I think most of us have effectively dismissed the notion that Jason Williams, the Orlando Magic's latest free-agency signing, will somehow challenge Jameer Nelson for the team's starting point guard job. Now is the time for a more worthwhile dialog, namely one focusing on how Williams stacks up against Anthony Johnson, the team's current backup.
Below, I've made a table comparing four point guards. One is Williams, one is Johnson, and the other two are players who have moved on to other teams, with their statistics coming from their last season in Orlando. I've included those two extra players in order to give us a better understanding of how Williams stacks up against recent Magic reserve point guards, to see how well he'll fit in (or not) with the team, in comparison to them. And I've removed their names (for now) in order to remove potential biases from our initial evaluations.
What a labyrinthine paragraph that was. Anyway, the comparative table:
|Orlando Magic Backup Point Guard Comparison
|Point Guard A
|Point Guard B
|Point Guard C
|Point Guard D
|Pure Point Rating
|See the complete comparison at Basketball-Reference.com by clicking here
After the jump, the mystery players' identities revealed, and what the stats might mean.
Here, as promised, are the identities of the Magic's mystery point guards:
|Point Guard A
|Point Guard B
|Point Guard C
|Point Guard D
Judging by the statistics--just the raw numbers that I presented--Williams' best comparison is Alston, at least as a passer. They posted similar usage rates, assist rates and turnover rates in their last NBA season, although Williams ultimately wins out in Pure Point Rating. It's important to remember that Williams has toned down his flashy ballhandling, and thus has become a fairly reliable distributor. Like Alston, come to think of it.
Williams diverges from Alston as a scorer. Conveniently (for comparison's sake) he's highly comparable to Johnson in terms of shot selection. Check Johnson's and Williams' player profiles from 82games. Both players prefer to shoot off the dribble, with 81% of Johnson's shots classified as jumpers (85% for Williams); neither player gets much help, as Johnson received assists on only 42% of his jumpers, and Williams on 48%. Because of their infrequent forays into the lane, neither player attempts many free throws. And from the chart at the top of the post, one can see that Johnson and Williams have similar True Shooting and effective field goal percentages. Last season, Magic fans became familiar with Johnson's attempts to create shots for himself, seemingly in slow-motion. This year, it looks like they're in for more of the same, with Johnson and now Williams. It's almost uncanny.
Surprisingly, to me, is Williams' superiority to Johnson in catch-and-shoot situations. (For documentation's sake, let me note that all the statistics I've used in this paragraph come from scouting reports not available to the general public.) Last season, Johnson played (in practice, not in name) a handful of minutes at small forward when Hedo Turkoglu ran the second-unit's offense. Turk was especially adept at finding Johnson in either corner on a kick-out, and Johnson shot 54.7% (eFG%) in catch-and-shoot situations when unguarded; Williams, under the same circumstances in 2008, shot 57.0%, albeit with the dynamic Dwyane Wade doing the dishing. So what's the big deal? Williams' ability to convert at a high rate even under duress, or when guarded on a catch-and-shoot. Johnson was in the NBA's 27th percentile in this category last season, with an unremarkable effective field goal percentage of 36.7%. Williams, in 2008, with Wade usually doing the honors? An impressive 55.9%, in the 84th percentile. It remains to be seen who'll take over as the Magic's secondary ballhandler with the second-unit--Matt Barnes and Vince Carter are likely in the running--but when Williams plays away from the ball, and has opportunities to catch-and-shoot, he'll give the offense more of a lift than Johnson was able to.
If you believe in PER's ability to adequately quantify any given player's raw production, and if you believe Williams hasn't lost anything despite his year away from pro basketball, then the Magic can expect him to provide for this year's squad approximately what Carlos Arroyo did for the 2007/08 crew; their PERs differ by one-tenth of a point. Stylistically, Arroyo and Williams don't compare well, since Arroyo's much quicker, more likely to drive the ball, and a less reliable decision-maker.
Defensively, Williams has to be the worst of any of these players. That's not meant to be a slam, but even if he's as slow as Johnson, he's not as adept. Can Williams keep his man in front of him? Probably not, in most cases. What's more important, and something of which to take note during the preseason, is how competently Williams can funnel his man to a help defender.
A final note, or an asterisk, regarding Williams' modest season with the Heat in 2008: that team stank. It won 15 games; fielded what amounted to a D-League roster due to injuries; and ranked 30th, 24th, and 22nd in offensive efficiency, effective field goal percentage, and pace, respectively. The Magic team he'll join should win at least four times as many games; has a full complement of offensive weapons with whom Williams can work, provided he plays a few minutes with the starting unit; and will play at a faster pace. Williams said about as much yesterday when he indicated during the media availability session that he could stand to improve from his last season solely because of the Magic's superiority in terms of personnel:
"I can be as good or better [than before retirement] because my teammates, look at those guys, how good they are."
Indeed, the scoring prowess of Marcin Gortat and Brandon Bass trumps that of, for instance, Mark Blount and Udonis Haslem. So let's bear these potentially mitigating factors in mind when attempting to assess what Williams can contribute for Orlando. Which is, appropriately enough, the topic of my concluding paragraphs.
Overall, it appears as though Jason Williams is most similar to Rafer Alston as a passer, and Anthony Johnson as a scorer. Of course, this assessment hinges on the assumption that Williams hasn't lost a step since 2008, which is a pretty large assumption. But then again, the Magic hosted a private workout for him, after which coach Stan Van Gundy said, "He still looked like Jason Williams."
I've maintained the position that Williams wasn't the Magic's best option as a third-stringer; among minimum-salary candidates, I preferred Anthony Carter, Bobby Jackson, and (yes, even) Tyronn Lue. Williams, though, isn't a far cry from any of those guys, and from that standpoint it appears as though Smith has chosen adequately.