There is no denying the fact that things have turned bleak for the Lakers. The team has all but been eliminated from playoff contention, injuries have become far more serious than previously imagined and it seemingly has spilled upon the hardwood in terms of a disinterested — and even boring —on-court product.
Fortunately for the team, and it’s fans, there have been slivers of enthusiasm and entertainment over the last two games courtesy of the South Bay Lakers’ affiliated players recent inclusion to their parent team’s rotation.
One player who is making the most of his chance at NBA minutes amidst this rough patch is undrafted big man Johnathan Williams. The bouncy 6’9” center out of Gonzaga was picked up by the Lakers following last year’s draft, and was then signed to a two-way contract after impressing in training camp enough for the Lakers to cut Travis Wear from his own two-way deal soon after initially letting Williams go.
Williams — who has spent most of the season in the G League averaging 15.2 points and 8.7 rebounds in 36 games — has provided an immediate and noticeable impact since getting his number called.
In the team's 120-107 loss to Boston on Saturday, Williams likely played his best NBA game to date, pouring in 18 points and 10 rebounds in 28 minutes of action. But arguably more impressive than the double-double in a nationally televised contest against the team’s arch-rival was his continued ability to do the crucial “little things,” something that has not gone unnoticed by his teammates and the coaching staff.
“He’s been great for us,” Luke Walton said following the game. “This is what we saw him do early in the season in training camp, and early before (Ivica Zubac) worked his way into the rotation before we signed Tyson Chandler.
“He’s versatile. Playing at Gonzaga, I think he has a good feel for how to play the game and what to do. He sets good screens, he rolls, he keeps possessions alive. I thought he had another really good night for us.”
As Walton noted, Williams has shown a keen ability to set timely, and effective, screens while also being a threat in both roll actions and on the glass. This sequence in particular during the second quarter demonstrates Williams’ ability to do multiple positives in just one possession, eventually making him the sole highlighter-yellow jersey in a sea of green:
Williams’ nuance for fundamentals and simple effort in his short time on the floor has stood in stark contrast to the rest of the roster’s often lackadaisical performances.
On the season, the Lakers rank 28th in the league in box outs per game. Against Boston, Williams led all Lakers with five. He also led the team in screen assists, contested the second-most shots and registered a block for the purple and gold.
Functionally, Williams is rangy and has quick feet on the floor, which enables him to crash the glass and outwork his opponents. He also may have the makings of potentially being an interesting, switchable defender.
He showcased this during a transition sequence against Boston’s Jaylen Brown in which he was able to mirror Brown’s motions while backpedalling before swiping the ball out of bounds:
That’s not an easy task for a big man, and there is a trickle down effect when it comes to hustle in sports. While it would have been preferred for this to be a team-wide motto from the get-go, Williams and the other South Bay players have begun to provide something that has been absent all season — fun.
“They were great,” LeBron James said after Saturday’s contest. “They were great all night, both on the offensive end and defensive end. Their energy and effort is something we’ve been lacking.
“They’re young guys that just play. Yeah, they’re going to make mistakes,” James continued. “But they play through it and they play hard, and that’s fun. I’m happy for them.”
It is nearly impossible to measure fun, but if it were a calculable basketball metric, this Lakers’ squad would almost be a shoe-in for the least fun basketball team in the league for most of the season, primarily due to the simple absence of effort on the floor and public enthusiasm for one and other. Which, given how this season has gone, is tough to blame them for.
For Williams, and the other young players who are just now getting their chance at NBA spotlight, they have brought back a semblance of joy to the game and to this team. While it is likely too late in terms of making a run for the postseason, it does help in salvaging the final 16 games of the season from an enjoyment standpoint.
It remains to be determined if the primarily G League players will be able to sustain this level of production and effort level though, as the team is set to embark on a four-game road trip which usually hampers the ability of role players to play off the crowd.
But — even at 23 — Williams maturely seems well aware of where his niche in the league lies, and what ultimately matters when it comes to playing basketball for a living. He knows what he has to keep giving the Lakers, whether they’re home or away: The same thing he’s been giving them since entering the rotation.
“Bring the same energy, come out there focused and good on the defensive end, and continue to rebound and continue to play energetic,” Williams said. “Go out there and have fun.”