Out of Hand Sacramento's scintillating second-year point guard, Jason Williams, has been shooting poorly, passing wildly, alienating fans and struggling to come to terms with fame

March 20, 2000
March 20, 2000

Table of Contents
March 20, 2000

Pro Football [bonus Piece]

Out of Hand Sacramento's scintillating second-year point guard, Jason Williams, has been shooting poorly, passing wildly, alienating fans and struggling to come to terms with fame

The tricks have always been the easy part, and not just when
he's had a basketball in his hands. Give him any prop--a coin, a
deck of cards--and Jason Williams will delight and amaze you.
The passes off the elbow, the aces that rise to the top of the
deck, they're the same thing, really, all misdirection and
sleight of hand. People want to know how he does them, but
Williams, the Sacramento Kings' second-year point guard, never
gives more than a wink and a smile by way of explanation, and
somehow that satisfies those who ask. The tricks have always
been enough.

This is an article from the March 20, 2000 issue Original Layout

They have also been a shield. Dazzle the people with magic, and
they won't look too closely at the magician. That has allowed
Williams to pull off his greatest deception, seeming like the
life of the party on the court while being a recluse at heart.
But discerning members of the audience have begun to demand
more, and he hasn't delivered, at least not consistently. That's
why many observers are beginning to believe that the grandest
illusion of all has been the glorification of Williams himself.

After an electrifying debut last season, Williams, 24, has been
wildly erratic this year, regressing in almost every way. His
turnovers (2.9 per game last year, 3.8 this season through
Sunday) have soared while his shooting percentage (37.4 in
1998-99, 35.5 at week's end) has plunged. Defensively he's been
like an underachieving student: His coaches believe he could do
the work if only he'd apply himself. Although Williams remains
beloved at ARCO Arena, grumbling can be heard even among some
Kings fans when he misfires on a three-pointer before most of
his teammates have crossed half-court, or when he eschews a
simple bounce pass for a flamboyant flip that ends up in a
spectator's nachos.

The nightly highlight shows still adore him, and merchandise
bearing his number 55 still flies off shelves all over the
country, but basketball purists come away from Williams's
performances looking as if they've just sucked on a lemon. "He
is the most overrated player in basketball, because they made
such a big fuss over him last year," says former Phoenix Suns
coach Danny Ainge, now a Turner Sports analyst. "He was
exciting, and I admit I loved watching him play and do some of
that stuff, but he would drive me crazy as a coach."

The Kings' opponents are just as harsh. "In the two games we
played them, I don't think I saw him throw a regular pass--two
hands, or even one hand--right to another guy," says Atlanta
Hawks point guard Bimbo Coles. "He throws 'em behind the back,
no-look, doing a spin, anything he can dream up, but he won't
throw a simple pass. We beat them both times. What does that
tell you?"

One thing Williams will tell you is that the Kings are losing
far less often than they did before he arrived, although he's
quick to point out that he's just one of the contributors to
Sacramento's turnaround. The Kings' record, 36-26 through
Sunday, is heady stuff given their woeful history. "People used
to see Sacramento as an automatic win, and they don't anymore,"
Williams says. "Everyone can criticize me if they want to, but
as long as I'm contributing to our team winning, and as long as
my teammates and my coaching staff don't have any major problems
with the way I play, I don't care what anyone else says about
me, because I know I must be doing something right."

In a league that has bored a significant number of fans out of
their seats in the past few years, a player with Williams's
wizardry should be cultivated more than criticized. But if
anything, the Kings have been too nurturing, gently trying to
tone down his game without stifling his remarkable vision and
flair. Even though his shooting percentage is among the worst
the league has seen in decades (chart, p. 80), Williams feels
free to fire away. He had made only 27.3% of his three-pointers
at week's end, yet he had shot more of them than anyone in the
league except the Seattle SuperSonics' Gary Payton (35.4%),
which suggests that Williams would benefit from a tighter rein.

Sacramento coach Rick Adelman acknowledges that Williams would
be better off concentrating on shooting inside the arc, but
Adelman insists that he's not dissatisfied with his point
guard's overall performance. "I think his progress has been
fine," Adelman says. "He's still in the top 10 in assists in the
league [Williams was ninth with 7.9 dishes per game through
Sunday], he's still pushing the ball up the floor and helping us
get easy baskets. He's had a couple of games where he's
floundered, but he's just going through what every young player
goes through."

If the Kings defended against opponents as staunchly as they
defend Williams, they wouldn't be 26th in the league in points
allowed. "There are times when he needs to slow down a little,
but he energizes our offense," says forward Chris Webber. "He
still is one of the best in the league at seeing the floor and
getting the ball to open guys. Other players might rip him, but
all those guys would love to play with him." Even Sacramento
assistant Pete Carril, whose Princeton teams were famous for
their sound fundamentals, believes Williams's game needs only
minor adjustments. "This guy is special, and if you take away
his flair, you make him ordinary," Carril says. "I get a little
pain in my chest at some of the things he does, but he's got a
very patient head coach, which is exactly what he needs. He
doesn't need somebody like me, who would be yelling at him all
the time."

Still, there's no escaping the fact that Williams's game, which
pushed the boundaries of acceptable showmanship last season, has
often gone over the edge this year. In New York last month, the
Kings were trailing the Knicks by 12 points near halftime when
he passed up a breakaway layup to toss the ball off the
backboard for Webber, who missed the dunk. "You have to question
if Williams is ever going to be a winner," says one Western
Conference scout. "It just looks like he cares a lot more about
making the unbelievable pass than he does about making a play to
help his team win."

