One of my hard and fast rules about professional basketball (and professional sports in general) is that trading draft picks is a bad idea. When dealing with a salary cap, roster limitations, and free agency, being able to have players on the cheap and locked into your team for a few years is a plus (we can debate whether it’s right to force players to go somewhere that they don’t want to go [spoiler alert: it’s not right]).
So, when the Atlanta Dream traded a top pick for Elizabeth Williams who was coming off a forgettable rookie season, I was skeptical, and more than a little perplexed.
But I was wrong.
Elizabeth Williams was worth a top-five pick. She may never be a superstar; she may never leap into the top tier. However, she made improvements to that Atlanta team that they desperately needed. With her, they added a real core piece; the Dream aren’t champion contenders, not yet, but they added a player that can take them there. Here’s why my opinion changed:
In the 2015 season, Williams rookie year, the Atlanta Dream were a bad defensive team. According to numbers provided by Synergy, they ranked 11th out of twelve teams in total defense, just above the San Antonio Stars.
Opponents scored nearly .9 points per possession (PPP), and generally took it to them whenever they played man defense. Spot-ups were the most common type of shot taken against the Dream, and they came in 9th in the WNBA, giving over .9 PPP.
They were very good at taking on the pick and roll (P&R) ball handler, their opponent’s second-most common type of attack, and good at defending transition buckets. But they were getting beaten in the post, and fared poorly against other offensive attacks.
In 2016, that all changed.
Williams’ numbers spell out how good she was last year; 74% of the time she defended in the post or against spot-up shots, allowing less than a 40% field goal percentage in both instances.
You’ll notice that two of the weakest defensive areas for the Dream in 2015 were in spot-up shooting and in post up defending; Synergy graded them both out as Below Average. In 2016, they graded out as Very Good on defending spot-ups (third in the league), and ticked up to average defending the post (seventh).
Also, while she only graded out as Average in taking on the P&R roll man, the team jumped from Very Good on the P&R ball handler to Excellent. I don’t think it’s a coincidence; Williams being able to stick to her assignment and defend them competently most definitely contributed to the Dream being able to corral the ball handler.
The Atlanta Dream improved on offense during the 2016 season, but it isn’t as stark; Williams moved the needle, but not as far as she did on defense. The improvements are more nuanced; she ranks as Very Good on offensive rebound put-backs, which is a small thing that might not really help the team much.
However, the thing that did change was how well they ran the pick and roll, at least in which the ball handler was the focal point. In 2015, good things happened to the Dream when the ball handler kept the rock; they ranked fifth in the league, and scored .762 points per possession.
In 2016, they made a massive improvement, jumping up to second in the league, scoring nearly .85 PPP. There are other potential factors, but I do think that Williams ability to crash the glass and sort of wall off that area of the court was a big reason why the Dream were so good when the ball handler kept the ball.
Elizabeth Williams still has room to grow. The Dream remain poor when posting up, and Williams is a big part of that. It’s not a large part of their offensive game plan, but should the rest of the league tweak their scheme and start sending help defenders to stifle the ball handler in the pick and roll; Atlanta will need to do something else to score points, and pull those defenders away.
She needs to be a better cutter, as well; she’s got the athleticism and the brain to do so, and it’s a skill that young players (lest we forget, she’s only 23) often take a few years to get good at.
If she can post up just a bit better, and move off the ball just a bit better, that opens up the lane for someone like Angel McCoughtry, who is already a tremendous scorer and a wizard at getting to the foul line. Williams, at this point in her career, has the potential to unlock Atlanta’s true potential; she could be everything the team Dreamed of.
Personally, I can’t wait to see how it all plays out.