As the hype and scrutiny builds for the 2010 draft class, 21-year-old Latavious Williams readies himself for possible selection in the obscurity he has played in all season: with a seat on the bench in the D-League.
"Sometimes I think about [playing in college], but I'm here now, so I've got to just leave the past in the past," said Williams, who made history last summer by becoming the first high school prospect to enter the NBA Development League's draft after turning down a $100,000 offer to play in China. (Because he is now one year removed from high school, Williams will be eligible for the 2010 NBA draft.)
The 6-foot-8 forward was rated among the top college prospects and had originally committed to Memphis, but his academics weren't up to par and he opted instead for a paying job. That job is now with the Tulsa 66ers, who selected him with the 16th overall pick in the 2009 D-League draft.
"His youthfulness and his athletic ability were the two reasons why we took him," 66ers coach Nate Tibbetts said. "We've had to get really basic with him. There were days when we just had to work on getting into a defensive stance. We've watched a lot of tape with him. And now he's starting to see things that maybe early in the year maybe he didn't see. I think it was a big adjustment early going against grown men, guys who have been around and matured ... [but] I think his confidence has grown."
While his current stats (6.5 points and 7.2 rebounds in 19.5 minutes per game) aren't anything to rave about, Williams has, as Tibbetts had hoped from Day 1, shown improvement. This month, he's shooting a career-high 60.5 percent from the floor while his point total has increased 60 percent since December.
But perhaps his greatest improvement doesn't appear in box scores. No longer playing among a high school crowd where a player's physical gifts alone can dominate, Williams has taken up a routine fit for a kid looking to get better. Regularly arriving an hour before practice and leaving an hour after, Williams runs through a battery of shooting drills, stop-and-pops and ball handling, an effort that has earned Williams more court time (23.3 minutes since Jan. 1) as the season progresses.
"I didn't come here saying I was going to do this and do that; I just came here thinking I was going to learn a lot of stuff," Williams said.
And in no area has Williams learned more, or separated himself from his more publicized potential draft classmates, than in the art of playing for pay.
"That's the big thing we've preached to him," Tibbetts said. "You made a big-boy decision, now let's approach it and try to be a professional every day."
For Williams, in addition to cashing an NBDL salary that averages between $35,000 and $40,000 a year, that has meant rooming with veteran teammates, consulting with 66ers GM Brandon Barnett about what groceries to buy and learning the intricacies of a playbook.
"The first week of training camp, every time we put in a new play or said something, it was like we were talking in a different language," Tibbetts said. "Every time we put in a play, he was huddled up or close to our assistant coach Dale Osbourne, and now he's starting to feel a lot more comfortable picking up things
"Next year, hopefully he'll be in an NBA training camp and he will know what a drag screen is or a zipper cut or a hawk cut, all the terminology that NBA teams use."
Williams admits the process hasn't been easy after coming from a high school system in Texas that used plays as practice drills more than game strategy. Of course, when you can average 23 points, 12 rebounds, two blocks, four assists and four steals in 30 minutes a game for a team with four other Division I scholarship athletes, who needs plays?
"In high school, sometimes guys are just so much more talented that they can take days off," Tibbetts said. "So, one of our biggest things is trying to get him to bring it every day. I think that is one thing that he has gotten better at. He doesn't have classes to go to, so we've tried to tell him he has two, two-and-a-half hours every day to get better."
It hasn't done much, though, to secure his draft position. With NBA 12th men regularly putting up monster numbers when called to the D-League, Williams' modest production has left scouts still guessing about his impact.
"What a team needs to decide is whether he is worth the risk because right now he is not close to being a sure thing," said NBA scout Ryan Blake, who predicted Williams could go anywhere from the middle of the second round to undrafted in June. "He has some versatility and athleticism, but he's still a raw individual who doesn't have a lot of game experience. And if people are going to invest in that, that's a tough decision.
"When you come around to a second-round guy, you want somebody who's ready. It doesn't matter how athletic you are, it still ends up being a team-concept game and you need to put the ball on the floor and make yourself an offensive threat or be a defensive stopper. And if there are other guys out there who are more ready, then teams are not going to take that risk on Williams."
