The 2016-17 NBA season has gotten off to an incredible start for the young Los Angeles Lakers. The team that most pundits predicted would be one of the worst in the league has managed to scratch and claw their way to a .500 record, and a decent chunk of the credit has to go to reserve guard Lou Williams.
While much of the attention has deservedly fallen on Nick Young, who has resurrected his career, and perhaps Julius Randle, who has evolved into one of the Lakers’ best playmakers, it’s Williams who consistently carries the majority of the offensive burden for the vaunted second unit. He is one of the most potent offensive threats in the league and has helped make the bench strongest weapon in the Lakers’ arsenal.
Los Angeles may be a team that prides themselves on winning without a true star, but Williams has been just that on the offensive end. His role off the bench keeps his time on the floor lower than just about any other go-to scorer in the league, but in just 23.8 minutes he is producing an impressive 16.7 points, 3.5 assists, 1.9 threes, 1.3 steals, and 4.8 free throws per game while shooting 45 percent from the field and a career-high 39 percent from downtown.
Per-36 minutes that translates to 25.2 points, 5.2 assists, 2.8 threes, 2.0 steals, and 7.3 free throws, which would put him on par with high-level guards like Damian Lillard, Kemba Walker, and Kyle Lowry. While per-36 isn’t a perfect stat, it’s impressive nonetheless.
Just in case that’s not enough to drive home the point that Williams is playing ridiculously good basketball, the Lakers are -15.2 points when he is on the floor, compared to plus 9.5 points when he is in the game, which is the highest mark on the team. His PER of 22.9 is also tops for Los Angeles by a considerable margin–the next closest is Tarik Black at 17.5, followed closely by Randle and D’Angelo Russell with 17.4 and 17.3, respectively.
So why isn’t the entire league going bonkers over Sweet Lou?
There may be some bench bias at play, and his relatively low minutes push his total stats lower than those put up by similarly-productive starters. Plus, with Russell Westbrook, James Harden, and Anthony Davis putting up god-like stats on a nightly basis, the national narrative is as packed as Conor McGregor’s trophy case, living little room for the Lakers’ undersized shooting guard to break through.
Perhaps some of the intrigue in Williams’ explosion is also being lost by the lacking surprise factor. At first glance, he is indeed scoring a ton, but that’s what we expect him to do, even if he is doing it extremely high level this season.
On the other hand, a player like Young becoming the Lakers’ starting shooting guard and best perimeter defender after years of being terrible is beyond belief. The same can be said for the fact that rookie head coach Luke Walton has rapidly turned the Lakers into a legitimately good basketball team. These things carry a shock value to them that Williams’ outburst lacks, and that draws interest.
It’s like when Wolverine kills and no one bats an eye because he’s got knives coming out of his hands and anti-hero cool, so it comes with the territory. Yet, if Superman snaps the neck of a guy who wanted to kill the entire planet, well, everyone freaks out a little bit, because truth, justice, and the American way just isn’t about that life.
That’s not to say that Williams is completely overlooked, as his exploits have indeed been celebrated, but the generic and cursory focus tends to understandably fall on his scoring, causing us to lose sight of the surprising other ways that he is producing value for the Lakers.
In other words, what Williams is doing does have shock value, you just have to look a little harder for it.
He isn’t a pure point guard, but with the Lakers’ bench mob acting in sync, Williams is averaging a career-high in assists per-36 minutes, with high-flying Larry Nance Jr. being his favorite target. In a reserve group that dominates with its scoring, Williams is defying the notion that he is solely a gunner by consistently setting up teammates and keeping everyone involved while simultaneously scorching the nets himself. That’s a difficult balance to strike, but Williams has been superb at it.
Furthermore, for the past few years, he has been better than his reputation would suggest at defending on the perimeter, where he is in his third-straight season of having a negative impact on shooting percentages from at least 15 feet away from the basket.
This year, however, Williams’ Defensive Rating has jumped to the best it has been by far in the last five years. A big part of his success is due to the turnovers he creates, as has become more adept at slipping into passing lanes and picking off dishes at a rate that blows his career-best out of the water. Thanks to an athletic grouping of Nance, Black, Brandon Ingram, and Jordan Clarkson, turning the ball over against the Lakers’ bench is a death sentence, and Williams is making sure that happens as much as possible.
There is no debating that Williams’ scoring has been absolutely fantastic, but it’s these other areas that have allowed him to hit heights he could never touch previously in advanced analytics and helped the Lakers get off to such an unexpectedly-good start.
The icing on the cake for Los Angeles is that thanks to Williams’ impressive play, his contract has gone from being a good one to a great one. He is locked in at $7 million per season for this year and next, and in a league where salaries are skyrocketing, that kind of bang-for-your-buck is incredibly valuable and would fetch a high price on the trade market.
Not that the Lakers should trade Williams. Not now, with the team clicking and the possibility of the playoff drought coming to an end if they can keep it up, but it’s nice to have players with positive value just in case something franchise-altering falls into their laps.
It was only months ago when Williams was considered by some to be superfluous, his role as the Lakers’ sixth man seemingly usurped by Jordan Clarkson’s shift to the bench. Now, thanks to his playmaking, defense, and ever-present scoring, he has become indispensable.
The Lakers may be a team without a star, but Lou Williams hasn’t been far off, and it’s time to take notice.