Duke basketball: Is Mark Williams the team’s best returning player?

Duke basketball freshman center Mark Williams (Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)
Duke basketball freshman center Mark Williams (Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images) /

Foes better hope Duke basketball’s giant doesn’t pick up where he left off.

If there is one thing we know heading into the 2021-22 season, it is that Duke basketball will once again be reliant on its freshman class. There is a palpable buzz surrounding Paolo Banchero, who is a projected top pick in next year’s draft. Fellow freshmen AJ Griffin and Trevor Keels have their own hype, respectively, and are both expected to be key contributors this season.

But one question that continues to loom large is, who is the best returning Blue Devil? The popular choice is Mark Williams.

How Mark Williams fared as a Duke basketball rookie

Given how the season ended, it is not too much of a stretch to say that Williams is the best Duke basketball returnee. The 7-foot center was on a tear before the team’s postseason run was cut short. He was starting to assert himself as a force on the defensive end.

Williams changed the entire outlook for the Blue Devils last season as a freshman. They went on a short win streak when he was inserted in the starting lineup, and he was the most dominant player in their two-game run in the ACC Tournament.

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Despite playing a combined 22 minutes in Duke’s first five ACC games, Williams still finished inside the top 10 in the conference in both blocks per game and total blocks.

The Blue Devils severely lacked size, toughness, and rim protection early in the season. By getting Williams in the regular rotation, it allowed his teammates to pressure the ball more on defense and disrupt the passing lanes, knowing that a 7-foot giant was behind them to protect the rim.

Williams is easily the best rim-protecting big back in the ACC this season, but he still has some areas to prove himself.

One of the main reasons why Williams was stuck to the bench early in the season was his inability to defend ball screens. He is great at turning shots away, but not so much when it comes to guarding the perimeter.

The Blue Devils put him in drop coverage a lot last season, something that the Utah Jazz frequently do with Rudy Gobert. Drop coverage in ball screens allows the big to stay home and not have to step up and defend smaller guards on the perimeter. It is susceptible to guards who can knock down outside shots, but it makes it very difficult for them to get all the way to the basket.

I believe opposing teams will try to take advantage of Williams’ size by constantly putting him in ball screen situations. Especially early in the season, opponents will try to draw him away from the basket and force him to defend on the outside. Teams will continue to do this until he can prove he can consistently defend ball screens.

It will also be interesting to see how Williams expands his offensive game. Last season, the majority of his points came off lobs, putbacks, and dump-off passes. He did show some signs of being an effective post-up scorer, but not much of the offense was run through him.

How Mark Williams should fare as a Duke basketball sophomore

Coming into this Duke basketball season, I don’t see Williams’ role drastically changing. I don’t see the Blue Devils running a lot of offense through him. Despite the college game becoming more like the NBA, where teams play five perimeter players at once and prioritize shooting and floor spacing, having a big that can score down low is still a luxury.

It is no secret that scoring in the halfcourt is a real challenge. Having a guy that you can throw the ball into and get an easy basket or a trip to the foul line can be very helpful.

Duke suffered mightily in its halfcourt offense last season until Williams became a regular part of the rotation. He is a great lob target, which should benefit guys like Jeremy Roach, Wendell Moore, Paolo Banchero, and all the guys who can penetrate the defense.

I don’t expect Williams to start shooting 3-pointers. But if he can develop a go-to move in the post, knock down free throws, and continue to be a menace on the offensive boards, that should be more than enough offensive contribution.

Williams was by far Duke’s most improved player from start to finish last season. He went from scoring 13 points across his first nine games as a Blue Devil to putting up double-digit totals in five of his last six games. His confidence grew with each game that he played. And by the time the season ended, you could make the argument that he was the team’s most important player.

Duke should have plenty of other contributors offensively where Williams won’t need to shoulder a big scoring load, but he is by far the most important defensive player. His ability to man the paint, block shots, and secure rebounds will go a long way in determining how successful this year’s group will be.

The addition of Marquette transfer Theo John should also help relieve some of the pressure on Williams. As a big man, foul trouble and fatigue are inevitable, and John’s presence should allow Williams to stay fresh over the course of the season and enable him to play through foul trouble.

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Plenty of ACC teams have quality big men that will test Mark Williams game in and game out. If he can win the majority of those battles, the 2021-22 Duke basketball squad should be well on its way to the top of the ACC standings.