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The Sixth Man Legacy: Lou Williams and the Art of Thriving as a Bench Player

Williams has called it a career, leaving behind a legacy as one of the best reserve players we have ever seen and redefining the role of a backup guard in the process

In mathematics, it is often said that there is usually more than one way to solve a problem. For example, to get a sum of 4 there are more ways to get there than 2+2. Similarly, in basketball great careers do not have a set formula to go by. Not every great player is a superstar that contends for MVP trophies. Great players fit into the roles that accommodate their skill sets the best and if they excel in those roles, they will be remembered in a positive light.

This week, we saw an elite bench player step away from the NBA after 17 productive seasons. Sometimes being a bench player is a role for young players and players that are exiting their prime. And usually, when a player is at their apex they are thrust into a starting role. Lou Williams is not your usual NBA player, however. Williams has stepped away from the game and has left behind a legacy as one of the most electric players we have ever seen come off the bench, a true epitome of the term sixth man.

The Ultimate Bench Player

There are two stats about Lou Williams that tell you all you need to know about how effective he was as a bench player over his 17-year career. The first is that he is the league's all-time leader in points scored off the bench, with over 13,000 points scored. He is also tied for the most sixth man of the year award won (3) alongside Jamal Crawford. Williams realized pretty early on in his career that if he was going to stick around in this league it was going to be as a reserve player.

Once when asked about shifting to a starting role, Williams had this to say:

“It doesn't really matter to me whether you start or not. I play a lot of fourth quarters. I think that's what's most important to me. I think that's what I've always cared about, just having an opportunity to finish games when it's really winning time.”

This quote is a showcase of what mattered to Williams. He wanted to be out there when the game was on the line, taking and making big shots. Williams only started 10% of the games that he appeared in, but he performed incredibly well regardless. He averaged over 15 points per game 7 times throughout his career and in those 7 seasons, he only started 65 times. In 2018 and 2019 as a member of the Los Angeles Clippers, Williams was second on the team in scoring in a capacity where he mostly came off the bench.

Williams' style was one that was tailor-made for the modern NBA game. He was a quick guard that could score in bunches and could get to the basket as well as be proficient as a three point shooter. He shot 35% from three over his career on a decent amount of volume (in his peak years he attempted between 5 to 6 threes per game regularly). This style has helped influence other players in the league's next generation as well. Knicks reserve point guard Immanuel Quickley has been quoted as saying that Williams was one of his idols growing up. That is the impact on the game that many fail to quantify when sizing up a player's career.

Changing the Position

It is safe to say that along with Jamal Crawford, Lou Williams has helped define a new trajectory for guards in the NBA. Where before a reserve guard was simply a minutes filler to give the lead point guard some rest, Williams ushered in an era of guards that could come into a game and make an impact crucial to a team's success without being a starter. We have seen players like Jordan Clarkson, Reggie Jackson, and Malik Monk in this role in recent years. All of these players have shown an ability to provide quick offense and challenge defenders when star players are out of the game.

This shift is a part of the way that we have started to change the way that we look at roles in the modern NBA, where skillsets are prioritized over positions. For instance, a player that used to be a reserve small forward was simply known as that. But these days that player could be a defensive stopper, a three-point specialist, or an offensive initiator. Players like Lou Williams created their own archetype: instant offense scoring guard. Thanks to what Williams was able to accomplish, these players have become valuable in these roles on championship rosters.

And that is ultimately the legacy of Lou Williams as an NBA player. He never won a championship and was never the star player on a good team. But, he was a player that identified what he could do well at a high level and made a 17-year career out of it. With Williams, there is a blueprint to being successful in the league if you are not one of the best 20 players in your sport. Coaches will often say to “be a star in your role” when it comes to expectations from non-star players. Lou Williams, if nothing else, can be remembered as someone that was a star in his role and has inspired other players to be the same. If you ask me, that’s a great legacy to have as an NBA player.

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