He never starts but frequently finishes. Rarely is a team’s leading scorer somebody who comes off the bench, but 76ers guard Lou Williams has become that explosive, indispensible player who is now looked on as a finisher and more importantly a leader.
It’s been seven years since Williams came out of high school directly to the NBA, a player with talent, but one who had to learn the inner workings of the NBA, what it took to prepare to compete each and every night.
Williams, who won’t turn 26 until October, will have the opportunity to opt out of his contract at the end of this season, one in which he could attract his fair share of suitors.
This season Williams was the Sixers' leading scorer, averaging a career high 14.9 points per game. He played in all but two games, when coach Doug Collins gave him the final two regular season contest off to rest for the postseason.
Along with Thaddeus Young, Williams gives the Sixers impactful players off the bench.
Williams has started just 38 games in his career, all coming in the 2009-10 season.
It’s not that he doesn’t have the ability to start on the Sixers or other teams, but coach Doug Collins loves the spark that he gives as a reserve.
The Sixers not only welcome his scoring, they need it. During the regular season, he scored under double figures 13 times and the Sixers were 4-9 in those games.
“When he scores, it trickles down to everybody else, it also gives Lou confidence and picks up his defense as well,” Collins said. “He is very much an energizer for our team.”
One thing that’s difficult about Williams is to categorize his exact position. At 6-foot-2, he doesn’t have ideal size to play shooting guard and he isn’t considered the type of playmaker to be a pure point guard.
Williams has a simple response.
“I am a basketball player,” he said.
That’s a good point.
For the Sixers he is an effective combination guard, able to handle the ball and also play off the ball. During his career he has a 2.2 assist-to-turnover ratio with 1,356 assists and 614 turnovers.
In other words, he handles much better than he’s given credit for.
Williams enters the game with one mindset.
“I want to be tough, aggressive and lead by example,” he said.
When Williams entered the league, the thought of him being a leader seemed a bit far-fetched. He was a second-round draft pick, the 45th overall selection in the 2005 draft out of South Gwinnett High in Georgia.
As with most who made the leap directly from high school to the NBA, back when the rules allowed such a situation, Williams didn’t realize all it took to be competitive in the NBA. And he languished on a veteran team, playing just 145 minutes as a rookie and 688 during this second year.
Since then his minutes have increased and he has scored in double figures in each of the past five seasons.
“When he first came in, he was hard to guard, a very good one-on-one player but he has really grown, his feel for the game, his maturity and he has learned how to be a pro,” said Chicago Bulls swingman Kyle Korver, a former teammate of Williams.
The Sixers lead the Bulls 3-1 in their Eastern Conference opening round series, with all three wins coming after Derrick Rose suffered his season-ending knee injury late in Game 1. Still, in the pivotal Game 2, Williams scored 20 points during a 109-92 win that got the Sixers going.
Williams showed his toughness in Game 4, when he went down hard on a drive to the basket and suffered what was later a lower back contusion.
“I played through a lot of pain before and this is no different and I will be fine,” Williams said
Even if he’s not fine, Williams won’t complain. His toughness is as underrated as his ballhandling.
“I played when I felt I couldn’t go anymore,” he said.
And his teammates took notice.
“You see him playing like that when he’s hurting and it really gave us a lift,” guard Jrue Holiday said.
Williams has that shake-and-bake move that enables him to gain separation from defenders. He has become much improved at shooting off the dribble, especially from deep range, but he can also take it to the basket with authority.
On the court, he never does anything passively.
“This is a game of runs and a lot of times when we make runs it is from getting in the open court, so that is what we’re always looking to do and you have to be aggressive,” he said.
Williams has certainly become the type of instant-offense generator who puts fear in an opposing defense.
“He is a very explosive scorer and it’s always a challenge to defend him,” Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau said. “You can’t give him much room because he has the ability to make tough shots.”
And frequently the best defensive plan still isn’t enough.
“There are times when you defend him extremely well and he still makes the shot,” Thibodeau said. “You have to play him in a crowd and can never let your guard down against him.”
According to HoopsHype's salary figures, Williams is made $5.9 million this season. He can opt out of his contract next year at nearly $6.4 million.
No matter what happens, the Sixers will likely do everything possible to retain him. He’s a reserve with a starter’s mentality and a starter’s production. Players who provide such an explosive spark are extremely difficult to replace.