Thunder’s Jalen Williams caught the NBA off guard as a rookie; what’s next?

Thunder’s Jalen Williams caught the NBA off guard as a rookie; what’s next?

It’s reasonable to think Jalen Williams operated under the league’s radar as a rookie. That shouldn't be the case this season.

Brett Dawson

By Brett Dawson

| Oct 5, 2023, 10:43pm CDT

Brett Dawson

By Brett Dawson

Oct 5, 2023, 10:43pm CDT

OKLAHOMA CITY — It didn’t take Jalen Williams long to come to his NBA awakening. 

After his first training camp practice a year ago, Williams said, his body was so sore, “I couldn’t even really sit down.” He took the physical beating of a single game and said to himself, “Yeah, it’s gonna be a long season.” 

It got easier with time, and it’s been better this second go-round. The 6-foot-5 Williams said he’s “definitely not as shocked” in his second camp. He spent a summer working on strength but also focused on recovery, on building a body that could bounce back from the rigors of a game. 

A year of NBA experience makes the preseason sailing smoother. 

But Year 2 usually brings its own kind of choppy water. 

“Once you’ve got a year under your belt, it feels different, and it’ll feel different for Jalen,” Thunder coach Mark Daigneault said. “You also get played differently. You’re on people’s radars more, and there’s challenges that come with that that force you to evolve. That’s how you get better.”

Josh Giddey can attest to that. 

A year ago, the Australian point guard was entering his second season in the NBA, coming off a rookie campaign rich with promise. 

Eight games in, he was shooting 42.5% and averaging almost three turnovers against five assists. The Thunder, which won three games while he sat with an ankle injury was 1-7 in the games he’d played. 

“When you’re a rookie, you’re new to everybody,” Giddey said. “The scout changes on you every night. But when you’re a second-, third-, so-on-year guy, it’s not really a surprise anymore what you do. Teams know how to scout for you. (Williams is) a talented guy. He’s gonna figure it out. But for me, I found I struggled with it early on.”

Eventually he solved it — Giddey finished the season averaging 16.6 points, 6.2 assists and shooting 48.2% from the floor — but it took time to decode the book teams had built on guarding him. 

It was a new experience, Giddey said, being schemed for, facing defenses that threw new looks at the Thunder designed to key on his strengths. 

Williams figures to get similar treatment. 

Williams was the 12th pick in the 2022 NBA Draft out of a college program, but — as a product of Santa Clara — was hardly a household name. It’s reasonable to think he was under the league’s radar to start. 

Still, he steadied his first-year footing even as teams got a longer look. He finished fifth in rookie scoring at 14.1 points per game, and his point production climbed each of his first five months in the league. 

In 15 games last March, Williams averaged 19.8 points on 56.6% shooting, including 46.3% from 3-point range. After making 32.4% of his 3-pointers before the All-Star break, he made 42.9% after it. And Williams finished second in NBA Rookie of the Year voting to Orlando’s Paolo Banchero. 

Defenses figure to have cooked up some new looks for Williams, and though he’ll need a taste before he knows just what to tweak, he spent the summer trying to anticipate the league’s recipe. 

He watched film not only to pinpoint weaknesses but to study his strengths and consider counters for when teams try to take those away. He looked at where on the court he was most effective. 

“If you look at the most efficient NBA players now, they kind of know where they want to be at on the floor,” he said. “So that was something that I was able to work on during Summer League and then hone in again up until now.”

Like a lot of players, Williams is shy about specifics. He got stronger, he said, the better to be more versatile. He took better care of his body in the interest of versatility. 

He proved a quick study last season, but if Williams is anything like Giddey, he might need some time this time around to decipher what defenses send his way. 

That Williams knows it is an important first step in his second year. 

“Just the fact that he’s aware that he’s gonna have to evolve, he’s gonna have to improve, he’s gonna get tested in different ways is a good thing,” Daigneault said. “Because then when he’s in that moment he can grow from it and learn from it rather than be caught off-guard by it.”

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Brett Dawson, the Thunder beat writer at Sellout Crowd, has covered basketball for more than 20 seasons at the pro and college levels. He previously worked the Thunder beat at The Oklahoman and The Athletic and also has covered the New Orleans Pelicans, Los Angeles Lakers and L.A. Clippers. He’s covered college programs at Louisville, Illinois and Kentucky, his alma mater. He taught sports journalism for a year at the prestigious Missouri School of Journalism. You can reach him at [email protected] or find him sipping a stout or an IPA at one of Oklahoma City’s better breweries.

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