Pass Master In Jason Williams, the surprising Sacramento Kings have landed a rookie playmaker whose legerdemain is fast becoming legend

February 22, 1999

Here he comes, shaking, baking and shoulder-faking his way
through the league, leaving defenders knock-kneed with moves so
original that his coach isn't sure they're all legal. He has
more baggage than his boyish face would indicate, but he finally
feels at home now, as if the NBA is where he was meant to be all
along. He is instant fun, end-to-end excitement, a one-man
reason to spring for that satellite dish you've been thinking
about. Already the buzz about him around the league is becoming
a roar: Rookie point guard Jason Williams of the Sacramento
Kings is a star in the making.

Granted, it is absurdly early in the season to make sweeping
judgments about a first-year player, but Williams's quickness,
his court vision and his flair command attention. "He's a stud,"
says Charles Barkley. "He has that charisma about him." Star
power is something the 6'1", 190-pound Williams should
understand. He's a friend and former high school teammate of
Minnesota Vikings receiver Randy Moss; he grew up in Belle,
W.Va., not far from Chelyan, the hometown of Los Angeles Lakers
great Jerry West; his loose-limbed, almost effortless
flamboyance recalls Pete Maravich; and his twang, if you listen
closely, has a trace of Elvis in it.

With a dragon tattooed on his right arm and a panther on his
left--not to mention an eyeball on his chest--Williams's message
to opponents is clear: If there is any intimidating to be done,
he will do it. He has an unshakable confidence in his all-around
game, which includes the ability to hit jumpers from
I-can't-believe-he-shot-that range. But it is his prescience as
a playmaker that has drawn raves. "Jason's one of those rare
guys who sees the entire court," says Kings coach Rick Adelman.
"He sees what's there and what's about to be there, like John
Stockton or Magic or Jason Kidd. He's a very special, very
creative talent."

Williams isn't the only rookie turning heads. Toronto swingman
Vince Carter has been every bit as explosive as the Raptors had
hoped; Boston Celtics forward Paul Pierce has performed at a
level higher than expected of the No. 10 pick; Vancouver
Grizzlies point guard Mike Bibby ranks among the league's assist
leaders; and 6'11" Raef LaFrentz of the Denver Nuggets has
already dropped a couple of double-doubles. With the preseason
pared to two weeks because of the lockout, rookies have had to
figure out the NBA game on the run; none has been a quicker
study than Williams. The seventh choice in the draft was
averaging 18.0 points and 4.0 assists through Sunday's games for
the suddenly intriguing Kings (2-2), who have also been buoyed
by the arrival of forward Chris Webber (23.5 points, 16.5
rebounds and 4.3 blocks a game).

The emergence of Williams comes as no surprise to West, the
Lakers' executive vice president, who tried to trade up to draft
him. "I watch him play and I think, My goodness, why did so many
teams pass him up?" West says. The answer is that Williams twice
tested positive for marijuana last season at Florida. That
scared off some teams. Like his buddy Moss, who lasted until the
21st pick of the '98 NFL draft because of off-the-field
problems, Williams is making teams regret their misgivings. He
had 21 points, five steals and three assists in his debut, at
San Antonio, after which Spurs point guard Avery Johnson said,
"That rookie almost put me into retirement."

Williams may cause a few stereotypes to be retired before he's
finished. Ever since he began playing seriously in junior high
school in Belle (pop. 1,421) he has been underestimated, largely
because of his complexion. "People look at me and see this
little skinny white guy," he says. "I can tell they don't expect
me to be able to play." They certainly don't expect him to play
with such, well, soul. Watching Williams handle the ball is like
hearing Pat Boone sing with James Brown's voice. That's why the
nicknames like White Chocolate and the White Shadow have popped
up. They aren't the ones Williams would pick for himself, but
they don't bother him. "At least I know someone's paying
attention to me," he says.

Players and coaches aren't just paying attention, they're
already trading stories about Williams's legerdemain. "There was
this one move he made in Vancouver," says Adelman. "I really
have to go back and look at it on tape. He jumped in the air and
kind of kept his dribble in midair, kind of suspended it up
there. Everybody's looking and thinking, What is that? Can you
do that? Then he lands and hits the jumper. I told him I'd never
seen that move before. He said, 'I haven't either.'"

Williams has several other moves that he has only shown to his
teammates, and you get the feeling that they haven't even gotten
past the appetizers on his menu. NBA opponents haven't seen, for
instance, the one in which Williams comes down the middle on the
fast break with a teammate on either wing. He flips the ball
behind him with his left hand as if to make a behind-the-back
pass to the right side, then hits the ball with his right elbow
to send the pass back to the teammate on the left. "I've done it
in pickup games, but I haven't had the guts to do it in a real
game yet because it's the kind of thing that will make a coach
pull you in a hurry if it doesn't work," Williams, 23, says. "I
will do it eventually though. I promise you that."

Believe him. There's not much Williams can't do with the ball,
which, like a faithful pet, always finds its way back to him on
the dribble. He has a heartbeat-quick crossover, and he can wrap
the ball around his body at warp speed before he decides where
to pass it. That's the result of countless hours spent in the
gym at Dupont High, just Williams and a basketball, getting to
know each other better. "I had a key, and I would go there for
two or three hours most every night and never even take a shot,"
he says. "I would just throw the ball against the wall every
which way, over and over again."

Sometimes Williams would put on leather gloves and wrap weights
around his wrists to make it harder to handle the ball. He would
draw a two-by-two-foot square on the wall and throw 10
behind-the-back passes with his right hand, then 10 with his
left to see which hand could deliver more inside the square.
Then he would whip 20 more passes, and 20 more and 20 more.
"Passing has always been my favorite part of the game," says
Williams. "I'd rather have 15 assists than 50 points any day."

He doesn't say that just because it seems like the right thing
for a point guard to say. That's hardly his style. "He's got a
blunt honesty about him that's refreshing," says Kings vice
president of basketball operations Geoff Petrie. Although there
is a great deal of deception in Williams's game, there is none
in his personality. He has a clear picture of his strengths and
his flaws. "I'll give it to you like it is," he says.

He will tell you, for instance, that he was caught with
marijuana in his system the second time last season because he
didn't think he would be retested after his first positive
result. He's so candid that when he says he has learned his
lesson, it's hard not to take him at his word. Petrie, who is in
the last year of a five-year contract, gambled his job that a
chastened Williams wouldn't betray his talent. "We went through
his history and came away feeling he was worth the risk," Petrie
says. "He seemed like someone who had made a bad mistake rather
than a bad person."

While the drug tests were the most difficult part of Williams's
rocky road to the NBA, his resume should begin with a warning:
Kids, don't try this at home. "If it hadn't been for basketball,
I never would have gone to school," he says. "I did just enough
to get by, just enough to stay eligible. If I needed to be above
2.0 to play, I was right there with a 2.01." In an effort to
improve Jason's grades and discipline, his father, Terry, who
had raised him since he and Jason's mother divorced eight years
ago, sent him to Fork Union (Va.) Military Academy following his
senior year at Dupont. Jason called his dad after the first day
and asked to come home. A week later, Terry picked him up.

Jason signed with Providence, then was released from his
commitment when coach Rick Barnes left the school for Clemson.
He enrolled at Marshall, where he played for a season under
coach Billy Donovan, then transferred to stay with Donovan when
he took over at Florida. But Williams had to sit out a season,
which meant he had lots of classes and very little basketball,
and that's as close to hell as he ever hopes to get. He left
school and went back home to Belle. "I was really worried about
him at that point," says Terry, a state trooper who retired
after 27 years and moved to Sacramento after Jason was drafted.
"I asked him what he was going to do, and he said he was going
to play in the pros. I said, 'Jason, nobody knows who you are
outside of West Virginia. How do you think you're going to get
to the pros?' We have a 7-Eleven in town where some of the young
men who don't have any better way to spend their time get
together. I told him he was going to make the All 7-Eleven
team." After prodding from his father and his older brother,
Shawn, Jason agreed to go back to Florida, and Donovan agreed to
take him back. "If it wasn't for my father, my brother and Coach
Donovan, I wouldn't be where I am today," he says.

As a junior Williams averaged 17.1 points and 6.7 assists for
the Gators in the 20 games before his second failed drug test
got him booted off the team. His play was enough to get the
attention of scouts, but Williams knows how close he came to
losing his chance to reach the NBA. "This is what I've always
wanted," he says, meaning the freedom to concentrate on the only
thing he's passionate about. He plans to treat the opportunity
with the same care he has shown every basketball he has ever
touched. Don't expect him to throw it away.

COLOR PHOTO: GLENN JAMES/NBA PHOTOS COURT MARSHALL The unheralded Williams, taken with the seventh pick, handles the ball with a flair reminiscent of Maravich and Magic. COLOR PHOTO: BART NAGEL LIGHTING IT UP Williams's bright prospects overwhelm a shadowy past.

"I did just enough to stay eligible," Williams says. "If I
needed to have a 2.0 to play, I was right there with a 2.01."