Along with the rest of his teammates, Lou Williams’ first season with the Los Angeles Lakers has been a demoralizing spectacle. The team is 5-27—worst in the Western Conference and second-worst in the NBA.
Signing him in July as one of the most efficient and experienced daggers on the open market, the Lakers brought in Williams to help prevent a complete and total collapse by the offense.
As it turns out, that task is impossible for any one player; Kobe Bryant’s bad habits, disorienting decisions from the sideline and an incongruous roster all serve as a shatterproof roadblock on the path to a successful season.
The reigning Sixth Man of the Year is now the Lakers’ starting shooting guard, a role he wasn’t brought in to fill. But all year he’s quietly plugged away as one of L.A.’s most effective scorers.
How is that possible, being that he’s shooting below 40 percent from the floor?
Well, Williams has made the most of a bad situation by magnifying his most impressive skill: the ability to draw fouls.
Watch any Lakers game for 10 minutes and there’s a good chance you’ll see Williams bait his defender into a comically bad mistake 24 feet from the basket. It never gets old and, for whatever reason, has yet to catch on as something opposing players watch out for.
“I used to guard him, messing around in practice when I was working him out, and I could never not foul him,” Toronto Raptors assistant coach Nick Nurse told Bleacher Report. “I was trying to keep my hands back and all kinds of things like that, but he’s just good. The rhythm of what he does, he never does it the same way twice. Like, when he’s going to shoot, how many dribbles, he doesn’t take it up straight away all the time.”
Last year, as a member of the Raptors, Williams averaged .426 free-throw attempts for every field goal attempt. Now, his free-throw rate is at .571, higher than ever before and teetering at a historical level.
According to Basketball-Reference.com, since 2000, the only guards with Williams’ usage percentage and minutes total who’ve use the free-throw line to their advantage like he’s doing are James Harden, Devin Harris, Dwyane Wade and Kevin Martin. That’s fine company.
The 29-year-old is L.A.’s third-leading scorer despite the fact that four of his teammates have attempted more shots: Julius Randle, D’Angelo Russell, Jordan Clarkson and Bryant. He’s also one of five players in the last 10 years to average at least 13 points on fewer than 10 field-goal attempts per game.
“He’s got really, really good feet,” Oklahoma City Thunder head coach Billy Donovan said. “He can get away from you. He shoots the ball very, very well, and I think the other thing too is he shoots the ball well off the move. He can put it on the floor. He’s great going left, knocking down shots, and then he’s also terrific at drawing fouls and getting to the free-throw line. ... He’s a hard guy to guard.”
In playmaking scenarios, Williams is difficult to contain. Of all players who’ve used at least 150 scoring possessions running a pick-and-roll, only Tony Parker, Stephen Curry, DeMar DeRozan and Eric Bledsoe are more efficient than Williams, per Synergy Sports. Only three players have a lower turnover rate in these situations, and nobody winds up at the free-throw line more often. (Harden’s free-throw frequency is 2.7 percent lower than Williams’.)
Here he is drifting left off a high screen and catching Denver Nuggets forward Darrell Arthur with his hand out. It’s a quirky skill, but one that can’t really be taught or developed in a traditional drill:
And here's Williams being crowded several feet behind the three-point line by Oklahoma City’s Andre Roberson, one of the better on-ball perimeter defenders in the league:
Williams is only shooting 23.1 percent from that segment of the floor, on the right side above the break. He’s 3-of-13 on the year and hardly a threat, yet Roberson treats the 10-year veteran like he’s Klay Thompson. Most defenders follow suit; Williams has pulled this trick dozens and dozens of times this season, and opposing players continue to fall for it, gifting him with a trip to the free-throw line that plays to the Lakers’ favor.
Williams is making 33.3 percent of his three-pointers and is at 34.1 percent for his career. So the question begs to be asked: Why do players foul him so far from the basket if, right now, he’s a below-average three-point shooter?
"I just don’t think you're going to give a guy that shoots above 33 percent those shots. You’re just not gonna give them shots," Nurse said. "And I think he’s good at head faking or pump faking to draw you up a little bit...as much as you want to stay back, at least you’re gonna move up to late challenge and then you’re into him putting it on the floor, and you’re up into him and he’s into you."
The Lakers are terrible on offense, and no player short of Curry or LeBron James could lift them to a league-average level (probably). But Williams has a helpful offensive repertoire that the team can still put to good use.
He gets opposing teams in the bonus earlier than they'd like. His trips to the line slow the game down and, in theory, let the Lakers set up their half-court defense, eliminating the chance to get burned in transition.
Last season, Toronto's offense averaged 111.3 points per 100 possessions with Williams on the court and only 104.6 when he sat, per NBA.com. Right now, on/off numbers are a hopeless measuring stick for just about everyone on the Lakers, but the team's attack is slightly better when Williams plays.
"He would get us buckets when things bogged down," Nurse said. "He’d keep that second unit clicking over pretty good, and you know it’s always nice to have bucket-makers. And he’s definitely a bucket-maker."
The Lakers could really use one of those. Bryant still struggles to get separation, Nick Young is too streaky, and Clarkson's shot selection is a bit wild from time to time. Fortunately, Williams sits right under their nose.
All quotes were obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted.