The hot name in the streets for Charlotte Hornets fans throughout this draft cycle has been Duke center Mark Williams. The 2021-22 ACC Defensive Player of the Year projects as the rim-protecting big this team has needed for years, and there’s a chance he’ll be available when it’s the Hornets turn to make their pick next Thursday.
Weight: 242 pounds
Standing reach: 9’9”
Max vertical: N/A, did not partake in athletic testing at NBA Combine
DOB: December 16, 2001 (20 years old)
The Norfolk, Va. native spent the first three seasons of his high school career at Norfolk Academy, becoming a 1,000-point scorer at the school and leading them to a state tournament. Williams transferred to IMG Academy in Bradenton, Fla. for his senior season after averaging 23.5 points, 12 rebounds and 2.5 blocks in two games in the 2019 Nike Peach Jam with Boo Williams. 247Sports pegged him as a five-star recruit and ranked him 18th in the class at the time he committed to Duke over Michigan and UCLA, where he appeared in 23 games (15 starts) and averaged 7.1 points, 4.5 rebounds and 1.4 blocks per game as a freshman.
Mark’s older sister, Elizabeth, played for the Duke women’s basketball program and was selected fourth in the 2015 WNBA Draft. She won the WNBA Most Improved Player award in 2016, was an All-Star in 2017 and earned a first-team all-defense nod in 2020.
Strengths: positional size, shot blocking and rim protection, interior finishing
Williams was quite easily the largest player at the Combine this year. A full inch taller than Walker Kessler with a four-inch advantage in standing reach and a wingspan that’s an inch and a quarter longer than Christian Koloko’s, he measured out even better than anticipated. Like most lottery prospects, he didn’t participate in athletic testing, scrimmages or shooting drills, which is understandable given that his measurements raised his stock. Williams truly does have prototypical size, strength and length for a rim protector and should be able to hold up when switched onto bigger wings and forwards.
In large part, the bigs in this year’s class excel as shot-blockers, but Williams’ instinctual timing and intelligent positioning afford him the liberty lurk in drop coverage or on the weak side in anticipation for soul-crushing blocks. Not only does he have unique size, he has innate feel for where to be in order to deter opponents from attacking the rim and soak up the miscues of his teammates. Williams should translate immediately into a reliable interior defender that can withstand most types of center matchups.
While he’s is a step below Jalen Duren in terms of explosive athleticism, Williams is still a solid leaper and he certainly gets off the ground quickly. He runs the floor and moves fluidly in the halfcourt, utilizing his long strides and ability to jump off of one or two feet after receiving a pass or to catch a lob without a ton of load-up. In the future, it’s not hard to imagine a Kai Jones-Williams frontcourt lighting up the NBA’s social media feeds with lobs from LaMelo Ball.
Williams’ second-jump ability impressed me more whenever I went back to watch Duke games. He utterly dominated my Syracuse Orange in this game, who were missing starting center Jesse Edwards but still had absolutely nothing for him on either end of the floor. His size and athleticism overwhelmed the Orange and the zone had no chance at stopping him.
Apart from a half-season of Montrezl Harrell, Williams would be the best pick-and-roll partner that Ball has had so far in his career. He’s an engaging screener that seeks contact and has the core strength to wall off smaller guards and make screens tough to fight through. If he were to land in Buzz City, he, Miles Bridges and PJ Washington would make up a bruising frontcourt trio.
Statistically speaking, Williams is an elite finisher in the paint; per BartTorvik, he was third in the country with a 71.8 effective field goal percentage and he led the nation with 96 total dunks. Along with steals, blocks and free throw attempt rate, dunks tend to be a strong measurement of prospect success in the NBA — rarely do players who physically dominate the NCAA level not pan out in the league. To be seven feet tall and finish that efficiently demands a requisite combination of strength, skill and touch that very few non-NBA bigs have, especially given Williams’ defensive fortitude.
Areas to improve: defense in space/pick-and-roll coverage, ball skills on offense
There are few concerns when it comes Williams’ defensive translation, as he’s a solid all-around athlete and the aforementioned size and strength allow him to match up with physical NBA bigs as a rookie. However, one meaningful holdup could be what ultimately caps his ceiling in the league.
The ability to reliably defend and stay in front of ball-handlers while out in space is not a requirement for an effective NBA center, but it is a necessary skill for a center to maintain a level of effectiveness in the postseason. Few centers can truly hang with guards on the perimeter, but look at the center rotations for the teams in this year’s Conference Finals — not a single big that’s a liability in space played plentiful or impactful minutes.
While definitely not a “plodder,” Williams isn’t the most mobile big on the perimeter, either. Questionable pick-and-roll coverage decisions coupled with an inability to switch down onto guards hold him back from being an all-around elite defensive anchor. The ACC Championship game against a Virginia Tech team that featured zero NBA-caliber guards had examples of that. Lack of mobility isn’t much of an issue in other facets of Williams’ game, so perhaps this is something that improves as he develops under an NBA coaching staff, but it’s a moderate concern nonetheless.
Given the role that he’s likely to play from the outset of his career, Williams has enough skill, finesse with the ball in his hands. He’s an advantageous roller out of ball screens that has good hands, soft touch and can make necessary reads when the defense collapses on him in the paint, plus he’s even flashed some shooting potential. The fadeaway jumpers he occasionally hit throughout the season are encouraging; he doesn’t need to make threes, but an effective mid-range game would turn him into a dynamic pick-and-roll threat.
At this point, Williams can be expected to make the correct passing read when a double comes or a shot isn’t there for him, but he’s not a creator and doesn’t enhance his teammates’ scoring abilities with his playmaking right now, which is totally fine for a player of his ilk. A low-usage big that finishes 78.1 percent of his shots at the rim doesn’t really need to shoot or pass.
Though Williams may not have the same offensive upside as Duren, he’s a high-floor prospect with room to grow as a passer and spacer on that end. Most importantly, he projects as the type of center who can hold up in a variety of playoff settings and has a smaller chance of being unplayable than most of his counterparts at the position. In the Hornets’ case, they already have the small-ball matchups covered — a rim protector like Williams is the only frontcourt piece that’s missing.
With new head coach Kenny Atkinson known for his penchant to have his bigs play a drop coverage, Williams could be an even better fit with the Hornets than previously thought. Unless there’s a bigger plan for a trade-up or a deal for a veteran, the Hornets should do whatever they can to ensure that at least one of Duren or Williams are available when they’re on the clock.