UNC Basketball: The Kenny Williams Dilemma

Senior guard Kenny Williams’ numbers are down through the first three months of the season. Is there any room for optimism?

Fourteen games into the final season of his collegiate basketball career, it’s fair to say that things could be going smoother for North Carolina’s Kenny Williams.

Despite posting respectable averages of 8.1 points, 2.9 rebounds, 4.2 assists and one steal per game, all while communicating constantly on the defensive end and throwing his body around for the sake of winning games, his play can be reasonably considered underwhelming based on what we’ve seen from the 6-foot-3 dynamo in the past.

A season removed from posting the team’s highest offensive rating at 127 points per 100 possessions, as well as shooting a positive 40.2 percent from beyond the arc on 4.8 attempts per game, Williams is now putting up arguably his worst shooting performance as a Tar Heel.

According to Sports-Reference, Williams’ 109.1 offensive rating is the worst of his career and is eighth among UNC’s top 11 rotation players.

It’s not only his offensive rating that’s dropped off, though — his shooting is much worse.

Over the course of the season, Williams is shooting a disastrous 24.6 percent from downtown on just over four attempts per game. On its own, that’s not good. Like, at all.

But when putting it into context, and looking beyond the team, it gets even worse.

Out of 745 college players who have played at least 10 games and have attempted at least four three-pointers per game, Williams has the 11th-worst shooting percentage. Eleventh-worst. Out of 745.

That is, to put it nicely, not great.

So, what does this mean? Is Williams simply a poor shooter now?

Well, no, not necessarily.

Shooting woes certainly aren’t foreign to Williams. Throughout his career at UNC, he’s given consistent effort in every single game, contributing in a myriad of ways. But, despite showing consistent effort, he’s been unable to show consistent results. Last year was a prime example of his streaky nature:

In the course of 37 games last season, two extended stretches of hot-shooting sandwiched one brutally-cold stretch (December 20th through February 3rd) in which Williams converted on only 28.6 percent of his looks from beyond the arc, with the Tar Heels going 7-6 along the way.

Streakiness doesn’t make Williams a bad shooter, not by any means. It’s unpleasant, yes, but it’s not uncommon. No player is impervious to the occasional shooting slump. What makes Williams’ dilemma so unfortunate — and at times, frustrating — is that he’s capable of scorching nets for an extended period, and equally capable of going several games without a made three-pointer.

For Williams, his streaks of hot and cold shooting are longer than the average player — that’s simply who he has at this point, and is something that Carolina fans must learn to accept and expect in future games.

So, what now? Where can he improve?

According to Synergy, Williams’ poor shooting has greatly impaired his ability to contribute optimally on the offensive end. He ranks in the 34th percentile in individual offense, scoring 112 points on 138 possessions (0.812 PPP). Specifically, Williams struggles converting shots in transition (0.804 PPP on 56 possessions; 20th percentile) and converting shots off movement (0.702 on 17 possessions shooting off screens; 23rd percentile).

As it stands, Williams career shooting numbers don’t look spectacular, especially when considering how many Tar Heels have attempted the same volume of three-pointers over their respective careers:

But, to be fair to Williams, the team as a whole could see some major improvement in their combined shooting, too.

Albeit slightly outdated, Adrian Atkinson noted earlier this month that the team as a whole is struggling with consistently converting shots beyond the arc in primary-break situations, shooting far below last season’s average of 37.2 percent.

This transition looks, generally, are strong looks for no matter who is attempting them — including Williams. His misses aren’t a result of poor shot selection or sloppy mechanics (a duo of imperfections that plagued his streaky shooting last season). He is, quite simply (and quite frustratingly), missing his shots, many of which have come from uncontested looks out of the primary and secondary break.

When asked about Kenny Williams’ struggles shooting the ball last month, Coach Roy Williams told Inside Carolina that, despite the shooting woes, he’s still happy with what he’s seeing from his starting shooting guard:

His jump shot’s not going in, but he gives you enough reasons to keep putting him out there. He’s a great leader. He sets the tone for about everything with our enthusiasm, so I think he’s really having a really good year. If the jump shots start going in, I think it would go into another category for him.

Coach Williams has a point, after all. Although the senior guard isn’t shooting as well as one would hope, he’s not a net-negative out on the floor, either. Instead, he’s finding new ways to contribute, adding a new wrinkle to his game.

According to Synergy’s “possessions + assists” metric, which factors in both a player’s individual offense and passing, Kenny Williams ranks in the 87th percentile, suggesting that he is, in fact, contributing on the offensive end even if his shot isn’t falling. Additionally, a team- and career-high 4.2 assists per game and 2.57 assist-to-turnover ratio further imply that while he isn’t adding value as a shooter, Williams is certainly adding significant value as a facilitator for a high-octane offense that lacks a traditional lead-guard.

With that said, can Kenny Williams regress to his mean, and get back to a respectable shooting percentage?

Probably, yeah.

At this point, it’s probably fair to say that Williams isn’t a 40 percent three-point shooter, but he’s definitely not a 24 percent three-point shooter, either. He’s somewhere in-between, somewhere in the much more pleasant mid-to-high 30s and not the oh-god-no-please-don’t-shoot low-20s. (Probably, anyway.)

Recency bias — more than anything — is what’s contributing to the current online discussion pertaining to Williams’ future role with the team.

With foul trouble and poor (1-5 FG, 0-3 3PT) shooting limiting Williams playing time to a mere 16 minutes against Pitt, it’s understandable for Tar Heel fans to experience a rush of hysteria and frustration, especially considering how well Leaky Black (two points, five rebounds, four assists in 16 minutes) and Brandon Robinson (five points and three steals in 15 minutes) performed when filling in at shooting guard whenever Williams was forced to sit on the bench.

But before you grab your torch and pitchfork and march down Franklin St. to campaign for the removal of Williams from the starting lineup, consider what Coach Williams has to say.

He’s seen the guard more than anyone — in practices, in scrimmages, in , and in games — and he’s not overly concerned with the guard’s jumper, not even after the struggles against Pitt:

… If Kenny Williams is my biggest worry, I’m really in pretty good shape.

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