If you haven’t seen much of Elizabeth Williams this year, you might not realize she is one of the best defenders in the game right now. In limited minutes on Thursday, she absolutely terrorized the New York Liberty, essentially dominating the game without scoring points.
She only scored six in the entire game, which was plenty because her defense absolutely befuddled New York. Washington won the game 78-69 and she deserves plenty of credit for it. Williams started on the bench, and unlike the Mystics we are accustomed to seeing, there were breakdowns in help defense early on. Miscommunication off the opening tipoff led to a wide open Liberty three just 10 seconds into the game.
Miscommunication off the opening tip from the Mystics leads to an open Ionescu triple pic.twitter.com/OQrLmSkxlY— Josh Felton (@jfeltonnn) July 23, 2022
Compare that to Elizabeth Williams’ first defensive possession of the game, which was an emphatic block on Sabrina Ionescu, portending what was to come. Williams is a Swiss Army knife defender. Her ability to switch out onto guards while also quickly rotating to protect the rim is what makes her so difficult to score on.
Elizabeth Williams' first defensive possession is an emphatic block on Ionescu that gets the crowd roaring! pic.twitter.com/zR6mpXe3BH— Josh Felton (@jfeltonnn) July 23, 2022
Almost every shot that comes her way is heavily contested, and that defense to offense made life easier for the Mystics in a way they have gotten small glimpses of this season. The Mystics rank fifth in the WNBA in offensive efficiency after a steal, and their defense is first after a made field goal, when they can reset themselves. So generating stops creates a positive cycle that makes the next offensive and defensive possession more effective.
Elizabeth Williams is very good at staying disciplined in the low post. Contesting without fouling is usually a great indicator of a good defender, and in her limited minutes matched up against the towering 6-foot-10 Han Xu she made life miserable for her. With Williams giving up at least half a foot in height, she remained vertical and forced Xu to take a difficult midrange fadeaway that didn't even hit the rim. What is perhaps the most impressive part of this play is that Williams doesn’t even budge when Xu attempts to gain a deeper position inside.
Elizabeth Williams does a great job here contesting without fouling against the much taller Han Xu. pic.twitter.com/BVGcmYtmtl— Josh Felton (@jfeltonnn) July 23, 2022
Williams was a team best +15 in her 12 impactful minutes of play. The defensive sequences were the difference-maker in an otherwise very close game. Late in the second quarter, Williams does a phenomenal job moving her feet to stay in front of Ionescu to contest her layup. Great defense by Wiliams leads to easy offense as the Mystics run out in transition, and a tough left-handed layup by Shatori Walker-Kimbrough caps off an 8-0 run.
Defense to offense sparked by E. Williams caps off an 8-0 Mystics run pic.twitter.com/zwOFxrGFJb— Josh Felton (@jfeltonnn) July 23, 2022
Being vocal is one of the most important characteristics of a good team defense, and Elizabeth Williams made herself loud and clear. Halfway through the third quarter, the Liberty ran a lineup with both Natasha Howard and Xu. Williams switched onto both of them during the same possession and forced yet another miss.
The Mystics’ overall defense ranks first in the league with less than a month remaining in the season. However, they are less than half a point ahead of second so their final ranking could change.
Washington is slowly creeping towards the upper echelon of all-time defenses. It has a -6.9 relative defensive rating as of the last week of July and only nine teams in WNBA history have finished the season with a relative defense at least seven points below league average. Four of those nine teams have gone on to win the title, with the most recent team being the 2020 Seattle Storm. It is clear that with Williams seeing an increased role with the team, Washington is well on its way to finishing with the league’s best defense.
Williams is the league leader in defensive win shares per 40 minutes and it’s easy to see why. After dropping into coverage to defend the pick and roll, she closes out perfectly on Xu once again to force another missed three.
A great help and recover play by E. Williams on this possession followed by a great closeout. pic.twitter.com/HU8ob4NLG3— Josh Felton (@jfeltonnn) July 23, 2022
With Williams on the floor for Washington, there is something different about the team’s energy on defense that makes them so difficult to score on. The Mystics’ defensive rating improves by an entire seven points when she is on the floor, and that is because of her phenomenal defensive awareness, motor, quickness, and size.
Smothering the point of attack and turning missed shots and turnovers into points was the story of Thursday’s win against the Liberty. In only 12 minutes with Williams on the court, Washington outscored New York 29-14, which means in a little more than a quarter of action, the Liberty posted an offensive rating of 56 against the lockdown defense of Williams.