The incredible value of Duke’s Mark Williams
Insight from David Thorpe and introducing Bonus Wins--a new advanced metric
BY HENRY ABBOTT
This week, we will feature extensive pre-draft insights from David Thorpe, who will break down an array of prospects with analysis you can get only on TrueHoop.
One thing David said captured my attention: After the first four big-name players, the most likely player to contribute meaningfully is Duke big man Mark Williams.
When he said that, here at TrueHoop we were also busy developing a new way to analyze NBA players: Bonus Wins. These are the surplus wins a player brings a team, above and beyond what you’d expect, as judging by salary.
These two ideas blend in intriguing ways. Mark Williams has all the signs of being NBA-ready and is projected to be drafted no higher than the late lottery? That sound you hear is an alarm bell of opportunity.
David explains some of his thinking about Mark Williams:
Maybe you say that centers are out of favor in the NBA.
Are you sure about that? The Celtics were plus-30 in the Finals when Robert Williams was in the game. The Heat won the regular season in the East with Bam Adebayo as their defensive stud. The Bucks improved mightily when Brook Lopez returned from injury. The Suns were the best team for most of the season with Deandre Ayton anchoring the defense. Last season’s best regular season team was Rudy Gobert’s Jazz.
The pendulum swings, and it has swung away from big men a bit. But I can’t imagine a trend which could make it so Mark Williams doesn’t help NBA teams win.
So, what does David see in Williams? He explains:
Williams has the potential to become NBA Defensive Player of the Year and even an All-NBA center.
He has a standing reach of 9-9 (yes, that is correct) and a wingspan of over 7-6. In shoes, he is 7-2.
Williams is coordinated, fluid, quick, and strong. At his height, that makes him as much a unicorn as Chet Holmgren, but without the need to reinvent offensive and defensive systems for him.
He’s fundamentally very sound. His big sister is one of the best players in the sport, and he grew up steeped in knowledge of the game.
He knows exactly how to use his size and running ability. Williams is ready on Day One to play the same role he will be playing for the early part of his career: Protect the rim, rim race, then be a screen-and-roll and dunk-spot guy.
It works. He was ACC Defensive Player of the Year, the NCAA’s top dunker, and the anchor of an NCAA Final Four defense.
Williams has the makings of the next Rudy Gobert (a repeat DPOY who fell to the 27th pick).
One hot NBA rumor is that the Raptors want 29-year-old Jazz star center Rudy Gobert. Whether that trade happens or not, what’s inarguable is that an ace rim protector could be the coup de gras for a Raptors team that—in the mold of the Celtics—has assembled long, tough, effective defenders at nearly every position. The right addition could lift the team of Pascal Siakam and Scottie Barnes into perennial contenders.
But Gobert made $35,344,828 last season, meaning he would bring more than rim protection. A salary like that also adds the difficulty in fitting a roster of championship-grade players into the league’s salary structure. Start digging deep for the luxury tax, and people start asking if you can do without a Gary Trent Jr. here or an OG Anunoby there.
Here at TrueHoop, we aren’t so bothered by the bottom lines of the billionaires in the back offices. Our focus is on the front-office reality that, to win a title, you have to outperform 29 other teams, which means doing more with less.
A great example from this year is the Celtics. They just made it to Game 6 of the Finals with the NBA’s 16th-highest payroll. Their center was a big reason why. Robert Williams III provides about 80 percent of Gobert’s production for about 30 percent of Gobert’s cost. They call Williams III “Time Lord,” but with a $10 million salary he’s also a lord of value.
Here at TrueHoop, we have been collaborating with analytics legend Stephen Ilardi. He’s a professor at Kansas, an author, and a podcast host. He’s also a pioneer of adjusted plus-minus who co-created Real Plus-Minus (which at one point was cited by Daryl Morey as one of the top innovations to emerge from the MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference, and we know it wasn’t mere talk, because later Morey’s Rockets became one of the teams that hired Ilardi).
It’s easy to know how much a win is worth—take the entire league’s payroll, divided by the number of games per season. Salaries are public. Then we use Taylor Snarr’s Dunks and Threes data to assess how many wins each player is estimated to have contributed to his team each season, (which is an ambitious thing to estimate, but Snarr is good at it). Blend it all with some smart sauce and we have a huge database with a new way to assess which players did the most to help their teams turn dollars into wins. There will be many interesting findings from this in the weeks to come.
