May 8, 2022 

Film room: How Gabby Williams elevates the Storm

Williams' defensive contributions on Friday were transformative

Seattle came into its season-opener with big questions over how it would be able to defend against elite centers. Mercedes Russell, a 2021 breakout defensive star that the front office re-signed to a large contract, suffered a non-basketball injury that will sideline the Storm center for about a month; with a schedule that will feature five games against four of the best pure centers in the league during that month, Seattle was going to need a few players to step up.

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On the other end, Russell finished last season second in the league in field-goal percentage. With nearly 85% of her shots coming within 10 feet of the basket —  some incredibly efficient offense that needs replicating.

For the Storm’s first test: literally the most efficient offensive player in WNBA history, Sylvia Fowles. The Lynx center may be in her final season. But she’s coming off the second-highest true-shooting mark of her career and 19.6 points per 36 minutes over the last five games of her 2021.

Fowles went for a team-high 16 points on 8-for-14 shooting. But Seattle made her work enough for her points that it was able to lock down the rest of Minnesota, leading to a 97-74 Storm win. The biggest factor in that defensive success might have been off-ball guard Gabby Williams. The Storm debutant was a nightmare for Lynx guards, pushing off-ball guard Aerial Powers into contested shot after contested shot, rotating onto drivers to force late adjustments and even making life difficult for Fowles on multiple occasions.

“It’s great — I mean, Gabby can guard one-through-four easily,” Jewell Loyd said of the addition of Williams. “And I think you need that. It takes pressure off me, Stewie, all of us — our guards, we’re able to know that we can count on our backside to be there.

“And it’s not just defense. They’re able to push the pace, and that’s something that we need here. And tonight, you’ve seen glimpses of Gabby finding the air to get a deflection on Syl, blocking her shot… And that helps a lot with what we’re trying to do and how we want to play.”

Williams came to Seattle via trade with Los Angeles, one that’s been scrutinized because the Storm had to give up both Katie Lou Samuelson and a first-round pick while taking on a sizable cap hit. Part of that scrutiny came from Williams’ consistent offensive struggles. But if she can maintain the kind of offensive contributions she provided on Friday, general manager Talisa Rhea has nothing to regret.

Let’s take a look at exactly what Williams brought to the floor against Minnesota:

First Quarter

9:27 — Just a good entry pass from Williams to lead big wing Breanna Stewart into a little more space. That baseline movement for Stewart also helps keep big Ezi Magbegor open at the free-throw line.

8:05 — Williams’ first rep defending Powers came on the prior possession and the result was Powers being forced to double-pump into an off-balance pull-up jumper. Here. Williams slides under combo forward Jessica Shepard‘s screens twice to meet Powers right on the other side, the second time leaving her with absolutely no space.

6:09 — With Fowles defending the post, Seattle has little interest in running its offense through Magbegor. So despite not being a shooting threat, Williams finds a way to help open up perimeter offense, improvising a down screen to effectively create a Chicago action. That forces Shepard onto Loyd, creating an easy opportunity for separation on a stepback three.

5:36 — Williams once again stonewalls Powers on the other side of a screen, then chases over the rescreen so closely that Powers is forced right into a Magbegor block.

Second quarter

5:25 — The absolute highlight of Williams’ night. With Fowles’ rescreen forcing Storm big Jantel Lavender into blitzing the ball screen, Williams fills the lane. And despite being at a severe physical disadvantage, she coordinates her arms independently to both deter Fowles’ initial angle and get a hand on the ball once Fowles tries to step over. The coordination required to do so and the strength to rip the ball away is something no other off-ball guard in the league has.

3:47 — Williams keeps Powers in hell and quickly recognizes Lynx point guard Odyssey Sims driving across a makeshift Powers screen. Williams jumps into Sims’ path so quickly that she has to alter her shot uncomfortably.

3:06 — Williams still has her offensive problems, though. With the Storm desperate to get their offense going in a tight second quarter, point guard Sue Bird doesn’t even consider a wide-open Williams — despite her being on Stewart’s side of the court and facing a worse defender than Loyd.

1:35 — Watch how quickly Williams recovers from backing up a front on Fowles to Powers at the key. Powers is an explosive athlete, but she has no airspace to pull-up, nor can she get by Williams without getting completely tied up.

Third quarter

8:08 — Williams completely outjumps Fowles for the rebound here. Absolute insane athleticism on display.

6:29 — One more example of William’s 99th-percentile athleticism: Shepard throws a great post entry here, forcing Williams to run deeper on her help. But her strength and coordination is such that she still pulls the ball away from Fowles for the deflection.

6:19 — Williams’ career shooting numbers are what they are, but it’s clear why coaches keep thinking they can make a quality shooter out of her; this is great form, and just making a three on three or four attempts regularly will make her a viable fifth option on that side of the court.

Written by Em Adler

Em Adler (she/they) covers the WNBA at large and college basketball for The Next, with a focus on player development and the game behind the game.

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