Williams injury just latest setback for slumping Hawks
In a tough blow to a team that's been struggling for weeks, Atlanta watched its sixth man and biggest offseason acquisition suffer a gruesome knee injury on a non-contact play against the Nets on Friday night. The grimace on his face told you what doctors would confirm on Saturday: Williams had suffered a torn ACL and would be out for the season.
The reeling Hawks now face the daunting task of trying to replace one of their top scorers and playmakers in the middle of the season. Atlanta's fallen supersub acted as the linchpin to its offense, helping the Hawks function whenever things would stall or when a big basket was required.
Williams' injury couldn't have come at a worse time, either, as the Hawks have faltered after an impressive 9-4 start. Coach Larry Drew admits that his team has lost its "mojo" over the last 10 games and is searching for answers.
"I think we've been playing hard, but it just seems like we're in quicksand," he said.
Trying to cope with the loss of Williams won't make things any easier. The combo guard (14.1 points, 3.6 assists) averaged nearly half of the Hawks' bench points and led them in made free throws, a team weakness (Atlanta ranks 28th in free-throw percentage and 27th in attempts) that just got weaker with his injury.
Atlanta has a long list of players capable of making jump shots, but Williams was the rare player who could hit jumpers and set them up. Josh Smith and Al Horford are frontcourt standouts, but neither is a primary scorer. Jeff Teague is a talent at the point, but he isn't the same type of finisher that Williams has been over his eight-year career.
"They lack a true catalyst," an Eastern Conference scout said. "In previous years it was Joe Johnson; this year it was Williams. I'm not sure who it is now."
The loss of Williams isn't the only woe for Atlanta right now. The Hawks suspended Smith, a free agent this offseason, for one game last week after Drew reportedly had to kick him out of practice. And the Hawks' offense hasn't been sharp, either, tumbling to 17th in points scored per possession.
Things didn't get any better when guard Devin Harris -- maybe the closest player in style to Williams on the roster -- exited Saturday's game with a sprained ankle. Harris, like Williams, has spent time in the NBA coming off the bench and owns similar career scoring numbers. But unlike Williams, an 86.8 percent free-throw shooter, Harris has struggled at the line this season (64.3 percent) and gets to the charity stripe significantly less.
If Harris is sidelined, too, the onus shifts to rookie John Jenkins, who has shown he can be a solid scoring option off the bench. The sharpshooter, the No. 23 pick in last year's draft, has been a member of Drew's rotation for the last month and has nailed 17-of-40 three-pointers (42.5 percent) to give a beat-up Atlanta team some punch. Drew said he's been particularly impressed with Jenkins' aggressiveness on offense and his fearlessness despite missed shots, both trademarks of Williams.
"He will certainly be getting a lot of minutes given our situation," Drew said. "This is a tough situation for us, but we have to take the positive out of it and that it allows him to play. He's going to have to grow up real quick."
Jenkins is already showing some signs of maturity. A few games before Williams went down, Drew told Jenkins to start shooting more and the rookie responded. About 90 minutes before Saturday's game, the team announced Williams was out for the season, but Jenkins didn't need another talk from Drew to know where the responsibility would fall.
"It was kind of understood for me," Jenkins said. "I was already playing a little more. I knew I had to step up."
"They are struggling to find their identity," the East scout said. "Their lineups are always changing. ... I think most of all, they lack a true setup point guard. Someone who can penetrate and dish and make other guys better."
That player, at times, was Williams. It's not clear who it will be next. With a depleted roster, the Hawks signed journeyman point guard Jannero Pargo to a 10-day contract on Monday, but it will be tough for them to replace Williams' production.
If there's a big man who can pick up the slack in Williams' absence, it's Smith, who is shooting his worst percentage from the field (43.8) in six seasons and a career-worst 52.3 percent from the line.
"We just need to keep playing together, keep standing with each other and not worrying about the adversity," said Smith, the subject of trade rumors. "Look around the league, everyone hits adversity at times. [The response] just depends on the makeup of the ball club."
It seems that the makeup of the Hawks is being tested right now.