Amir Williams is without a doubt the most polarizing player to have played in an Ohio State uniform that I can remember. Yeah, I know that Aaron Craft has always been a hit or miss among more casual college basketball fans, but his standing among Buckeye fans has never been in question because of his heart and never-wavering energy. But no one draws the ire of fans more quickly than Williams does, and it makes no sense to me.
Is it because he was (one of the weaker in recent memory, mind you) a McDonald's All-American? Maybe it's because laymen think catching a basketball is easy, and he struggles with that from time to time? Let's take a quick look at his season, and maybe by the end of it I can make a case that Williams' season this year was an unmitigated success.
Previous Season Stats: 3.5 points, 3.9 rebounds, 1.4 blocks, 55.6% FG%, 55.7% FT% in 16.5 minutes per game.
2013-14 Season Stats: 7.8 points, 5.8 rebounds, 1.8 blocks, 59.8% FG%, 65.1% FT%, in 23.6 minutes per game.
2013-14 Per-40 Stats: 13.5 points, 10 rebounds, 3.1 blocks, 2.5 turnovers, 4.4 fouls.
2013-14 Advanced Stats: 19.7 PER, 61.2% TS%, 12.2% OREB%, 17.6% DREB%, 15% TREB%, 18.8% TOV%, 8.4 BLK%, 17.9% USG%,
This is the most important season of Williams' basketball playing career, and it may not be unfair to say that he is the Buckeyes' most pivotal player this season. LaQuinton Ross, Sam Thompson, and Aaron Craft are going to produce, and even if they don't there are options behind them to potentially help out. However, there is no reasonable backup option at center this season (sorry, Trey). He has the position entirely to himself now, and will be counted on to play major minutes for the Buckeyes this season. While Coach Matta has never been one to shy away from playing small lineups without a traditional big man, it is assumed that Williams will be counted on to take on more minutes.
Williams did pretty much exactly what I expected him to do this season. He manned the middle of the paint when asked to, and was taken out for smaller lineups at times to give teams a different look. Williams was by no means a star this year, but he gave the Buckeyes solid production around the baskets on both offense and defense.
I'm not sure there was necessarily a "best game" for Williams this year that stands out in my mind. He had a few early double doubles against weak competition, including Ohio, North Florida, and Delaware, but you pretty much knew what you were going to get out of Amir every night. He was going to play solid defense in the paint and block some shots, finish easy dump offs around the rim, and probably turn the ball over one or two times per night on accidental drops. I remember thinking he played a well-rounded game against Illinois (seven points, nine rebounds, three blocks in 31 minutes) and against Penn State in the first game (12 points, six rebounds, two steals, and a block in 29 minutes) in conference.
Unfortunately, he saved his worst game for the NCAA Tournament. Williams was entirely ineffectual against Dayton, playing only 18 minutes and missing his only two attempts from the field. He controlled the defensive boards while he was in the game, but Dayton ran a pick-and-roll heavy game that took Williams away from the paint and forced him into bad situations. There is no other way to say this: Williams was everything that his critics hate about him in Ohio State's only NCAA Tournament game this season.
Here's what it comes down to: Williams showed marked improvement this season while watching his usage skyrocket, which is important to note. The advanced numbers back up Williams' offense improving this season. He went from a USG% rate of 12.4 to 17.9 (a 44% increase, which is incredibly high), and actually increased his offensive efficiency. His TS% went up 5%, his assist rate doubled, his turnover rate went down 1.5% (although 18.7% is still an extremely high number). He even worked his ass off on his free throws, and improved to the point where he is no longer a liability at the line at all. On the other side of the ball, he controlled the defensive boards more effectively this season, with a DREB% of 17.6%. His total rebounding rate was good for sixth in the conference, and even though his block rate slightly dropped from 9.7% to 8.4%, it was still good for third in the conference.
Then, to top that off, his post defense was extraordinarily strong. The Buckeyes allowed teams to shoot only 58% at the rim, which was good for fourth in the Big Ten. Given that Williams defensive rating was about three points better than any other forward (and third overall behind All-Big Ten Defense first team members Shannon Scott and Craft), it stands to reason that one of the major reasons why Ohio State's defense was so strong was that Williams was able to shut down the paint while he was in the game. He uses his length to both block and simply affect shots in the paint in order to make them more difficult. For my money, Williams was the third best defensive big man in the Big Ten this season behind Adreian Payne and A.J. Hammons, and I think those three were in a stratosphere by themselves.
Hey, Williams isn't perfect. His turnover rate still needs to go down. He's a limited offensive player that works well in the pick-and-roll and can't be trusted to create his own offense. He's also somewhat prone to foul trouble on defense. But he's not the lazy player that he's been painted in some circles as being, for scapegoating reasons that go beyond my understanding. Maybe it's the aloof look on his face, or the slight slouch in his running gait. But Williams can clearly play basketball, and was probably one of the more under-appreciated role players in the Big Ten.
The next steps for Williams will include working more with Scott in the offseason on the pick-and-roll (particularly his hands, as he's already an excellent screen setter and has strong footwork there), working a bit more on his body control in order to limit fouls, and to improve slightly on his defensive rebounding positioning, where he can sometimes end up in no man's land.
Also, working on his footwork in space could allow him to more effectively defend pick-and-rolls in order to make him a complete defensive player. With Williams on the floor, I'd very much be in favor of going under more screens than Coach Matta is prone to doing and allowing Williams to use his length to contest mid-range jump shots, but that's not something that I can see happening anytime soon. So If Williams can work on his footwork in order to recover from hard hedges, that would improve him to the point of being a good college defender to a potential NBA-level defender.