While he may have been the third player that the Oklahoma City Thunder selected in the 2022 NBA Draft (No. 12 overall), Jalen Williams very well may end up being the second-best player on a playoff roster this season. As his rookie season went on, his production on both ends continuously got better which led to him finishing runner-up in NBA Rookie of the Year voting.
In the modern NBA, positional size and versatility is one of the easiest paths to stardom. At 6-foot-6 with an extremely strong frame, Williams can play four positions at a very high level. He played point guard in college at Santa Clara, but played power forward and everything in-between for Oklahoma City in year one.
“He’s just a really natural basketball player,” said Thunder GM Sam Presti after drafting Williams. “He can play pretty much anywhere on the floor.”
Through 75 games as a rookie, Williams produced 14.1 points, 4.5 rebounds, 3.3 assists and 1.4 steals in 30.3 minutes per game. He was also very efficient for a rookie, converting on 52.1% of his shots from the floor (35.6% from deep) while knocking down 81.2% of his free throws. Defensively, he guarded all five positions at different points in the season depending on the situation and matchup.
“He’s huge for a wing. He’s smart, he’s tough…He’s going to be a really good defensive player,” said Thunder coach Mark Daigneault of Williams last season.
As Oklahoma City looks to take a step forward this season and earn a playoff berth, Williams too could make a leap individually. Especially if he can continue the momentum he built late in the season and consistently perform the way he did down the stretch, the ceiling of this Thunder team could be extremely high.
In his final 21 games of the season, Williams averaged 19.1 points, 5.3 rebounds and 4.4 assists while shooting 44.1% from beyond the arc.
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During the offseason, Williams has clearly put an emphasis on adding to his frame in order to further expand his versatility. On the Thunder’s NBA Summer League roster, he was listed at 218 pounds, up from 209 at the NBA Draft Combine before his first season. While he could cut some weight before the start of the season, there’s no question Williams has gotten much stronger which will allow him to be even more effective when playing in the frontcourt.
With how loaded the Thunder is at the guard position, his ability to play as a combo forward will be even more beneficial. Not only does he have the size to play at the three or four, but he still possesses the ability to pass like a point guard and showed improvement as a 3-point shooter late in the season. Combine that with the defensive impact he’s able to make and that’s a skillset that any NBA team would love to have.
Speaking of NBA Summer League, Williams played minimal minutes given how clear it was that he is too good for that type of setting at this point. He dominated every second he was on the floor, proving he’s already a cornerstone piece of the roster. From there, he played on the 2023 USA Basketball Men’s Select Team ahead of the 2023 FIBA World Cup, where he shined against some of the top players in the NBA at practice and in scrimmages.
While on-court numbers can be indicative of future potential, most stars have the “it” factor early on. That’s something that Williams clearly has with the way he carries himself on and off the floor. He’s a natural leader that doesn’t shy away from the spotlight and enjoys playing in high stakes situations. During Oklahoma City’s two play-in games, he averaged 14 points, four rebounds, 3.5 assists and 2.5 steals per contest. Even before, there were several occurrences during the regular season in which he made game-changing plays, both on the offensive and defensive end.
Overall, there’s very few weaknesses to Williams’ game. Other than continuing to improve his already well-rounded skillset, the biggest question coming into this season is the 3-point shot. While he got off to a slow start as a rookie, he finished the year extremely strong. If he’s able to shoot better than 40% from deep this season, he will continue to make his case as one of the fastest rising stars in the entire NBA.
“I want to increase my 3-point percentage. I think that’s just the way the game is evolving. That’s something that can always get better,” said Williams when asked what he wanted to work on at the end of last season.
Jalen Williams is on a star trajectory, with a potential breakout sophomore campaign ahead of him as he looks to help take the Oklahoma City Thunder to the playoffs despite being one of the youngest teams in the league.