Efficiency king Williams learning to embrace role as Arizona's star
The look on his coach's face told Derrick Williams all he needed to know.
On the road at Stanford earlier this month, Arizona had just allowed the Cardinal to begin the second half on a 12-1 run and take a 45-40 lead over the Wildcats. During the ensuing timeout, Wildcats coach Sean Miller delivered the standard admonishments and strategy adjustments to his team.
And then, for just a moment, he fixed his gaze on Williams.
Miller's eyebrows leapt, hanging somewhere in the middle of his forehead. His face flushed, his jaw tightened and his eyes froze, unflinching in their focus on his star.
And with that, the message was delivered.
"That look told me all I needed to know," Williams said. "That told me it was time for me to take over."
Williams responded, leading the Wildcats on a 9-0 run to give them a lead they would never relinquish. He went on to finish the game with 21 points and eight rebounds, the 14th time he's led the team in both scoring and rebounding this season.
He discerned the meaning of Miller's gaze because it echoed a message that has been delivered verbally -- sometimes in personal conversations, other times in locker room tirades -- throughout Williams' career:
A 6-foot-8 sophomore with highly underrated athleticism (evidenced
Unheralded out of Southern California's La Mirada High -- Rivals.com graded him a three-star recruit -- Williams arrived at Arizona last season just hoping to crack the rotation. "I wanted to do anything I could to get on the court, maybe even be a starter," Williams said. "Rebounding or defense or whatever, I just wanted to find a role."
He found one: star.
As a freshman, Williams led an inexperienced Arizona team with 15.7 points and 7.1 rebounds per game, but the Wildcats missed the NCAA tournament for the first time since 1984 (not counting a 1999 appearance that was vacated by the NCAA). This season the Wildcats are still young and inexperienced, but are suddenly thriving, ranked No. 12 in the AP poll, sitting in first place in the Pac-10, with a 21-4 overall record and a 10-2 mark in conference play.
Williams has increased his averages to 19.2 points and 8.0 boards, but those numbers only tell half the story. According to kenpom.com, Williams leads the nation in offensive rating and effective field-goal percentage, while ranking third in free-throw rate. The Wildcats' depth allows Williams to play only 28.8 minutes per game, but he ranks second behind BYU's Jimmer Fredette in points + assists + rebounds per 40 minutes, with 39.1.
In short, he's efficient.
"Just think about it," Williams said. "If you're shooting 20 times a game, of course you're going to score at least 20 points. But I want to get to the free-throw line, not take bad shots, just be the most efficient player I can be. I only need to shoot open shots."
He gets to the foul line more than any other player in the country (9.3 attempts per game) and shoots 73 percent from the stripe. "He's got a good first step, gets to the rim, gets contact and makes foul shots," Cal coach Mike Montgomery said earlier this season.
Williams has also made 25 of his 36 three-point attempts, good enough for a 69 percent clip that would lead the nation if he had the required number of makes. "I looked at the tape from last season, and every time I got the ball, people would just play off me to keep me from driving," he said. To put an end to that, he spent the summer taking 400 to 600 jump shots a day in between pickup games with guys like Paul Pierce, James Harden and Brandon Jennings at the HAX Center in Southern California.
That work ethic has always come naturally to Williams. So has his humility. "He's always been so naturally well-behaved," his mother, Rhoma Moore, said. Added Miller: "His mom has him humble and grounded. There are no bad outside influences with Derrick."
But humility can be a detriment when your coach wants to you to be ruthless on the court. Last season, Williams rarely took over games. Now he's embracing the spotlight.
"I think he understands," Miller said. "When it gets to be that time of the game, he needs to be aggressive."
Sometimes, that means scoring, like he did against Stanford. But two nights later Williams had a quiet 12 points against Cal, instead focusing his energy on grabbing 18 boards. And when his aggression got the best of him -- Williams fouled out in the second half of the Cal game, which went to three overtimes -- Williams maintained his energy level on the sideline.
"Any time I looked over, Derrick was yelling, 'Let's go!' " said Arizona guard Lamont "MoMo" Jones, who led the Wildcats with 27 points that night. "When I felt like I didn't have enough in the tank, he was right there."
The result: Arizona's first Pac-10 road sweep since 2009. Eight days later against Arizona State, with the Sun Devils double- and triple-teaming Williams, he once again chose efficiency over eye-popping numbers, scoring 11 points on five field-goal attempts as Arizona rolled to a 67-52 win. Now the Wildcats -- who have only one senior on their roster -- look poised to earn a high seed come March. And game by game, Williams is learning to own his role, his success, his team.
"I know it sounds too good to be true when you're talking about a kid who is as talented as he is and as good of a kid as he is," Miller said. "But that's what makes him a special kid.
"It's easy to coach your team when you have your best player on board."
And for Williams, it only takes a look.