Back in the summer of 2015, fans nervously awaited the decisions of marquee free agents, clinging to any glimmer of hope that the Los Angeles Lakers might finally land one and establish the next star set to carry the torch once Kobe Bryant decided to move on from the game of basketball.
Once it was apparent that none of the A-listers were signing with Los Angeles, the Lakers were forced to move on to plans B and C. At the forefront of those backup blueprints was the seemingly random signing of Lou Williams, fresh off a Sixth Man of the Year award with the Toronto Raptors.
Initially, the signing was a bit puzzling and out of nowhere, seeing as the team already had Bryant, Jordan Clarkson and D’Angelo Russell already in place on the roster, but at three-years, $21 million with a soon-to-be spiking salary cap, it was hard to argue the value, no matter how challenging the fit might be.
In his first season with the Lakers, Williams’ role with the team frustrated the fan base at times. After showing his value as a sixth man the season prior, he was thrown into the starting lineup in place of Russell early in the season, eating up the second overall pick’s playing time, especially in the fourth quarter. Things would eventually revert back to the norm, but naturally after a 17-win season, people reassessed the future roles of players moving forward.
How will Williams fit into Luke Walton’s system? Do the Lakers need to hold onto a relatively inefficient scorer with a promising, young backcourt duo already established? With the monetary value of player contracts skyrocketing, should the Lakers offload his team-friendly deal to draw an asset in return? These questions, among several others, clouded the perception of Williams and his situation in Los Angeles just a few short months ago.
There was plenty of skepticism about his role moving forward. While some people expected his efficiency to increase in a better offensive system, the consensus was that it would likely only be a marginal bump. Even Williams’ ability to get to the free throw line — one of his best traits as a player -- seemed to be a bit of a burden on the offense during the team’s preseason campaign. Of course, that ability is a tremendous weapon to have in your arsenal, there is no denying that. But personally, watching this year’s preseason games unfold, it seemed to break this young group’s offensive flow and rhythm at times, creating several stoppages in play. Perhaps it was just nitpicking on my part, but it factored in to my concern overall with Williams moving forward, which stemmed primarily from the times he passed up an open shot to dribble into a contested one. Sometimes you just can’t teach an old dog new tricks, right?
Well, here we are, just nine games into the regular season and those concerns seem like distant memories. The Lakers are off to a perplexing 5-4 start, and Williams has played a major part in it, ensuring that he is not forgotten with Clarkson seemingly taking over that sixth man role.
While the Lakers have gotten off to a number of slow starts thus far, Williams has been a consistent spark plug off the bench, leading one of the best second units in the NBA. Granted, nine games is a small sample size, but Williams has been sensational for Los Angeles in the early stages of the season.
The past two seasons, Williams has averaged 15.5 and 15.3 points in 25.2 and 28.5 minutes per game, respectively. So far this year, Williams has poured in 15.9 points per game in just 23.2 minutes due to a considerable rise in his efficiency. Although he is shooting nearly two less free throws per game from a year ago, Williams is knocking down 45.1 percent of his shots overall, and 40 percent from the three-point line. In 2015-16, those numbers were at 40.8 percent overall and 34.4 percent from deep.
There are a few reasons for this sudden increase in efficiency, some more obvious than others. The personnel has improved, primarily due to the youth around Williams showing accelerated development. But the offensive system now is far better than whatever the Lakers ran last season, putting players in better positions to succeed and convert their scoring opportunities, emphasizing far greater spacing and movement. Just take a look at Williams’ shot chart through the first nine games.
When he hasn’t been able to get to the rim, the majority of Williams’ shots have come from the left side of the floor. He has a tendency to drift to his left when he shoots off the dribble, but he certainly has the ability to make shots while doing so, something not a lot of players are able to do. But it goes back to the system that Walton has implemented with this group, clearly putting players in more comfortable positions on that end of the floor.
While the youth has developed to some extent, the Lakers' guards have thrived in a lot of high pick-and-roll action thanks in large part to having big men that can set solid screens and dive to the basket effectively when needed. With Timofey Mozgov now in the fold instead of Roy Hibbert, along with Tarik Black finally getting consistent playing time, their screen-and-roll abilities have given the guards and wings more room to operate, providing a threat to catch and finish around the basket that defenses have to account for.
Of course, Williams deserves a ton of credit for simply taking his game to a level that we just didn’t see last season. Getting there has been about more than just filling up the scoring column, though. Williams has also been effective by creating for his teammates as well. On the surface 3.7 assists per game may not seem like much, but he only averaged 2.5 last season in over five more minutes per contest.
In fact, the only other time Williams has averaged more than his current assist total was back in 2009-10 with the Philadelphia 76ers, where he dished out 4.2 assists per game in 29.9 minutes, almost seven more than what he has logged this year.
Williams’ assist percentage so far this season is at 23.7 percent (14.9 percent in 2015-16), which is third-best on the team just behind Russell (26.9) and noticeably behind Marcelo Huertas (35.3), who has played in just two games this season. Williams also has the second-highest assist-to-turnover ratio on the team behind Huertas, logging 19.1 assists per 100 possessions (third-most on the team) in comparison to 11.6 turnovers (9th-most).
Williams’ production thus far has earned him the highest net rating on the team among players consistently in the rotation at 12.7. Last season, that rating was at a dreadful -10.8. In terms of his total production so far, this might be the best Williams has played in his 12-year career. Admittedly, per 36 minutes stats can be a bit questionable in some cases. For Williams, though, he has tallied 24.6 points and 5.7 assists per 36 minutes in 2016-17. It would be surprising if that production fails to deteriorate to a certain extent over the course of the season, but it goes to show just how good Williams has been to this point.
For the Lakers to continue on as one of the league’s biggest surprises of the year, they will certainly need Williams to maintain his increased level of production as the youth on the roster develops as the season progresses. Whether the jump in efficiency is a testament to the system, roster or Williams just simply elevating his game to heights that Lakers fans have yet to witness over the past year, it has played a vital role in the team’s early success.
Williams has given the Lakers everything they could ask for so far this season, and then some. After enduring a number of sour moments in 2015-16, this season has been nothing but sweet for Lou and the Lakers.
All statistics courtesy of Basketball-Reference and NBA.com. You can follow this author on Twitter at @garykester.