Oklahoma City Thunder forward Jalen Williams was the 12th pick in the 2022 NBA Draft, and the 22-year-old has been one of the breakout players of the current season. Williams is averaging 18.7 points, 4.5 assists, 4.1 rebounds and 1.1 steals per game for a Thunder team that could very well be the top seed in the Western Conference. He looks like a player that will eventually end up being an All-Star for Oklahoma City, and a good argument can be made that he’d be the third pick in a 2022 re-draft behind only Paolo Banchero and his teammate Chet Holmgren.
The interesting thing is that all the signs were there for Williams coming out of college. Williams averaged 18.0 points, 4.4 rebounds, 4.2 assists and 1.2 steals per game in his final season at Santa Clara, and draft analysts absolutely loved his polish and versatility. He was just a somewhat older prospect and wasn’t at a high-major school. Well, his brother, Cody Williams, is a 19-year-old freshman at Colorado, and he has been showing out in the Pac-12. And he happens to play a lot like a taller version of his brother, as he’s a 6-foot-8 wing with an advanced skill set, positional versatility and untapped potential. All of that makes Williams an enticing option at the top of the 2024 NBA Draft.
Through 12 games this season, Williams is averaging 15.4 points, 3.5 rebounds and 2.1 assists per game for the Buffaloes. Those numbers don’t jump off the page, but he is making an all-around impact on the game. Much like his brother, Williams is a lengthy wing that gives his team a jumbo-sized ball handler. He likely won’t be the main option on his team at the next level, but he can run the offense for stretches. The big wing playmaker is arguably the most coveted archetype in basketball right now.
When watching Williams, his ability to use his long strides really stands out. Williams doesn’t lack athleticism, but he also doesn’t have outrageous burst or leaping ability. He’s just a good athlete, not a special one. Williams mostly gets himself to the basket with clever changes of direction and good use of his steps. That’s why it’s hard not to see his older brother in his game. Both of them toe an odd line between awkward and smooth when attacking the rim. However, both of them are effective when doing so, and Williams’ next team will want him to do it more. But either way, Williams is going to be a lethal driver in the NBA as long as he improves his handle and adds some strength. The signs are already there, and there will be more lanes for him in the pros. Williams will also do a ton of damage in transition. And the beauty of all of that is that Williams looks the part of an elite finisher. He has touch around the basket that you just can’t teach.
Williams has also impressed with his plus-level court vision. He’s already a dangerous player when the Buffs have a screener for him, as he can see over the top of the defense. That allows him to find teammates for lobs, or just manipulate the defense to find somebody away from the action. Of course, he’s also capable of getting downhill and attacking on his own. All in all, he’s unique in that he can impact games in the pick-and-roll as both a ball handler and a screener. If his next team has another wing that can handle the ball, look out.
Williams is also a much better shooter than he has been given credit for early in the cycle. The freshman definitely needs to get more shots up, but he’s shooting 52.0% from deep on 2.1 attempts per game thus far. He has also had a few games in which he has buried multiple threes already, and his form is pretty on the eyes. Williams was a good free throw shooter before arriving in Colorado, so none of this is all that surprising. But a slow start to the season as a three-point shooter — and free throw shooter — has some people worried about his jumper. He’s a perfectly fine shooter and should only get better. If there’s anything to nitpick with Williams’ shot, it’s that his release is on the slower side. But it’s better to take a while to make open shots than to rush misses. And it won’t be a problem if his comfort level as an NBA shooter is taking open catch-and-shoot triples.
On top of everything Williams does offensively, he also looks the part of an elite defender. Of course, added strength will only make him more reliable on that end of the floor, but Williams should be able to defend shooting guards all the way up to power forwards at a high level. And he’s one of the few players that will also be able to cover point guards and centers in a pinch. Williams isn’t racking up blocks or steals right now, but he keeps his man in front of him and has a high motor. He also knows where he needs to be. Those are some of the most important traits when evaluating a prospect’s defense. He’ll rarely ever hurt his team, and he’s mostly helping.
Williams is just perfect for what NBA teams are looking for right now. He’s definitely still a little raw, but he’s already finding a way to produce through that. Eventually he’ll add some real fluidity to his game, and he’ll also play with more purpose. He still doesn’t seem to know exactly what he is as a player. But his brother has shown NBA front offices what he can be, and he probably has a little more upside than Jalen. In a weak draft class, that might make him worthy of going first overall.