Is Jalen Williams A Perfect Fit For the Timberwolves?

Photo Credit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

With just over a week until the NBA draft, the Minnesota Timberwolves front office is in the middle of one of the busiest parts of their year. There are many prospects with buzz, a lot of game film to watch, and team fits to consider. Possibly the two most significant needs for the Wolves at the moment are finding a two-way front-court partner for Karl-Anthony Towns and adding more switchable wing depth, something which nearly every NBA team needs more of.

While there are some great big men in this draft, many of them are projected to go at the top of the lottery. In contrast, this draft class has a ton of high-upside wings with a lot of draft projection variance. The run on big men early in the draft could benefit the Wolves if one of the tantalizing wing prospects slips through the cracks to pick 19.

Jalen Williams, a wing from Santa Clara, has all the makings of being a high-end sleeper. Williams has slowly been rising up draft boards in the last several months. He was somewhat overlooked at the beginning of the season, likely because Santa Clara isn’t traditionally a high-profile basketball school. Steve Nash was the last player drafted from Santa Clara. That was in 1996, and there are currently no active players in the NBA who attended the Northern California school.

Santa Clara plays against some competitive programs in the West Coast Conference, including Gonzaga and Saint Mary’s. However, the rest of the conference is made up of smaller schools like Pepperdine and Loyola Marymount, which aren’t exactly known for their basketball programs. As a result, players from lesser-known schools in the WCC often get less attention during the NCAA season than players in conferences like the Big 10 or the ACC.

Jalen Williams’s recent buzz is largely a result of his stand-out performances and measurements at the NBA combine. Williams measured in at 6’6” in shoes with a 7’2.25.” wingspan. He showed out in the 5-on-5 competition, scoring 19 points on 7 of 8 shooting against his peers. He also tested incredibly well in multiple events, including standing vertical and sprint speed.

Williams’s stock has raised so much that he is now considered a top-20 draft pick by many publications, including The Ringer and No Ceilings. Williams had incredible offensive numbers during his college season this year, averaging 18 points per game while shooting 39.6% from three-point range, 55.1% inside the arc, and 80.9% at the free-throw line.

While those numbers will likely go down a little against NBA defenders, his efficiency suggests that he could fit nicely into an NBA offense as a spot-up shooter at the bare minimum. His size allows him to shoot over many 2s and 3s, and he already has the strength to shoot from NBA range. Williams also has nice touch around the rim and can use his finesse and footwork to finish while creating contact.

Williams is also a solid defender. He is able to use his height and athleticism to his advantage. Williams averaged 1.2 steals a game last season and 0.5 blocks, solid numbers for a wing. In a film review session with Mike Schmitz, Williams said that his goal is to be able to defend 1-3 and some 4s. Williams spoke about how one of the main areas he wants to improve defensively is guarding players who are bigger than him.

He has all the right tools to learn how to match up with 3s and 4s, given his incredibly long wingspan and positional height, even if adjusting to the NBA is tough for him in his first few seasons. He’s also a solid rebounder for his position, averaging 4.4 rebounds a game. Schmitz proposed in his scouting report that Williams could become an 8 to 9 rebounds per game player given his tools.

His passing is probably the most intriguing aspect of his game and one of the reasons he has such a high upside. Williams grew up primarily playing point guard and had a huge growth spurt in high school. As a result, Williams has very advanced ball-handling and passing skills for a player of his height. While he averaged a relatively modest 4.2 assists per game last season, some of his highlight passes will make your jaw drop. He’s good at finding his roll man on pick-and-rolls, finding cutters streaking to the paint, and squeezing passes into tight spaces. Williams also reads the game quickly during fastbreaks and has the accuracy in finding teammates on the opposite end of the court.

Schmitz noted that Williams plays at his own pace, making him incredibly interesting to watch. He doesn’t rely on his athleticism to get around defenders to the hoop but instead uses his intelligence to read defenders’ movements and confuse them with dribble moves.

In his interview with Schmitz, Williams noted that on one play, he created separation for a pass he made by using his eyes to misdirect a defender towards where he was looking and then passed the ball to a wide-open cutter in the opposite direction. The trickiness in his game is reminiscent of Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, another 6’6” guard who plays at a herky-jerky slow to fast pace that often confuses defenders.

These skills are especially intriguing for the Timberwolves because Jalen Williams could fill two positions of need over time. In the short term, the Wolves can play him off the bench in their wing rotation as a spot-up shooter, versatile defender, and competent ball mover in a similar role as Taurean Prince. In the long term, Williams has serious upside as a lead ball-handler.

He already has many of the necessary skills because he played point guard as a teenager and led Santa Clara’s offense. However, because he has so many other skills and intangibles as a wing, he doesn’t have to become a lead guard to succeed in the NBA. As a result, he likely has a higher floor and ceiling than some of the more traditional point guards in the draft like TyTy Washington or Kennedy Chandler. They will probably be limited to playing the 1 or 2 because of their size.

It seems like a win-win pick to draft someone whose floor is a solid 3-and-D wing and whose ceiling is a long-term replacement for D’Angelo Russell at the 1. Williams would be a great pick for the Timberwolves if he is still on the board at 19.

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