When talking about the two most prominent men’s sports programs at Northwestern, it’s football first and basketball second every day of the week. Perhaps that’s what makes Elyjah Williams a great fit for the Northwestern his build and style of play.
“He just has a real physical presence,” his former head coach, Greg Herenda, at Fairleigh Dickinson told the NEC! Overtime Blog in a February feature this past year. Furthermore, according that NEC post, “ the coach compared Williams’ transition game to watching a bruising running back barrel his way toward the goal line.”
Nearly a month ago it was announced that the four-year contributor for the FDU Knights was transferring to Northwestern for his final collegiate season. Given that the ‘Cats have already lost two key rotation players in both Miller Kopp and Anthony Gaines to the transfer portal, Williams’ addition and subsequent production looms as a large factor for NU in the upcoming season.
Dig through any of his 2021 game film for the FDU Knights, and the bowling ball-style driving pops almost immediately (No. 21 in white).
Possessing a sturdy 6-foot-7, 220-pound frame, Williams lived at the rim as a senior in the Northeast Conference. According to the BartTorvik statistical database, Williams was only one of 96 players in college basketball who attempted over 120 shots at the rim while standing 6-foot-8 and under, and of those 96, Williams finished 27th in at-rim FG%.
The two most efficient shots in basketball are threes (particularly those of the catch-and-shoot variety) and layups at the rim, whether they’re off a drive or a pass and dump down. This past season, Northwestern saw a nice year-to-year uptick in three point frequency, taking 40.4% of their shots from deep in 2021 compared to 33.9% in 2020 per Hoop-Math. However, not all of the trade-off came in exchanging long two’s for threes, as NU’s at-rim shot frequency dropped from 32.9% in 2020 to 29.2% in 2021.
Add on top of that how a large portion of those at-rim attempts were Ryan Young post-ups rather than drives, and a need for the ‘Cats to get to the rim more often is evident.
Enter Elyjah Williams, a man who took a whopping 57.5% of his field goal attempts at the basket this past season. Moreover, according to Synergy Sports, 82 of Williams’ 123 at-rim attempts came out of non-post up possessions, a good thing to see given that two of NU’s most frequent rim-attackers in Pete Nance and especially Young are a little more post-up oriented. Diversity in attack is important for raising that at-rim frequency to a more desirable mark.
One thing in particular that stuck out to me while going through Williams’ film was a surprisingly shifty handle for a mid-major forward. In particular, he loves to hit defenders with a hang dribble to the left before crossing back to his strong right hand, and once he gets into the paint, he’s usually too sturdy to be thrown off his b-line to the rim, and the result was usually a bucket or free throws.
Overall, Williams converted 64.2% of his at-rim shots in 2021 per BartTorvik, and his points per possession on non-post up drives ranked in the 65th percentile according to Synergy.
Driving and finishing over athletes in the Northeast Conference is obviously a far easier task than doing it against Big Ten opponents, but I’m slightly optimistic due to some success he had against teams like Rutgers this past year and Notre Dame two years ago. Specifically, he broke out this un-freaking-believable shammgod in transition and finished with a high-glass scoop during that game in South Bend.
Oh booooooyyyyyyy that is nice.
Another nice branch that stems from the foundation of one’s dribble-drive capability is that passing lanes will open up as you draw the defense in. One might see Williams’ 3.1 assists per game and disregard it as non-extraordinary, but counting raw box score assists is a faulty way to evaluate passing. Once Williams gets going downhill, he’s capable of flips to big men in the dunker spot, kickouts to shooters for corner threes and slick bouncers through crevices to cutting teammates.
Additionally, Fairleigh Dickinson had him occasionally initiate Chicago and Miami actions (which involve both a pin down screen and a dribble handoff on one side of the floor), with Williams orchestrating the dribble handoff’s much like Nance did for Northwestern this past season. In minutes when Nance is sidelined for whatever reason, I’d expect NU to run some similar actions such as the one in the clip below with Williams in his place as a capable substitute.
He’s far from a perfect passer, a notch down from the echelon of manipulators who manufacture openings through things as subtle as how they use their eyes. And though he’s solid when it comes to exposing clear cracks that reveal themselves in the half court with passes, he can be a beat late and sometimes just flat out miss his opportunities. But overall, for a forward who is at best a tertiary creator within a good offense, Williams’ passing craft should be seen as a positive.
Now, you may be thinking to yourself at this point, “This is far too positive for an Olinger film breakdown.”
And you are correct!!! (Kidding. But also not.)
