The Orlando Magic signed Jason Williams out of retirement to have an open competition with Anthony Johnson for their backup point guard minutes in training camp; I expected it to be a genuine battle, but Williams blew Johnson out of the water and won the job easily. Things only got better for Williams as the season started, as he averaged 7.2 points per game on 56.8% True Shooting through December. He filled in admirably for Jameer Nelson after Nelson missed a month due to a knee injury, which was enough to stir a mild debate about the merits of keeping Nelson coming off the bench and Williams in the starting lineup once Nelson regained his health. Fortunately, coach Stan Van Gundy never saw it as much of a debate, and he stuck with Nelson throughout the year as Williams faded. Though he brought energy night in and night out, and looked to advance the ball quickly in a way Nelson never did, Williams' second half of the season showed a sharp regression from his fast start.
|Points Per Game||Assists Per Game||Turovers Per Game|
|Points Per 36||Assists Per 36||Turnovers Per 36|
|PER||Assist Rate||Turnover Rate|
All statistics in this table from Williams' player page at basketball-reference. Career-best statistics highlighted in gold.
Van Gundy likes continuity in his lineups, which is why he touted the ability of the second unit to play the same style as the starters upon acquiring floor-spacing power forward Ryan Anderson to back-up Rashard Lewis last summer. Yet Williams indeed provides a sharp contrast to Nelson, and that change of pace proved effective. Nelson walks the ball up, looks to run the halfcourt offense, and will look for his own shot. Williams, in contrast, races the ball up, finds the open man, and then gets the heck out of the way. And I do mean that last part. Williams' usage rate of 14.5% was the second-lowest on the team, as only Marcin Gortat used fewer possessions. Among NBA players who logged at least 1500 minutes, only 5 point guards used fewer possessions. No, Williams rarely called his own number, and when he did, it almost always seemed to be on a deep pullup three in transition, with his distinctive shooting motion in which he places his right foot way out ahead of him, releases from just above his head, and allows his momentum to keep carrying him to the left. It's not a balanced shot, but it found the bottom often enough. In fact, as you can see, Williams set career bests in three major shooting categories this season. And shooting was never his forte. Fun fact about Williams' shooting: though decent off the dribble, he was more lethal off the catch, producing 1.198 points per shot in catch-and-shoot situations, according to Synergy Sports Technology. That figure includes a league-best 1.518 points per possession when guarded. Gotta love that quick trigger.
Running an offense, though, was always his specialty, but perhaps not this year. His assist totals gaudy pure point rating (6.6, which would have ranked in the top 10 in the league had he played enough minutes) give the impression that he does that well enough, but I'd disagree, to an extent. Nelson, for all the flak he catches as a shoot-first point guard, posted better assist and turnover rates than Williams. Williams takes admirable care of the ball, sure, but I don't think he ever learned to get comfortable with Magic center Dwight Howard. And in terms of breaking a defense down, I mean, forget it. Williams long ago lost his jets, which helps to explain how he managed just 41 free-throw attempts to 426 field-goal attempts this season. Orlando's is a drive-and-kick offense, but Williams didn't do much driving. Just smart, crisp passing around the horn to open shooters. There's nothing inherently wrong with that, of course, but he doesn't do much to keep defenses moving. And when faced with any sort of ball pressure, he struggled to free himself, costing Orlando precious seconds as it looked to get something going.
Williams is deliberate, patient, and efficient. These are admirable qualities, and one wonders how great he could have been had he possessed them earlier in his career, before age robbed him of his athleticism. He dropped like a stone as the season wore on. Combining the April slate of regular-season games with the playoffs, Williams shot 21-of-59 from the floor for 58 points in 333 minutes. He kept his playmaking stats high, with 44 assists to 12 turnovers during that stretch, but without his infrequent jumper falling, there wasn't much need to defend him at all.
Which is, to me, Williams' biggest liability at this stage of his career. He simply does not do enough to put pressure on a defense. However, his passing acumen alone will keep him in the league for as long as he cares to play, with his overall impressive shooting stats from this season bolstering his cause. However, his first season in Orlando will almost assuredly be his last. Prior to the playoffs, he flatly told NBA FanHouse he'll go wherever the money is this summer, which is probably cool with Van Gundy and GM Otis Smith. Williams was solid, sure, especially to start the year. But the time to find Nelson a younger backup has long passed. At 35, Williams could stick around as a third guard, behind Nelson and whomever Orlando signs or drafts behind him. But he can play more elsewhere, even on a bad team. It'd be in the best interests of all parties involved if he did just that. The Magic should count themselves fortunate that they got what they did out of the 34-year-old veteran, and that they did so while only committing a one-year salary for the league minimum to him.