• Tanking season. While everyone complains about the NBA rule that allowed Zydrunas Ilgauskas to re-sign with the Cavaliers, they should be whining about the lack of regulation for teams that tank.And with less than a month left in the season, tanking is again in vogue. In places such as Golden State, Washington, Philadelphia, Detroit, Los Angeles (the Clippers) and Sacramento, the urge will be strong to test out new lineups filled with second-rate rookies and D-Leaguers, all of whom offer the side benefit of helping improve the lottery odds.
• Deron Williams. Finally rewarded with his first All-Star Game appearance this season, the Utah point guard has illustrated he may be the best point guard outside New Orleans. Since Jan. 1, Williams has averaged 10.8 assists and led Utah to an 27-9 record. Equally impressive, Williams has played through an assortment of shoulder, back, wrist and ankle injuries that have left him looking like a mummy on the bench late in games.
• Stephon Marbury in China. The former NBA guard thrilled fans in China last weekend when he won MVP honors at the Chinese Basketball Association's All-Star Game. Exhibiting an array of no-look passes and alley-oops, Marbury brought fans to their feet and rewarded them with 30 points and a handful of half-court three-pointers. Our question: Why did we not get to see that on his Ustream channel?
• The Raptors. Laying a 26-point egg at home to Oklahoma City days after Chris Bosh bemoaned the Raps' lack of energy is no way to entice the free-agent-to-be. Neither is an 11-29 mark against teams above .500 this season.
• Courtney Lee's change of fortune. Two years ago, Lee received the star treatment of a senior guiding Western Kentucky into the Sweet 16 of the NCAA tournament. A year ago, Lee was in the starting lineup of a Magic team headed to the NBA Finals. This year? He's crossing his fingers not to be part of the worst team in league history. "The sense of urgency is higher than ever," Lee recently told the Bergen Record, as his Nets need two more victories to finish ahead of the 1972-73 Sixers (9-73).
• Josh Smith's range. After frustrating fans and coaches for years with his errant three-point shooting, the Hawks' forward has won praise this season for taking a mere seven shots from behind the arc. But according to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Smith, who's shooting a career-high 50.3 percent from the field, could be even more effective if he restricted his shots to the lane, where he is connecting on 63 percent. On jumpers, Smith is good for only 37 percent, a fact Smith reportedly is willing to ignore as long as teams keep leaving him open. Perhaps someone should point out to Smith that hitting less than 40 percent of his jumpers is why he is getting those open looks.
There has been a bright spot or two in the Nets' sinkhole of a season. A scout offers his view on one of them, center Brook Lopez ...
"You really are seeing a maturation process. He's learning where the double teams are coming from and he's shown himself to be a pretty good passer. He also has touch out to maybe 18 feet when he takes his time and doesn't force things. Most important, he's been more patient this season. He takes his time working the post and you can't block his shot. He's such a big, strong kid. I saw him in a game against Jermaine O'Neal and he makes Jermaine look like a little kid. And defensively he's learned to not try to block every shot and make a play on every possession, which could put him in foul trouble.
"When you look at great players, they play at a pace, an operational speed. They play as fast as they need to to get things done, but they don't play so fast that they're not productive. Watch Chauncey Billups. He plays at a fast rate, but he never gets out of control. That's what Lopez is learning to do."
• ''I don't flop; I samba.''-- Cavs forward/center Anderson Varejao on his reputation as a flopper.
• "He can be pissed at me or whatever, but you never leave your teammates out to dry like that, no matter what. Especially when you've lost 11 games in a row and you've got a chance to win a game. Uncalled for ... when a coach wants to teach you something and you think that you're above that because you've played 16 games, good games? I mean, I had Kevin Garnett. That guy, you'd say one thing, and he's up there, 'What do you want coach, what can I [do]?' He wanted to get better any time. He never copped that type of attitude. I mean, that's ridiculous, it really is. I am disappointed. I am the most disappointed I've ever been in 15 years in a player. The most disappointed."-- Wizards coach Flip Saunders on why he benched forward Andray Blatche.
