Over the weekend, news emerged that veteran Louisville center Malik Williams will miss 12 weeks of action following surgery on his right foot. Unfortunately, this marks the second year in a row that a foot injury will cost Williams a substantial amount of time to start the season.
Williams is one of the most experienced players in the ACC and among the best frontcourt defenders in the country; this is a tough blow for Louisville.
The Cardinals were set to go through serious roster turnover following the end of a stunted 2019-20 season. However, Louisville has a really nice mix to build around. The return of sophomore point guard David Johnson, along with the addition of grad transfer Carlik Jones (Radford), creates one of the top backcourts in the country.
In theory, Williams would’ve paired perfectly with that Johnson and Jones. Surround that trio with shooting, defensive grit and some secondary playmaking (Samuel Williamson) — all of a sudden there’s the foundation for a strong, tough team.
When healthy, Williams is an excellent rebounder: career 22.3 percent defensive rebound rate. Williams also finished the 2019-20 season with a Defensive PIPM of +2, according to Jacob Goldstein’s model at Wins Added.
Williams is a stud defensively — a quality communicator with a high compete level. Following the departure of Dwayne Sutton, and Williams now on the shelf for several months, Louisville must find new ways to generate defensive intensity and impact.
In pick-and-roll coverage, Williams can hedge ball screens and slide with opposing guards 25+ feet away from the hoop — before recovering to the roll man/screener. When asked, he’s plenty capable of switching on smaller/zippy ball handlers, too.
If Williams played the requisite number of minutes last season, he would’ve joined Duke’s Vernon Carey Jr. and Bourama Sidibe of Syracuse as the only ACC players with 20 percent defensive rebound rate, 3 percent block rate and 1.5 percent steal rate.
Louisville's on/off defensive splits with Malik Williams, per Hoop Explorer: Cards were very good defensively in 19-20, especially with Williams on the floor — opponents shot worse from all 3 levels (52 2P% rim) with Malik on the floor, LOU's defensive rebound rate jumped too pic.twitter.com/yyn14DpQFm
— Brian Geisinger (@bgeis_bird) October 29, 2020
On offense, Williams offers some stretch (57 career 3-pointers) and face-up mid-post scoring. However, his best works comes from his foot speed and activity as a screener. Williams is a good cutter and a heady slipper of screens — from the flow of Louisville’s half-court offense.
(Here Williams gets a layup from a 77 cut out of Louisville’s Buckeye action, which turns into continuity ball screen offense.)
Williams is also an important component of Louisville’s secondary/transition drag screen offense. According to Hoop Explorer, 42.3 percent of Louisville’s field goal attempts came at the rim when Johnson was on the floor last season — an impressive number. That rate dropped to 32.9 percent with Johnson on the bench.
While erratic at times, Johnson is strong attacking the rim and working as a passer in the drag screen game.
This type of early offense should provide Louisville with some high-percentage opportunities around the basket. For an offense that must replace so much perimeter shooting — Jordan Nwora and Ryan McMahon — these types of possessions, before a half-court defense gets set, are critical.
Louisville will still access plenty early offense without Williams; however, losing the speedy rim-runner is a very real hit.
Platoon No More: Now What?
During the first two years of the Chris Mack era, Louisville essentially platooned Williams and Steven Enoch at the center position. Williams was on the floor with Enoch for less than 1.3 percent of his possessions in each of the last two seasons, per Hoop Explorer.
The two centers offered different skill sets to Louisville’s frontcourt. Depending on matchups and team need, Mack could alternate his frontcourt mix with a purpose.
Enoch was a post-up brute that could space the floor as well; the Cards frequently used him in high-low action or cleared out and let Enoch work 1-on-1 in the post with a balanced half-court.
According to Synergy Sports, Enoch shot a combined 47.4 percent on post-up field goal attempt the last two seasons (0.9 points per possession). Nearly 54 percent of Enoch’s possessions last season were post-ups.
Williams doesn’t possess the raw interior power of Enoch; however, when he entered the game, 6-foot-11 Williams brought added pace and defensive range. Plus, when called upon, he can get a bucket while isolated on the block, too.
With Enoch gone, though, the center position would’ve belonged to Williams this season. Now, Louisville must scramble to fill for Williams while he heals.
The 6-foot-10, 240-pound Aidan Igiehon certainly looks ready to contribute; he’s one of the more physically imposing players in college basketball. While Williams worked to get healthy earlier last season, Igiehon saw minutes in the rotation. Igiehon showed flashes, too.
However, he was a turnover and foul machine in limited minutes last season — before an injury cut things short. Louisville will need more production from Igiehon this year, especially with Williams on the mend.
Beyond Igiehon, redshirt freshman Jae’Lyn Withers, a 6-foot-8 product from Charlotte, 6-foot-8 sophomore Quinn Slazinski will be counted on, too.
Louisville dabbled with some small-ball lineups last season — ones that featured a frontcourt of Sutton, Nwora and Williamson.
The Cards have plenty of pieces in the 6-foot-4 to 6-foot-8 range; they could work more of those lineups into the mix, too.
Louisville getting hammered by injuries: Malik Williams out for months and now USF transfer Charles Minlend out for six weeks with a sprained MCL.
Cardinals probably a Top 40-50 team to open the season.
— Jeff Goodman (@GoodmanHoops) November 9, 2020
Losing grad transfer Charles Minlend — a tough 6-foot-4, 220-pound wing — is a hit to some of those possibilities. However, freshman Dre Davis (6-foot-5, 220-pounds) could help unlock a variety of packages for Louisville.