It only took one game for Lou Williams to get Atlanta Hawks fans excited about their bench again.
Williams scored 18 points in the Hawks preseason opener, and needed just six shots to do so. The Hawks beat the Miami Heat 92-79, thanks in part to huge contributions from Williams and Josh Smith.
While Smith led the Hawks with 21 points, the real story of the day was definitely the play of the newly-acquired Williams. After the Hawks struggled mightily all last season to find some consistency from their bench, it only took 24 minutes (and 25 seconds) from Williams to let Hawks fans know that things would be a bit different this year.
After the Hawks let Jamal Crawford leave to Portland as a free agent before last season, they had immense trouble replacing his bench scoring and knack for big-time shots. Add in the trade this offseason that sent Joe Johnson to the Brooklyn Nets, and the Hawks were looking at a roster that lacked an explosive scoring option at the shooting guard position.
Enter Williams, who the Hawks signed away from the Philadelphia 76ers this offseason. In his first game in a Hawks uniform, Williams gave fans a sneak-preview of the abilities which helped him average 15 points per game last year, as well as finish second in Sixth Man Of The Year voting. Not only did Williams come off the bench to shoot 5-of-6 from the field, but he also got to the free throw line nine times, and knocked down two three-pointers.
This performance is not surprising to those who have watched Williams throughout his career though. He has been able to raise his scoring average every year with the exception of one, and set career highs in points (14.9), three-point percentage (36.2%), and assist-to-turnover ratio (3:1) last season.
While Williams will most likely remain on the bench this year (a role which he has shown he can thrive in), he will see tons of minutes at the end of games when the Hawks need clutch baskets. Just as the Hawks showed in the past with their handling of Crawford, they are not afraid to go with the hot hand, and Williams will definitely have the green light more often than not this year.
With Williams at the helm, the infusion of bench talent will be one of the big changes for the Hawks this season. While last season they were forced to rely on a bench consisting mainly of veteran-minimum players who were on the downswing of their career (Vladimir Radmanovic, Tracy Mcgrady, Jannero Pargo, Willie Green, Jason Collins, Jerry Stackhouse, and Erick Dampier), this year the Hawks will definitely have a much more athletic second-unit.
While the starting rotation is nowhere near set yet, the amount of talent that Williams will have around him will not only be good news for the Hawks as a team, but for Williams as well. As the Hawks saw in 2010-11 during Crawford’s last year with the Hawks, having an elite scorer off the bench is great, but he can be neutralized easily if there aren’t other weapons around him. That season saw Crawford’s stats in nearly every category take a hit, as defenses brought more double teams his way and players around Crawford were unable to take advantage of open shots.
That will not be the case this year, as the Hawks will have a handful of offensive weapons to surround Williams with. From newcomers Devin Harris, Kyle Korver, Deshawn Stevenson, rookie John Jenkins and Anthony Morrow to returning players Zaza Pachulia and Ivan Johnson, the Hawks will have a second-unit that is capable of scoring consistently for the first time in recent memory.
It all begins with Williams though. At 26 years-old Williams is entering the prime years of his career, and has shown steady improvement every season up until now. It will be up to him to bring energy off the bench and keep the Hawks from falling into the long scoring droughts that have plagued their backups in recent years.
On a team with a ton of question marks, Williams is going to have to prove that he can lead the second-unit for this new-look Hawks team. If he is able to do that, only one question will remain: Is this the year that Williams finally wins the Sixth Man Of The Year Award? Judging by his performance today, i’d say his chances are looking pretty good so far.