• "Coach [Mike] D'Antoni, he relies on his veterans more than rookies. He feels like his rookies need to learn more their first year so they could get everything down pat. I understood. I just wanted to wait patiently until my time was coming. ... Fans [in New York], they know what I can do. I just didn't have the opportunity to show it."-- Rockets rookie Jordan Hill reflects on his limited playing time in New York.
• "Where does that come from? Seriously. It's something that cracks me up. I don't play rookies? I don't like to play bad rookies."-- D'Antoni responds to Hill.
• "Charlotte is a very, how would I call it, close-knit, arrogant, sometimes incestuous town. ... It's close-knit, and if you come to this town, and you look like you're one of those people that might break some glass ... it's going to be tough for them to relate to. ... The thing that concerns me is that I'm just surprised that the city doesn't do more for African-American small businesses. And I don't really understand that." -- Former Bobcats owner Bob Johnson, who sold the team to Michael Jordan.
• "For what I did for the franchise, I felt like I was mistreated, but I've moved on from that situation. ... I was kind of thrown under the bus a little bit with not having a franchise, an organization protecting me from everything that was said about me in the media. Nobody really came out and really told the truth, some of the things that were said."-- Tracy McGrady on his tenure with the Rockets.
• "I just work here."-- Mavericks center Brendan Haywood on not starting against the Clippers on Tuesday.
•Salt Lake Tribune: A fascinating series of posts on a Jazz road trip from the perspective of beat writer Ross Siler.
•HoopsHype: Former player Eddie Johnson decries all the affection current players show each other with some tales of old-school revenge.
•Pro Basketball Talk: Lakers coach Phil Jackson opines what sets Jerry Buss apart from other owners.
•Orlando Sentinel: According to GM Otis Smith, the Magic's most important player is ... Adonal Foyle?
•New York Post: Peter Vecsey takes aim at agent Warren LeGarie for the surprising firing of Blazers assistant GM Tom Penn last week.
•CBS Sports: In another sign that the upcoming labor talks appear destined to end in a work stoppage, union chief Billy Hunter believes the NBA's claim owners will lose $400 million this season is, to put it nicely, a lot of hooey.
1. Michael Jordan has all the makings of being a much better owner than GM. The attendance requirements and skill evaluation that doomed Jordan in many of his front-office moves are not essential to an ownership role. As the guy signing the checks, Jordan can do what Jordan does best: sell. Is there a better front man for any product than Jordan? What business will turn down the chance to partner with him? And so long as Jordan lets his basketball people do their basketball things -- religiously scout the country the way Jordan didn't, bunker themselves in the front office near the trade deadline and the draft the way he didn't -- MJ need only play the role of negotiator. And assuming he can blend the acumen that has made him one of the world's richest athletes with his desire to win, Jordan's move to the top of the corporate flow chart could be the best thing to happen to Charlotte since it re-entered the league.
2. As if the Nets needed another reason to be embarrassed, CEO Brett Yormark felt the need to get into a shouting match with a fan wearing a bag over his head during a loss to the Heat. Yormack should have been grateful someone actually spent money to watch his dismal team. But the day after arguing with the fan, Yormack defended his actions by saying he "will continue to stand up for our players, our fans and our organization." Oh, you mean like turning your back on those fans and fleeing to Brooklyn? Or not allowing a fan to express his frustration while still funding this bad joke of a season? From all reports, the bagged fan didn't start the confrontation -- that was Yormack's mistake, and for all the indignities the Nets have forced their fans to swallow this season, this incident may be the worst for all of its cluelessness.
3. It's no coincidence the best teams pay attention to even the smallest of details. Take the Nuggets, who use the locker name plates with which they travel as a tool to foster good chemistry. Banished for the most part are such pedestrian identities as Anthony and Billups and Martin, replaced by "Melo," "Big Shot" and "730." It doesn't end there, with "JR Swish" (J.R. Smith), "Rookie" (Ty Lawson), "Leek" (Malik Allen), "Birdman" (Chris Andersen) and "French 1" (Johan Petro) among the other locker room identities on display. Will it get the Nuggets past the Lakers or other contenders in the playoffs? Who knows, but we'll bet it helps make them a happier group.