of the flex offense is the parts are always moving and you get point guards setting screens to create a little havoc. This was a variation on a play they usually ran.
Most of the time Williams would set a down screen for the forward to pop up. Then Williams would fake a post-up of his defender before coming around a double screen for the midrange jumper.
In that video, they forego the pin down, fake the post-up and head right into the curl around the screen.
Here’s another example of Williams passing the ball off to go set a screen. With the point guard initiating cross screens, it just adds another element for the defense to keep track of.
His screen is actually a decoy because he’s just going to release from it and curl off the high post for a jumper.
With the Nets, the system just isn’t nearly as intricate or good. They love to run Deron off of a screen from the double high post around the free-throw line. Then they let him read the defense and react. He can take the next screen however he likes.
The problem as you can see on both shots is it just doesn’t create the same separation he was used to getting in Utah. Instead of running off of two screens or setting up a decoy before surprising the defense with a curl, he’s just releasing off of one teammate.
It gives the defense plenty of time to react and challenge the shot.
Cutting to the Basket
Because of the flex offense and Williams’ ability to read defenses so well, his cutting to the basket was a proficient weapon for him to use. In the 2009-10 season, he scored 1.38 PPP on cuts and made 70.7 percent of his shots. The next season, he scored 1.53 PPP on 79.2 percent before he left for New Jersey.
A big part of this was having passers out of the high post like Andrei Kirilenko and Carlos Boozer (yes, he once served a purpose other than to infuriate Bulls fans).
The confusion of trying to guard the flex offense once again makes things happen. The ball enters the high post; the guards are setting screens. If the defense overplays the screens, the screener can slip to the basket. If the man guarding the screener doesn’t fight for position, he can get inside position to the lane.
This is something that I’m not sure New Jersey has the personnel to take advantage of like Utah did. Brook Lopez is a decent passer. Kris Humphries is a pretty terrible passer. Unless the Nets can go with Gerald Wallace more out of the high post, Williams probably can’t have the same opportunities he had with Utah.
He’s not bad at scoring on cuts with the Nets. Last year, he had 1.12 PPP on 56.5 percent shooting. But if you want to figure out why his overall shooting percentage is so low, these little things add up.
Will Quality of Teammates Help His Play?
This Nets team should be pretty good and if Avery Johnson will let them run a bit more, they might become a pretty good offense.
Since he’s arrived, Deron has been pretty much the only scoring option on the Nets. Brook Lopez is a very good scorer out of the post, but he missed almost all of last year with his foot injury.
Now, Deron will have a full season of Wallace by his side and he’ll be joined by a huge offensive threat in Joe Johnson. With more scoring options on the court, the defense can no longer key in on stopping DWill without repercussions.
You’ll be able to see Williams take advantage of reading and reacting off the ball because the defense will actually have to worry about who is holding the ball. And if he can fix his shooting motion by going more straight up and down rather than leaning to one side or the other, his jump shooting percentages should go back to normal levels.
In the 12 games he spent with the Nets in 2010-11, Williams dished out 12.8 assists per game. That number plummeted to 8.7 assists per game last season, the lowest mark since his rookie year and only the third time in his career he hasn’t averaged double digit assists.
Give Deron Brook Lopez to run pick-and-rolls with for a full season and those assist numbers will climb back up. Let him kick the ball out to Joe Johnson on the weak side instead of DeShawn Stevenson and he’ll be back in double digits.
And give him more options with which to space and run the floor and we’ll probably see the same rhythm and bounce we once saw with Deron Williams.
Deron Williams was an All-Star last year with the Nets, but he could easily get back to being an All-NBA talent this coming season when he introduces himself to Brooklyn.
Then we’ll no longer be able to ask, “What’s wrong with Deron Williams?”