Some have cited Williams’ 42% three-point shooting as a senior at FDU as evidence that he will help space the floor for the ‘Cats. His stroke isn’t broken, and he did have some nice makes in his 2021 package ... but I just don’t really buy the shot at all. For several reasons:
1) The sample size of him being a good shooter is far too small. Prior to going 21-for-50 from deep in his senior season, Williams had only attempted 57 triples in his first three collegiate campaigns, and similarly made 21 in those first three years. Even that was bolstered by a sophomore season blip where he went 10-for-21 (47.6%) from three, only to drop to a wretched 9-for-33 (27.2%) as a junior.
Anecdotally speaking, shooting numbers for a long-term college career typically stabilize around 500 three-point attempts or so, and thus banking on 107 attempts over four years isn’t exactly a wise plan.
2) The free throw numbers are #verynotgood. He finally “bumped” his foul line accuracy up to 63.5% in 2021, which raised his career mark during four years at FDU to 59.6%. For perspective, the only Northwestern rotation player to shoot below 60% on free throws this past season was the always up-and-down Chase Audige at a 54.4% clip. Free throw percentage and three-point marksmanship is not a one-to-one correlation, but making your free throws is often a good indicator of shooting touch and skill, and it’s one that Williams has not yet proven to have.
3) The final and most important reason for my doubt came in watching each and every one of those 21 three-pointers he made during this past season. By my count, 14 of them came off-the-dribble, and if you just left it at just that, it sounds even more impressive. Off-the-dribble shots are more difficult than catch-and-shoot threes!
Look at these two following makes from Williams, and take a guess at what the problem might be.
The space. There is a gargantuan amount of it given to Williams by the defender that was tasked with guarding him, and on those 14 off-the-dribble makes, they pretty much all follow that same pattern. The mid-major defender is scared out of his mind that Williams — who possessed superior athletic skills and burst than almost everybody in his conference at the forward position — will shake him with a cross and dust him on his way to the rim. Thus, the defender backs up a good six feet, daring Williams to shoot. And to Williams’ credit, he often took them and made them.
That’s a fine process on his part, but that simply won’t happen in the Big Ten. The athletes can keep up with him now. They’ll crowd him up near the perimeter and take away his time and comfortability.
Those little crow-hop triples that he can take several seconds to set up? Little to zero chance we see any of those in Evanston this next season. Great shooters with high volume, lightning quick releases and a fear-inducing ability to get hot inspire frantic closeouts and bizarre defensive counters from opponents. Those who faced Williams backed up and lived with the shooting luck dice roll. Not a great indicator.
Last of all, on the defensive end of the floor there’s a good chance that Williams is a net negative for Northwestern. Sure he has size, can move a tiny bit and generally gives good effort, which gives him a baseline level of effectiveness and competence, but those attributes alone does not a good defender make.
Specifically, for a guy who isn’t quite tall enough and strong enough to play the five full-time, his ability to change directions with ball handlers in space and on the perimeter is a bit lacking. He struggled to stay in front of quick drivers, good crossovers got him leaning pretty easily and when faced with tough man-to-man assignments, he showed a tendency to lean in to his opponent with a fairly blatant arm-bar. That willingness to be physical is better than just quitting on the play, but I’d worry about him getting into foul trouble when faced against the Big Ten’s myriad of offensive attackers.
Additionally, Williams is going to be tasked with back line rotations in man-to-man defense when his man isn’t setting the ball screen, given that’s the typical role for bigger four’s and five’s in half court defense. Similarly in that area of defense, I think it will go poorly. Take this rep against Rutgers where he’s so concerned with hopping into the paint to either tag the roller or give help against the drive, he stands completely flat-footed inside the key and cannot make a recovery to the corner shooter at all (remember in this clip that Williams is No. 21 in white, wearing the headband).
He starts this play guarding Ron Harper Jr, who back then in the early months of the 2020-21 season was shooting a ridiculous 50% from three through his first seven games. That’s a guy you have to be able to recover too, and Williams simply couldn’t.
While his 5.0% block percentage is pretty good, he doesn’t project as a rim protector in the Big Ten standing at only 6-foot-7 and being a very load-heavy jumper. It’s not good when a screenshot like this exists — Williams helping off the strong side corner enough to give up a great look to a shooter who went 5-for-9 from deep in this game, but also not in a stance where he can impact the driving ball handler without fouling him or overcommitting.
Williams is a good player, and I believe he’ll be fun to watch on the basketball court due to his ability to make stuff happen with the ball in his hands. However, I don’t think he’s what Northwestern needed. He’s an undersized and somewhat versatile big transferring to a team that has a lot of small, shot-heavy guards and some capable bigs.
NU needs 3&D wings who can also shoot off of movement if needed (as does practically every non blue blood program in the country). Williams is decidedly not that due to the reasons I outlined above. Landing the Evanston Township High School alum out of the transfer portal is a net positive move for the program, but his arrival does not the shift the needle as much as the ‘Cats will need him too in 2022.