Coming into the season, a lot of Tar Heel fans, myself included, thought Kenny Williams was going to have a breakout year, especially after news broke that Theo Pinson would miss the non-conference portion of the schedule and he would have a shot at starting and playing extended minutes. This hunch looked like it was going to be confirmed early in the season, starting with the exhibition game against Pembroke, where he scored 10 points in 16 minutes and went 4-6, including 2-4 from outside the arc. Against a quality opponent in Chattanooga in the second game of the season, he went 4-7 en route to 11 points. He seemed to be breaking out just as many had predicted he would, not just as a shooter, but as a complete player who could handle UNC’s tempo and finish in transition. He also showed himself to be a good, strong rebounder and a very good defender. It seemed like Carolina had a legitimate starter at shooting guard, even though their starter was out.
Since then, though, outside of his excellent game against relatively lowly Radford (career-high 19 points) and a decent performance against Tennessee that most of the team would rather forget (12 points), his offensive numbers have not quite been what we may have expected. Outside of those games, Williams has not scored in double figures. His shooting percentages are good, and he’s playing decent minutes, so what’s going on?
Don’t get me wrong: even at his current production, Williams is still a very solid player for the Heels. He is one of their best perimeter defenders (regardless of what Kentucky’s Malik Monk did on Saturday), he is shooting near 43% from three-point range and 50% from the field, and his numbers of 7.1 points and 3.6 rebounds per game are good role-player numbers for a wing player. His 0.7 Blocks per 40 minutes lead UNC backcourt players. He’s also sneakily been one of UNC’s best athletes, making a couple of jaw-drop-worthy blocks this year. I just think he could be doing more.
I don’t think there’s a single cause for Williams’ output not quite being on par with his promise; I think it’s the result of a couple of mindsets. The first is that of Williams himself. It looks like, in his commitment to making the team better, he’s totally bought in to being a facilitator in UNC’s offense. He always makes the extra pass, and keeps the ball in motion around the perimeter, trying to ensure that the offense is smooth and finds the best shot. Williams isn’t much of a playmaker, ranking last among UNC’s wing players in Assists per 40 minutes, so this trait of passing the ball around also gets the ball in the hands of the team’s best passers, which opens things up in the inside. It’s an admirable trait to have in a social media climate that encourages hero-ball, and I think that in the next three years, this mindset of his will do much more good for the Heels than harm. I think he’s overcompensating, though, and not realizing that sometimes, maybe even a lot of the time, his shot actually is the best shot. He has the 2nd-highest three-point percentage on the team, only being edged out by Joel Berry. With the ball in motion, he often finds himself with an open or lightly contested outside shot, but, because he’s hesitant to pull the trigger instead of continuing the offense, he passes the ball around the perimeter to a less proficient shooter, who misses a maybe slightly more open shot than he had. I think Williams is, in the moment, forgetting that the offense is just designed to get a good look, not to get someone else a good look. Sometimes, that look might be his. He’s sacrificing practical offense for theoretical offense. There is value in not hunting one’s shot, and it’s exciting to see a sophomore have that kind of headiness about him, but going forward, he has to take the ones that come naturally in order to maximize the offense.
The second mindset that I think is limiting Williams’ output is that of the coaching staff. I’m not here to criticize Roy Williams or his coaching staff, they’re one of the best units in the country, and their record, both overall and this season, speaks for itself. Besides, it’s still December, and we all know how much changes during conference play. But it does seem to me like Williams is being treated like UNC’s fifth option regardless of who’s on the floor. Since the Chattanooga game, he’s taken more than five shots just three times: the two aforementioned double-figure games and the glorified exhibition against D-II Chaminade. Against Kentucky, he played more minutes than he ever had before in a Carolina jersey, and his only shot attempt for the first 39:59 was a putback. The last-second three-point attempt that fell short did seem to have been designed for him, as the other three guys on the floor didn’t do much on the inbounds play, but one planned shot attempt in 34 minutes, in a game that had 81 possessions, is really, really low. It doesn’t really seem like he’s being treated as a legitimate starter so much as a stopgap for an injured player.
It seems like not being that involved in the offense has shaken Williams’ confidence. His free throw percentage has been poor for a shooter, only 67%. I think it also might be contributing to his hesitance to shoot when he does have a shot, or it could be coincidence. Either way, with Pinson probably due to return for ACC play, Williams’ window to take advantage of increased minutes is closing, with only two games left before ACC play. Hopefully, he can, and once conference play starts, he can really give UNC a scoring spark off the bench with the confidence he finds.