February 14, 2005 WINSTON-SALEM The center position represents the best and worst of Wake Forest's improvement levels this season. The most improved player on the team is junior Eric Williams, and the least improved actually, he's probably regressed is sophomore Kyle Visser.
The good news is that Williams' dramatic improvement means that coach Skip Prosser hasn't needed Visser much. The bad news is that you never know when your star big man might get into foul trouble.
Williams' new body is responsible for a lot of the changes in his game. He's become an athletic center instead of just a big man, and it's helped his rebounding and defensive footwork.
Prosser's main criticisms of Williams over his first two seasons were that he couldn't stay on the floor long enough and that he couldn't get a rebound out of his space. Williams has addressed both areas well this season. He doesn't tire as easily anymore, meaning he doesn't pick up the lazy fouls that plagued him in the past. He gets better position as well.
"I feel tons better," Williams said. "I feel real good that I can stay on the floor, finally."
In his first two seasons, Williams averaged a foul for every 6.6 minutes he played in ACC action. Through 11 conference games this year, that had become a foul for every 11.9 minutes. The combination of his conditioning and lack of fouls has translated into major minutes. In his first two ACC seasons, Williams averaged 22.6 minutes a game. Through 11 conference games this season, that number was 31.4, an improvement of 39 percent.
The best part, though, is that he's doing some special things with those minutes. Gone is the stationary rebounder who drove Prosser crazy. In his first two ACC seasons, Williams averaged 4.3 rebounds a game, which is almost inexcusable for a 6-9 player who carves out as much space as he does. But now that he's more mobile, he averaged 9.7 rebounds a game through 11 ACC contests this season.
His offense has improved as well, but not all of that credit goes to his new body. Some goes to the change in his mental approach. Though Williams still hasn't developed much of a jumper or a jump hook, which might make him unstoppable, he's decided to go strong to the basket whenever possible.
During his career, last year especially, Prosser spoke of Williams as the offense's No. 1 option, but Williams didn't really seem to believe him. This year, that's all changed. His teammates have remarked several times that Williams just finally came to believe that he was a force to be reckoned with in the post.
"At times, it seemed last year he deferred and kicked the ball out," sophomore point guard Chris Paul said. "We tell him unless he's swarmed by defenders, put the ball up on the rim. Nine times out of 10, I think he's going to dunk it or make the shot."
While Williams isn't shooting 90 percent, he shot 60 percent and averaged 17 points through 11 ACC games this year. In his first two ACC seasons, those numbers were 50.1 percent and 8.5 a game.
Perhaps the biggest compliment to Williams' new athleticism is that if you watch him consistently, at least once a game he'll do something that will make you say, "He couldn't have done that last year."
The opposite is happening for Visser. He did a lot of things last year that he doesn't seem to be able to replicate this season.
Last year, Visser was a surprise as a freshman. Some had pegged him as a redshirt candidate and a bench-warmer until he built up the strength to play at the ACC level. But instead, he almost immediately became a key spark off the bench. He brought enthusiasm to the game, was an athletic defender and could hit a little jumper around the lane.
In ACC play, Visser averaged 12.9 minutes a game, shot 54.4 percent and averaged 5.4 points and 2.8 rebounds. This year, those numbers are down to 6.7 minutes, 2.2 points and 1.3 rebounds.
One reason is that his fouls have increased dramatically. Visser is out of position and reaches often. (Prosser keeps telling him to act like he's 6-10.) Last year, he fouled once every 5.3 minutes. This year, that's down to one foul every 3.9 minutes.
So what happens if Williams gets into foul trouble in the postseason? Prosser may well skip Visser and play junior forward Chris Ellis or possibly senior forward Vytas Danelius at center. The more athletic lineups, using three guards and a frontcourt of Trent Strickland-Ellis, Jamaal Levy-Ellis or Strickland-Levy, have been successful this season.
If Wake is matched up with a particularly big and physical team, though, Prosser may just have to let Visser take his hacks and burn up a few minutes while Williams is out.
Paul: Talking Trash, Elbows Flying?
In this week's entry for the Believe It Or Not contest, Chris Paul is getting a reputation as a punk.
At least that's what many fans of other ACC schools are saying, particularly those at the rival in-state schools.
While some of that talk probably is spurred by the fact that Wake beat all three of those schools the first time around this season, those who have watched Paul's career closely know that there is something to the charges, at least on the court.
Paul reminds some observers of former college and NBA legend Isiah Thomas in this regard. Outwardly, he's almost angelic. He's always smiling, and his off-court demeanor is outstanding. He's not called "The Mayor" for nothing. But during the action, Paul is a gamer, and he usually knows how to be physical and disruptive without being obvious.
Paul is easily the biggest trash talker on the Wake team, but he rarely says anything in the open court. He just jabbers at his opponent when they're close together. He also never hesitates to get in a physical dig. If you watch him go for a loose ball and this has been true since the start of his career he'll land a shielded forearm whenever he feels it's necessary.
The key is that Paul is usually in control of these events. They're part of him trying to get inside the head of an opponent and get an edge. He doesn't do it to the extreme, and it doesn't distract from his game. He can goad an opponent into something, but it's doubtful that an opponent can goad him into anything he doesn't want to happen.
The danger is that these events are becoming more frequent, and some have been captured on TV. If Paul begins to get a different reputation with the referees at this point, many officials still look as if they'd like to adopt him that could spell bad news. In the meantime, these incidents and Paul's talent are starting to transform him from one of those players everyone loves to one whom some opponents and their fans love to hate.
Paul, and Wake fans, correctly will write it off to being a tough competitor, unless something bigger happens. Most important, Wake fans won't care a bit about these flare-ups if Paul can lead the Deacons where Thomas once led Indiana.
Lineups Better Without Danelius?
While Danelius has improved his play this year, that improvement has slowed as the ACC season rolls along. He played well in early ACC action, but now Wake is actually more effective with him out of the lineup.
Using a version of hockey's plus/minus system for the Deacons in ACC play, the ACC Sports Journal has calculated that Wake's lineups without Danelius have been more productive this season. The system adds or subtracts a point for every point the team scores or allows while a lineup is on the court, then divides by the lineup's time on the court.
In analyzing 11 ACC games in 2005, the starting lineup (which includes Danelius) was +.42, meaning the Deacons were .42 points better than their opponents for each minute that lineup played. But put Ellis in place of Danelius (with the other starters), and that lineup was +1.1. Put Strickland in place of Danelius, and that lineup was +.71.
Prosser probably doesn't look at these things in the same way, and he hasn't asked us for our numbers (or our input), but it will be interesting to see if the coach picks up on this trend as the season moves toward March.