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Why Grant Williams is Tennessee’s most valuable player

It’s an obvious statement, but here’s a closer look at how and why he’s so good.

NCAA Basketball: Georgia at Tennessee Randy Sartin-USA TODAY Sports

I began this series intending to examine the performances of five or six guys on the basketball team within the MVP-discussion framework for two main reasons: I felt like it could be a fun and informative collection of stories, and I thought it might create some dialogue. Tennessee has multiple contributors and it can beat you on any given night if one or two of those main cogs aren’t performing well. That’s still true.

I had already started an article highlighting Jordan Bowden’s season and discussing why I felt he could, reasonably, be considered Tennessee’s MVP this season. Then Grant Williams went nuclear on Vanderbilt, and my 1300 words on Bowden seemed, well, poorly timed at best. We’ll revisit Bowden’s season at a later date.

It seems there’s no better time than now, despite the risk of these words being lost in the sea of post-Vanderbilt Williams’ reverence, to dive into William’s performance this year.

Williams won SEC Player of the Year and almost literally carried Tennessee to a Sweet Sixteen appearance last season. He led the team in minutes played, PER, usage, win shares, points, points produced, etc., etc., so on and so forth.

This season, Williams is putting up numbers that eclipse last year’s SEC POY campaign and place him in the National Player of the Year conversation.


Williams has scored in double figures in 17 out of Tennessee 18 games, and he leads the SEC averaging slightly more than 20 points a game. That’s an increase of nearly 5 points from last year’s average. His 43-point outburst against Vanderbilt was the 11th- best single game scoring effort this season and the only one in the top-30 that occurred without the benefit of a made 3-pointer.

He’s shooting nearly 57 percent from the field, 36 percent from 3-point range and 86 percent from the free-throw line. Just for a point of reference: In the NBA, there’s a group of seven players, ever, who shot 50 percent from the field, 40 percent from 3-point range and 90 percent from the free-throw line over the course of a season. It’s understandably referred to as the “50-40-90,” club, and again, it has exactly seven members.

I couldn’t find any information on how many guys have accomplished this feat in college ball, though I’m sure the club is less exclusive in the NCAA than it is in the NBA. Williams is below the mark in both 3-point and free throw shooting, but he’s not below it by much, and the reference hopefully provides some context for how well he’s shooting the ball this season.

Per game, he’s making more shots this season, but he’s taking almost the same number of shots he did a season ago. His overall field goal shooting is up nearly 10 percent, and his 3-point shooting is up 24 percent. He’s already hit three times the number of 3-pointers this season (9) as he did last season (3). His free throw percentage is up 10 points from last year, and it’s up nearly 20 points from his freshman year.

Williams demonstrated advanced touch and skill shooting the ball around the rim his first two seasons at UT, so it’s no surprise that his overall shooting numbers are rising, especially when you consider that, by most accounts, it’s something he puts a lot of work into. Shooting is a skill, and by nature it can be worked on and refined. His outside shooting is an area that he needs to continue to improve, but in the post, he’s NBA ready now.

Watching Williams work around the basket ignites a sort of cognitive dissonance – he’s like a guy who does construction work having soft, delicate hands. He’s a walking contradiction: big and bruising, but smooth. He’s just as likely to go around you as he is to go through you. If you follow me on twitter (@_nicosuave_) you know I’ve been raving about his spin move all year. It’s truly beautiful.

The most current information I could find puts his shooting percentage on shots close to the rim at nearly 72 percent. That’s a solid percentage for any guy that plays in the post, but it’s more impressive for Williams considering that: 1) He’s really around 6-foot-5, maybe 6-foot-6, so he’s almost always at a height disadvantage, and 2) the amount he’s fouled.

His free throw rate is 73.8 meaning that he’s taking nearly 74 free-throws for every 100 shots he’s taking from the field. That’s the third-best rate in the conference, and it’s up almost 20 percentage points from last season.

His strong lower body allows him to establish position inside and his strong upper body allows him to finish through contact. Guarding Williams is very much a “damned if you do, damned if you don’t scenario,” in that if you don’t foul him, he’s likely to score, and if you do foul him, he’s likely to score and hit the free throw, too.


As good as Williams is shooting the ball and scoring in the post, at 6-foot-6, one has to be proficient in other areas if NBA dreams are to be realized.

In 35 games last season, he had 66 assists. In 18 games this season, he’s got 64 assists, and that number puts him at second on the team and ninth in the SEC.

He’s also nearly doubled his assist percentage (8.7 to 15.4) from last season to this season, and he’s raised his assist to turnover ratio from .89 to 1.68. This means that last season he was turning the ball over more often than he was assisting on baskets, but this year he’s tallying almost two assists for every one turnover.

Most of the time, Tennessee’s offense runs through Williams, so naturally he has the highest usage rate on the team. And when you score the ball like he does, double teams are going to come. He’s shown the willingness and ability to make the right decision and the on-target pass. I found a couple videos online that show you what I’m talking about.

This is a screen shot from the first play on the video. We see Williams has established his position in the paint. Schofield is about to make the entry pass, but you also see there’s three Kansas defenders within 5-7 feet of Williams’ position in the post.

Kansas doubles Williams on the catch, but that frees up Alexander. You see Kyle and his path to the basket in blue. If you look closely, you can also see Williams’ head is turned in Alexander’s direction. We obviously can’t be sure what Williams is looking at, but it seems like he’s anticipated the double team and knows Alexander is going to be open.

This is one of the last frames before Williams makes the pass. Look at that big fella bend. Instead of panicking when the double team came, he calmly bent down and reached around the defender to deliver the bounce pass to Alexander for an easy dunk. Great anticipation and great vision.

Some beautiful soul on YouTube made this second video, and it shows Williams making quick decisions when the double team comes along with some pin-point bounce passes. The last two clips are my favorites. They’re post-entry bounce passes that some guards in college basketball can’t make with such accuracy. Williams hits his teammates right in the hands for a couple of easy finishes. It’s just lovely, lovely basketball.


I’m not a scout, and it’s harder for me to recognize and explain instances of good individual and team defense. Also, showing shots of Williams boxing somebody out would be kind of boring. So, for this section, let’s just look at his stats and statistical rankings. His numbers for rebounding, steals and blocks per game are all up from his averages last season.

These are the defensive and rebounding categories where Williams ranks in the top-10 for the SEC:

Defensive rating: 2nd

Defensive win-shares: 1st

Blocked shots: 5th

Blocked shots per game: 5th

Block percentage: 10th

Total rebounds: 8th

Offensive rebounds: 7th

Offensive rebound percentage: 3rd

Defensive rebounds: 5th

Total rebounds: 7th

Total rebounds per game: 7th

Williams is inside the top-10 for the SEC in just about all the defensive and rebounding metrics I looked at, and he’s the anchor of one of the most efficient offenses in the country. This dude does it all and does it all well. Tennessee needs Williams to stay in games – he’s fouled out four times in 18 games so far this year – and if he can his impact on the game is undeniable. While several players on the team have a strong case for Tennessee’s most valuable player, if Williams keeps up his current numbers, they’re all vying for second place.