One of the best stories in college basketball this season centers on the play of Malik Williams.
Over the last five years, Williams has been there for all of the ups and downs associated with with Louisville basketball. (It still boggles the mind: Rick Pitino was the head coach when Williams arrived on campus in 2017.) Unfortunately, much of his time has been clouded by injury and the COVID-19 pandemic.
Williams missed the first four games of the 2019-20 season after breaking his foot and having a screw inserted. Prior to the disruption of that season, Williams was a key cog for an excellent Louisville team, while emerging as one of the ACC’s top bench players.
A few weeks before the start of the 2020-21 season, Williams injured his right foot, which would requite surgery. While Jae’Lyn Withers slid over and went to work at center, the team missed Williams. Late in the season, Williams returned to the lineup; however, he didn’t look like himself. Williams wasn’t moving around the floor with his normal verve.
After three games back, Williams was lost for the year when he re-injured his foot during a game vs. Duke. This time, though, Williams wouldn’t need surgery.
Now in his third seasons as a captain, Williams — with over 100 career games under his belt — is playing some excellent basketball for Louisville (8-4, 2-0 ACC) and anchoring a defense that ranks inside the top 25 nationally.
Malik Williams: Defense
It’s nothing new: for years now, Malik Williams has been a premier frontcourt defender in the ACC. Williams is different from some of the other quality defensive centers of recent ACC history, though. Guys like Manny Bates and Mark Williams — for instance — are excellent back-line rim protectors, who block a lot of shots. Now, the 6-foot-11 Williams can block a shot; he’s averaged 1.8 blocks per 40 minutes during his college career. That, however, isn’t his primary strength.
Instead, Williams is an excellent position defender — one who can really move in space. Williams has agile feet and plays technically sound pick-and-roll defense.
When Williams is moving right, he can set the edge in Louisville’s Pack-Line defense by hedging ball screens, then recovering back to the paint and helping close up the lane. This has been the standard for years now.
Unfortunately, after battling all of those foot injuries, it was logical to worry about his mobility. What would Williams look like when he returned to the floor for the 2021-22 season?
Well, he’s answered of those concerns, so far.
Once again, Williams looks mobile and physical at the mesh point — working as the second defender in Louisville’s ball-screen coverages. The Cards can really tighten the screws in these looks when Jarrod West, a strong point-of-attack defender, is on the basketball, too.
Williams provides versatility in terms of pick-and-roll defense. That variety package starts with his ability to hedge out in space. Williams will force opposing ball handlers to dribble away from the basket — before resetting the offense.
However, Williams is plenty capable of not hedging and instead playing to the level of the screen, while making life difficult for the ball handler.
Williams doesn’t give up on plays, either. He will continue to pursue the basketball.
During the second half of Louisville’s thrilling road win over NC State, Chris Mack altered coverages and asked Williams to switch out on NC State’s guards. Williams answered the call and held his ground in switch/1-on-1 matchups.
Defensive Stats: Louisville Jumps A Level
Unsurprisingly, the number support the eye test with Williams as well. Currently, the fifth-year senior is one of only six high-major players with a Defensive Box Plus-Minus of 5.0, 3.5 percent steal rate and 3.5 percent block rate.
Louisville's defense with Malik Williams on the floor: 85 points per 100 possessions (40 eFG% opponents), 291 minutes, via Pivot Analysis
Louisville's defense with Williams off the floor: 114.3 points per 100 possessions (51 eFG% opponents), 194 minutes https://t.co/lNFIpB9N5Q
— Brian Geisinger (@bgeis_bird) December 30, 2021
Williams continues to anchor a defense that, so far, has been the key to Louisville’s success. With Williams on the floor this season, Louisville is +118 in 291 minutes, per Pivot Analysis. Opponents have scored a lowly 0.85 points per possession with Williams on the court, too.
When Williams hits the bench, the defense has allowed 1.14 points per possessions. Obviously, a lot of stuff gets priced into these on/off numbers, but that’s a massive difference. Louisville is -60 in the 194 minutes this season with Williams on the bench.
Overall, less than 31 percent of opponent field goal attempts have come around the rim, a top-50 number nationally according to Bart Torvik’s shot data.
Post Entry: Access Denied
One of the other things Williams has helped with is Louisville’s post defense. Williams aggressively fronts and fights for position in the post. In doing so, the veteran forces his matchup to post up further away from the basket and with less time on the shot clock.
Watch Louisville play and you’ll see opponent possessions grind down as they look to post-up against Williams. It’s not a winning proposition.
If basketball is a contest of hundreds of mini-battles taking place throughout a 40-minute game, then Williams is a master of these types of skirmishes.
Williams really shows his cunning as a post defender when he’s able to get steals off these types of post entry passes. His timing is so damn good; the majority of post defenders attempting this tactic will likely reach over the back, create contact and get whistled for a foul.
While competing for position, Williams will simultaneously anticipate the entry pass and pull the chair out from under his opponent. He’s a master of deception. This allows Williams to get closer to the mid-air projectile while his opponents fades further away, slightly.
Even after the post-entry pass is complete, the ball isn’t safe with Williams in close proximity. Post-up players that look to face-up must be aware of Williams and his quick hands.
Williams is one of only six high-major players — 6-foot-10 or taller — with a steal rate of at least 3.0 percent. This is some very strong company.
Going back to the 2007-08 season, only three other ACC players — 6-foot-10 or taller — have finished the season with a steal rate of 3+ percent. (Louisville forward Ray Spalding, a former teammate of Williams, did it twice.)
Of course, even if an opposing post player manages to get a shot up, that doesn’t mean Williams won’t get his hand on that, too.
Louisville doesn’t block many shots as a team (7.3 percent block rate), but the Cards have held opponents to only 44.5 percent shooting on 2-point attempts, a top-35 number in the nation.
Put it all together, this is the statistical profile of an All-Defensive Team player and someone that will be in the conversation for ACC Defensive Player of the Year.
Louisville still has some serious issues to iron out on offense, but the defense — with Williams as it backbone — looks legit.