For now, though, it matters that all eight of the Celtics’ main rotation players yielded positive Bonus Wins. You’d expect every team to have, on average, one player in the top 30. When it comes to Bonus Wins, the Celtics had three: Jayson Tatum, Robert Williams, and Marcus Smart.
What might surprise you, though, is that Robert Williams had far more surplus value (+7.01 wins, 14th-biggest surplus in the NBA) than Jaylen Brown (+0.64). Brown contributed slightly more wins by Dunks and Threes’ estimated-wins metric, but Williams makes less than half as much money.
Projecting rookie success is one of the NBA’s most troublesome riddles. There are no sure things. But if David Thorpe is even close to correct about Mark Williams, then it’s important to note that Williams will come with an eye-poppingly low $3.6 million salary if he is drafted 12th—and he’ll be under contract with reasonable raises for years. If he can get on the court, and play anything like Robert Williams III or Rudy Gobert, he would provide Bonus Wins and roster flexibility that would be immensely difficult for Gobert to match.
David’s suggestion for the Raptors:
Trade OG Anunoby to the Thunder, who need to win some games or else risk losing the heart and mind of Shai Gilgeous-Alexander. Now that Scottie Barnes is emerging to join Pascal Siakam and Fred VanVleet, the excellent Anunoby becomes the fourth wheel. He’s only 24 and would fit perfectly next to SGA.
In exchange, the Raptors could use the Thunder’s 12th pick on Williams. He would earn immediate minutes behind Precious Achiuwa before likely taking over the starting spot by late winter.
Gobert has been an incredible player almost every season of his career. Once he figured out the league, only injuries have held him back. But the Bonus Wins he contributed to his team, immense near the end of his rookie deal, came down to earth significantly when he got a huge pay raise in 2017. These days, Gobert is being paid more or less what he is worth. It’s a victory for market fairness and the Gobert family. But for Masai Ujiri, who’s trying to scale the harshly competitive, salary-capped NBA, paying market rates is an obstacle to winning a championship. To be one of the best teams, you don’t just need good players; you also need extraordinary value.
The measure of Bonus Wins can be negative because players with big salaries can, of course, cause their teams to fall behind. Some of the league’s worst values this past season were good, productive players like Anthony Davis and Kevin Love. They played well, and made above-average contributions when they were on the court. But combine salaries north of $30 million and minutes confined by injury and/or age, and the math gets harsh in a hurry. There’s evidence players like Gobert would be at risk of aging even less gracefully than Love or Davis—shooters contribute without having to be athletically explosive. Gobert is certainly not a shooter; he has played 611 games without hitting a single 3-pointer.
A little over two years ago, Mark Williams wrote an article for USA Today about how he chose Duke. In that piece, Williams describes the blueprint the Duke coaching staff would lay out for him:
When I was there for my visit, the coaches showed me a lot of Wendell Carter Jr. film because they felt like they would use me in the same way. I could definitely see myself patterning my game after him because he was a guy that could do multiple things on the court. That was really big for me to see.
Carter’s in the NBA now, playing for the Magic, where he’s 26th in the NBA in Bonus Wins—ahead of Giannis, Steph, KD, and most of the league’s All-Stars. He’s nowhere near as good as those players. But he can play, and he’s on an affordable rookie deal, and that’s a powerful combination.
When we talk about advanced statistics in baseball, it’s called Moneyball because, as told in Michael Lewis’s incredible book, the early impetus was to find affordable players who could do the work of expensive players. The salaries mattered. How much they matter in the NBA has always been a little harder to discern, and surely the art and science of that has a long way to go in such a dynamic sport. But it’s easy to see that Thursday’s draft doesn’t just come with an opportunity to unearth a good prospect. It also offers an opportunity to acquire the best value player on your team. Maybe every GM dreams of the top overall pick, but maybe every GM should dream of the 12th pick, or the 26th–which come with tiny salaries and huge potential for Bonus Wins.
In the days to come, David Thorpe will explore some fascinating draft possibilities. And Friday, we’ll dig into all of the trades and picks on a special BRING IT IN. Hope you will join us.
Thank you for reading TrueHoop.