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Understanding The NBA Shortage Of Wing Players

As seen with the Warriors, versatility is a must have to win in the NBA, so why is there is a league shortage of two-way wing players?

There is no force in the league more disruptive than scarcity. Every coach and executive has a closely held vision for how a team should play. All are forced, on some level, to compromise. Those franchises lucky enough to land a superstar often have to forsake their teambuilding preferences to make the most of what they have. Fit still matters—as does philosophy. Those factors are simply overwhelmed by the practical reality that the vast majority of teams will never get the exact kinds of players they want because there are so few of those players in the first place.

This holds true beyond the superstar class, most notably in the NBA's current pool of wings. Point guards are everywhere; free agents like George Hill, Jeff Teague, and Darren Collison shuffled among the same tiny subset of teams due to the prohibitive number of starting jobs already filled. Quality bigs, too, will sit on the trading block for months in an oversaturated market. Not so for wing players, whose already useful games have been gilded by circumstance. The list of helpful, two-way wings is much shorter than those in the league would like. So many of the best shooters and creators at that position are glaring defensive liabilities. Those who have committed themselves fully to defensive detail often stunt their team's offense through limitation.

We live in a world where Tony Snell—a wing who so underwhelmed in his first three seasons that his team bailed on his fourth—can sign a four-year, $46 million contract and contextually deserve it. And in that world, it's a bit confusing that a prospect like Troy Williams would thus far go unsigned.

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Williams served his largely anonymous rookie season on the bench in Memphis and Houston, and has since starred for the Rockets in the Las Vegas Summer League. Few in Vegas have played better. Williams has blistered his eager competition with 24.3 points in just 28 minutes per game, all while sprinting and diving to make hustle plays. "I've always been able to score in multiple ways," Williams said. "It just depends on the team."

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What Williams does for the Summer Rockets is materially different from what he offers an NBA club. Any lasting future lies in the patient fulfillment of three-and-D play. The three is a bit flaky, as evidenced by Williams shooting 24.4% from deep with the Grizzlies before converting 38.1% of those same shots with the Rockets. His footwork, most noticeably, could stand to be cleaned up. Yet imperfection at this level is a mark of opportunity. Williams is a rangy, high-effort wing who has demonstrated both the timing to make defensive plays and the ability to hit shots. "The jumper is coming, the making of plays is coming, blocking shots, making the right plays – it's all just coming into play," Williams said. Even better: He's just 22 years old and could again be in the market for a minimum deal.

The odds are against Williams, just as they are always against an undrafted Summer League prospect. Still, this kind of opportunity should not be shrugged off. Williams isn't quite there with his shooting but could be with the right help. There are times where his play grows antsy—with a cut at the wrong time or a move to help on defense when it wasn't necessary—but good coaching could make him more disciplined. The rub, apparently, is the investment.

In a perfect world, teams would be able to develop every player equally. In reality, even NBA resources have their limits. Pros might have greater access to training facilities than basketball players at any other level, but coaches still have responsibilities beyond working with any one player. Minutes are often distributed in ways that favor those who can produce in the moment. And when it comes down to it, a team will almost always invest in its own draft picks—themselves lines on an executive's résumé—rather than commit to an undrafted player like Williams.

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Every team wants a fully actualized Danny Green, but few have the willingness or the bandwidth to help a player like Williams find the Green in his game. The wing shortage, then, hits even harder. Part of the reason why no team can match up well with the Warriors or the Cavs is that they have trouble finding the depth of wings necessary to play elite-level small ball. Even those that do – like Boston, for instance – soon run into the crippling expense that comes with such needed players hitting the open market. The pervasive need drives up their price, making the entire arrangement that much more untenable.

Williams is miles from proving himself at that level, but is reaching Snell's level such an unreasonable aspiration? Is it really so crazy to think that if things break right over the next few years, Williams could mimic some of the good that Moe Harkless or Terrence Ross have to offer? Even solid wing play can prove transformative for the right team under the right circumstances. "It's just finding the right spot," Williams said.