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NBA Draft 2018 | Ayton and Williams show flaws — and upside

NBA Draft - Dec 5, 2017; Phoenix, AZ, USA; Texas A&M Aggies forward Robert Williams (44) guards Arizona Wildcats forward Deandre Ayton (13) during the first half at Talking Stick Resort Arena. Mandatory Credit: Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY Sports
Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY Sports

Tuesday’s Valley of the Sun Showcase featured a high-profile NBA Draft clash between Arizona’s DeAndre Ayton and Texas A&M’s Robert Williams. Neither prospect put on his best performance in front of many NBA scouts and executives, but it was still a great opportunity to gather details on the dueling big men.

Williams and Ayton guarded each other for several stretches throughout the game. While Williams is a year older than Ayton, the Arizona freshman looked more polished, which is part of the reason why he’s ranked higher on NBA Draft boards. Both players made miscues throughout the game, yet they also gave glimpses of explosive potential.

Ayton finished Arizona’s 67-64 victory with a double-double of 13 points and 10 rebounds. He looked better as a scorer and passer than as a paint protector, so there’s room for him to refine his defensive execution. Meanwhile, Williams had a quiet night offensively (four points on 2-of-6 shooting) but uncorked spurts of elite athleticism.

Here’s a breakdown how each player fared on offense and defense, keeping in mind that the big fellas didn’t check each other exclusively. What did we learn about their NBA potential?

Ayton’s offense and Williams’ defense

Ayton didn’t get many post touches or even pick-and-roll catches in this game. Despite the low volume of offense, he displayed his versatility. He hit an outside jumper, converted an acrobatic alley-oop layup, smoked Williams on a post-up, and made a couple of nifty passes.

Both Arizona fans and NBA onlookers would have liked to see Ayton involved in the offense more consistently. The Wildcats’ personnel and spacing aren’t ideal because he often had to share the floor with another big man. Nevertheless, we got a good taste of his upside.

Ayton put a few moves on Williams with mixed results. A first-half spin move gave him an angle to the rim, but Williams stripped the ball with cat-like quickness. In the second half, Ayton finished the job, toasting Williams on a sweet pivot move from the left block:

 

The Wildcat freshman also displayed flashes of skill outside the paint. While Ayton missed both of his 3-point attempts Tuesday, his outside shooting upside remains exciting. He drilled a long 2-pointer from the baseline, and his mechanics are smooth for a big man. He also dished a few well-timed, accurate passes to teammates from the low block and high post, finishing with three assists.

Williams’ defensive juice was inconsistent throughout the game. He didn’t tenaciously battle Ayton on the glass during several sequences. When he defended the post, however, he aggressively used his length to disrupt and deflect entry passes. It worked a few times, but on one occasion, his interception was too risky and he yielded an easy Wildcat bucket.

The 6-10 Aggie sophomore flexed his shot-blocking prowess a couple of times. He has great agility for someone his size, which he used a few times to hedge and recover against Arizona’s pick-and-rolls.

With his long, quick strides and expansive reach, Williams is able to shut down opponents’ scoring angles in a hurry. Watch him track down Dylan Smith after getting beaten on the closeout:

 

Tuesday was far from a perfect defensive outing for Williams; he bit on some pump fakes, got caught on a couple of screens, and didn’t rebound dominantly. Nevertheless, his lateral and vertical agility and rim-protecting instincts were impressive.

Williams’ offense and Ayton’s defense

Williams does not project to be a major scoring weapon in the NBA, and he illustrated why on Tuesday. His confidence as a passer and mid-range shooter has improved, but he can’t create his own shot off the dribble or consistently hit outside shots.

He took only six field goal attempts in the game, often deferring to teammates or settling for off-balance shots. Right now, it’s hard to imagine his primary NBA offensive role being much more than a pick-and-roll diver and a catch-and-finish threat. That isn’t necessarily a bad life if you’re paired with a decent playmaker; just ask Houston Rockets center Clint Capela.

With Williams’ deficiencies in mind, let’s not forget some of the bright spots in his four-point, two-assist outing. He made a nifty turnaround hook shot off the glass on a late-game post-up, and he also made a few clever passes in the Aggies’ offense. Coach Billy Kennedy trusts Williams more this season as a screener and decision-maker in Texas A&M’s horns sets. Williams connected with teammates on some well-timed passes out of the short corner and top of the key, and he notched a couple of assists.

Ayton’s defense was as unspectacular as Williams’ offense. The energy and physical tools are there, but he hasn’t shown great awareness or decision-making as an off-ball defender. He didn’t call out or bump cutters on a few Aggie layups, and missed a couple of opportunities to protect the hoop as a helper.

His on-ball defense wasn’t always stout, either. Williams didn’t get the best of him, but Texas A&M’s Tyler Davis scored on him with some physical hook shots. To be fair, Davis made great plays and scored on seemingly every Wildcat, tallying 21 points in the process.

Ayton certainly has value and significant upside on defense, though. He athletically contested shots, made a huge swat in transition, and cleaned up the defensive boards. Given his foot speed, strength and length, NBA decision-makers shouldn’t be too worried about Ayton floundering defensively. He probably won’t be a Joel Embiid type of defender, but he will be respectable and far from a flop.

While Ayton earned higher marks in this matchup and will likely land higher on draft night, Williams still merits top-10 consideration. There’s plenty of room in the NBA for big men who defend pick-and-rolls, play end-to-end athletically, and score above the rim.

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