Wednesday December 5th, 2007

I'm thinking that the shadow of Larry Brown had something to do with the surprising move the 76ers made Tuesday to replace Billy King with Ed Stefanski, the new president and general manager in Philadelphia.

I'm also thinking that this is an intriguing roster for Stefanski to inherit, thanks to young 76ers like Louis Williams.

Why make the move now? One league source reports that team chairman Ed Snider was pushing for Brown to reclaim control of the Sixers from coach Maurice Cheeks. Some within the organization sensed that the coup would happen before the end of the season.

But the rest of the Comcast-Spectacor ownership board didn't like the highly expensive idea of restoring Brown to power, which is why Comcast president Peter Luukko appears to have been granted new control over the 76ers. It was Luukko who made the initial call that wrested Stefanski from the Nets.

The short of it is that Brown will have to find his next coaching job elsewhere -- I'm sure he will be coaching in the NBA by next season -- while Stefanski spends this year evaluating the 76ers from bottom to top. Of course, there are still some awful contracts to deal with, starting with the $10.3 million being paid this year to center Samuel Dalembert with three more seasons to come. But the immediate future isn't so bad: When the ghosts of Chris Webber, Aaron McKie and Greg Buckner expire in June, the 76ers will have cap space to recruit a below-max free agent as well as to re-sign Andre Iguodala, if Stefanski chooses to keep him.

The good news for Stefanski is that everyone on the roster is tradable, including Dalembert, who is producing an agreeable 8.7 rebounds, 2.2 blocks and 10.8 points on 50.4 percent shooting. Yet the most intriguing young Sixer is Williams, a 6-2 guard who arrived out of high school in the second round (No. 45) in the 2005 draft.

After hardly playing his first two years, Williams could have been dismissed as a hopeless tweener -- an undersized 175-pound scorer who lacked point-guard skills.

"I wasn't sure that I was able to play in the NBA my rookie year,'' Williams admitted. Yet as a 21-year-old, Williams is suddenly averaging 10.8 points and 3.4 assists in 22.1 minutes and shooting 47.1% from the three-point line.

He bears little resemblance to the teenager who won the 2005 Naismith award as the nation's top high school player. Williams scored 3,338 points while making the all-state team four years with South Gwinnett High School in suburban Atlanta.

"In high school I was a loose cannon, but that has a lot to do with having the green light to do whatever you wanted to do,'' he said. "I could come across half-court and jack one if I felt like it in high school.''

Today he plays to a different style entirely. With Cheeks studying video of each game with him, Williams is becoming a point guard who prefers the simple play, as his 2-to-1 assist-turnover ratio suggests. With the help last summer of consultant Mark Price (now with the Memphis Grizzlies), Williams has recast his jump shot from the pigeon-toed stroke he brought to the NBA two years ago.

"Guys used to call me 'left-right' because I used to shoot the ball from the left side of my head and bring it over,'' he said. "Now it's all straight, everything is directly to the basket. It was terrible at first because I was struggling with it. I wasn't comfortable shooting the basketball, and I was shooting it flat. But I just kept working toward it.''

If Williams needed to transform himself to become a promising NBA player, then what did the 76ers ever see in him two years ago?

"He had a great feel for the game -- knowing where people are, court awareness and instinct,'' Philadelphia senior VP and assistant GM Tony DiLeo said. "We thought it would be easier to teach him the point-guard spot than to teach a [non-scoring] point guard to try to score. So at No. 45 [in the draft], we figured if we get him now and invest a little time in him, it's like having a top-15 pick in two or three years.'' Which is where Williams would have gone in the draft had he spent a couple of years in college.

He appears to have more in common with Jason Terry than with Iverson, who was quicker and less of a deep shooter during his prime with Philadelphia. "I have a lot of Gilbert [Arenas] in me with the way he's able to score and distribute the basketball,'' Williams said. But he isn't ready to predict greatness after 17 games in a losing team's rotation. When asked how good he thinks he'll be two years from now, he said: "I really can't call it. I just pray and hope that I'm in a better position than I'm in. I'm not complacent with where I am now, and hopefully in a couple years I'm pushing the envelope a little bit farther for my career.''

Two conclusions can be drawn while watching Williams grow up this year. One is that the 76ers have drafted well over the last four years, which is when they stopped trying to add pieces to suit Iverson and began planning for a future without him. Iguodala was a strong pick at No. 9 in 2004 and could be an excellent secondary star -- unless Stefanski must trade Iguodala to land a franchise player. Williams is turning into a steal as their only pick in 2005, and current rookies Thaddeus Young and Jason Smith should play in the league for a long time. The only questionable choice was Rodney Carney in 2006, who was packaged as the No. 16 pick in return for Philly's No. 13 choice (which Chicago used on Thabo Sefolosha). But it's not as if the Sixers missed an obvious All-Star that year.

While Stefanski may not be quick to replace the 76ers' scouting staff led by DiLeo and player personnel director Courtney Witte, he will need to make fast decisions about his backcourt. He can try to win now by rebuilding around Andre Miller, or -- if he likes what he sees before the February trade deadline -- he can trade Miller to a contender and continue to go young in the backcourt around Williams and Iguodala, who will both be restricted free agents next summer.

What Stefanski will see when studying Williams is a player who can either score or pass when he chooses, but who is still learning how to change from one mode to the other in mid-play.

"I had Allen [playing in Philadelphia] my rookie year, and he has a score-first mentality,'' Williams said. "And then I had Andre Miller my second year, and he's pass-first. And I'm looking behind both of these guys and I'm thinking, 'Wow, that's amazing how he's able to score', and then, 'Wow, that's an amazing pass.' ''

Now the trick will be to mix those two qualities into one fluid package.

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