Earlier this season, I was sitting next to a couple of scouts at a game, one of whom was raving about Los Angeles Lakers two-way contract player Johnathan Williams, who happened to be showing all the skills that make him so intriguing for a young fringe player.
One scout was talking about how he had tried to get his organization to draft Williams, and the other one simply deadpanned about how they could get him in the summer because the Lakers would probably let him go anyway, making a crack about how they don’t value young, talented big men by using Ivica Zubac as an example.
Still, games where Williams had people despairing over their organization not listening and picking the 2019 undrafted rookie were few and far between, as he only appeared in 24 games for the Lakers, averaging 6.5 points and 4.1 rebounds per contest. Those are fine averages for a first-year player who spent most of their time in the G League to develop and only played 15.5 minutes per game in his NBA appearances, but they also leave Williams’ status as a surefire NBA player open to interpretation. It’s not even clear what the Lakers’ plans are for him, or if he is in them at all.
Williams is focused on using this summer to change that.
“Just continuing to get better, no matter what,” Williams said of his plans for his first full summer as an NBA player at exit interviews last week. “Every day is a new day. You can always find things to improve on, whether it’s mentally, physically or spiritually.
“(I’m) just continuing that mindset to grind every day during the summer.”
Williams said the Lakers gave him some pointers on that, as he and the team had talked about a few more specific player-development goals than just improving everything. He plans to try and improve his jumper out to the elbow, and keep working on his mobility so that he can switch onto any player on the floor, as well as improving as a rebounder.
Outside of the elbow jumper, though, those are all mostly improvements of Williams’ existing skills, which makes sense since he basically has all the outlines of a modern NBA center already, he just needs to continue to develop those talents and round them out as best he can.
To that end, Williams said quite a few of the Lakers’ veterans tried to mentor him, from LeBron James — even when he was shut down for the year — using his photographic memory to give tips to Williams tips on defense, to Rajon Rondo and Tyson Chandler taking him under their wings to try and help him learn the habits it takes to stick in the professional ranks.
Williams was happy to take all the advice he could, because he just wants to learn.
“I’m willing to listen to anybody who has great knowledge and great feedback. We had a lot of great vets on this team, and I was just trying to piggyback on everything they did,” Williams said. “I listened extremely hard to those guys because they’ve been in the league for like 10-plus years. I was just trying to make sure I listened and absorbed their knowledge the entire year.”
One of the those lessons that Williams tried to take to heart was to get up for every game. As a player on the edge of the rotation most nights, he couldn’t always control his minutes or rhythm, but he could always control his effort.
”You always have to be ready, whether it’s with the NBA or the G League,” Williams said. “There’s going to be a lot of ups and downs on the road, but you’ve just got to keep fighting. Keep chipping away until you get the opportunity again.
“Sometimes it’s frustrating,” Williams continued. “But you’ve just got to continue to work and continue to have faith in God and it’ll all work out.”
Eventually Williams did get his opportunity, playing in 17 of the Lakers’ final 18 games and averaging 7.9 points on 60 percent shooting to go with 4.6 rebounds in 16.6 minutes. Of the players to play more than 20 total minutes in that stretch, the Lakers were never better than when Williams was on the floor, outscoring their opponents by 12 points per 100 possessions compared to getting outscored by 9.5 points per 100 possessions when he sat, per NBA.com.
A 20-plus-point swing when Williams was on the bench vs. in the game doesn’t indicate he’s a secret MVP candidate, but it does show he has at least some value at the NBA level, value he got to display alongside a fun crew of South Bay Lakers alums who finished the season playing with more heart and joy than the rest of the roster showed for most of the season.
Williams wasn’t taking a shot at the rest of the team — that’s not in the gentle giant’s personality — but he did say he thought that the effort his fellow South Bay products played with as they fought for their NBA lives was key to their success in winning six of their final 10 games.
“All the players continued to play hard. Especially me, Alex (Caruso) and (Jemerrio Jones). We had nothing to lose. We just wanted to go out there and have fun,” Williams said. “Playing for the best organization in the world, the purple and gold and playing at the Staples Center was a blessing for me. So we didn’t worry about the playoffs, what was going on in the media. We just worried about playing hard for each other.
“We did it in the G League, and we just wanted to continue doing that at the next level.”
How much longer Williams will continue to get the chance to do so is an unknown, but if the intrigue that scout showed is representative of a growing sentiment about Williams’ value around the league, his strong finish to the year (and being 23 years old) would seem to give him a strong shot to catch on somewhere, whether he’s back with the Lakers or not.
”I can play in this league. I think I showed everything I can show in the time that I played, as far as rebounding, that I can finish with both hands around the rim and defend multiple positions,” Williams said. “That’s pretty much it.”
In 2019, that’s all a center needs, and whether the Lakers keep Williams in house or if he gets his next opportunity elsewhere may not be the sexiest offseason storyline to watch in a summer full of them, but it will be worth monitoring when Las Vegas Summer League rolls around and teams being their search for players to round out their rosters. There are far worse options than Williams, who may even has a chance to develop into more than your average fringe guy.
For more Lakers talk, subscribe to the Silver Screen and Roll podcast feed on iTunes, Spotify, Stitcher or Google Podcasts. All stats per NBA.com and Basketball-Reference.com. You can follow Harrison on Twitter at @hmfaigen.