That's the criticism Williams disputes most vigorously. "I don't
feel like I have to do something fancy just because there are
people in the stands," he says. "I would play the same way if we
were playing in an empty gym. All I'm doing is playing to win. I
just go about it a little differently than some of the other
guys in the league." He admits, however, that his way is not
always the best way. "I don't know why I do some of the things I
do," he says. "I'm just out there letting it go. Lots of times
I'll make a play that doesn't turn out right, and I'll think,
Why did I do that? Coaches have tried to stress to me that as
long as we score, that's all that matters, whether the assist is
behind the back or regular. All I can say is I'm trying to get
better about it."

In many ways Williams's toughest opponent has been his fame. He
is a crowd pleaser who has never been pleased by crowds; at
times he has been surly with people outside the Kings'
tight-knit family. Television cameras have caught him matching
his hecklers obscenity for obscenity, and he's been prickly with
the media. "I admit that I've been rude at times," he says.
"Most of the time I don't mind when people come up to me, but
when I'm eating, it kind of disgusts me. My favorite is when
people say, 'I don't mean to bother you but....' That's when
I'll say, 'Well, then don't.' That gets them looking at me like
I'm a bad guy."

No one would have that impression of Williams if he were always
as relaxed as he was after a practice last week, smiling as he
described his favorite card tricks, candidly discussing his
rocky season. After learning last month that he had 11 technical
fouls, he says, he promised his teammates that he wouldn't pick
up another one this season, and in the 18 games since then he
hasn't. He also contends that there are reasonable explanations
for some incidents that have damaged his reputation, like his
hostile All-Star weekend session with the media, for which he
arrived 20 minutes late. "I know people don't want to hear
excuses, but the limo driver got us lost," Williams says. "Then
I got kind of ticked off because they were asking me about
smoking weed. [Williams was kicked off the team at Florida after
testing positive twice for marijuana.] So I didn't have too much
to say after that. When I'm in a crowd of reporters, they try to
get at me sometimes. I have to get better at handling that."

Yet there are other areas in which he doesn't seem interested in
changing. Members of the Kings' front office and coaching staff
have talked to him about improving his interactions with fans,
to no avail. "They put their two cents in so they can feel like
they're doing their jobs," Williams says of team officials. "I
listen to them, but whether I act on it, that's another

There are times when Williams simply sounds like a young man
from a small town (Belle, W.Va.) who is overwhelmed by his
sudden popularity. He is not like other young players who have
been thrust into the spotlight. He isn't from a high-profile
college program like Vince Carter or Grant Hill, and he doesn't
possess the natural charisma of Kobe Bryant or Kevin Garnett.
"Ninety-eight percent of the time I wish that once I took off my
uniform, no one knew who I was," he says. "Being well-known is
something I never asked for, and I'm not that comfortable with

In some ways, Williams arrived at precisely the right time for
the NBA and exactly the wrong time for his own good. As the
league reeled from the retirement of Michael Jordan and tried to
overcome the fans' disenchantment after the lockout, Williams
provided some badly needed fun, whipping passes behind his back,
between his legs, over his shoulder. The NBA chose the Kings to
open this season in Japan largely because of Williams's appeal.
NBC, TNT and TBS suddenly found Sacramento on the map, making
sure the Kings appeared the maximum number of times this year.

This excessive promotion has done Williams no favors. Indeed,
opponents who think he has gotten too much too soon come out
every night determined to punish him for it. "I get everybody's
best shot," Williams says. "But that's fine. Bring it on." Left
unspoken by many players is the belief that Williams was
originally embraced because he is white. "I like his showmanship
and the way he is not afraid to make the fancy pass," says
Denver Nuggets point guard Nick Van Exel. "But if I was to come
into the league and do the same type of things, or if [Allen]
Iverson or Stephon Marbury did, we would get looked at in a
negative way."

That's an issue Williams can do nothing about. He's better off
concerning himself with things he can control, such as his
passes, his shot selection and his manners. The bad habits won't
disappear quickly, and neither will he, no matter how much he
sometimes wishes he could. He dreams of moving out of his rented
home and building a house in Sacramento filled with secret doors
and fake walls. "I want some stuff so I can slip away and no one
will know where I've gone," he says.

But that would be just another trick, and Jason Williams is
beginning to realize that tricks just aren't enough.

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY BOB ROSATO ALL SCREWED UP Williams can make passes few players could even dream of. Problem is, they too often result in turnovers.COLOR PHOTO: JOHN W. MCDONOUGHCOLOR PHOTO: JOHN W. MCDONOUGH WRAP SESSION Williams rarely makes a simple move when a stylish one is possible.

Kings of Clank

Through Sunday, Jason Williams's 35.5% shooting from the floor
was the poorest among NBA starters. In fact, you have to go back
39 years, to the Lakers' Rod Hundley (35.1%), to find a worse
shooter among players who logged more than 2,000 minutes. Add in
Nick Anderson, who was hitting just 40.1%, and the Kings also
have the league's most inaccurate starting backcourt. Since the
NBA-ABA merger in 1976, these are the only starting guard
tandems in which both shot under 41% for a season. --David Sabino


1999-00 KINGS Jason Williams (35.5%) Nick Anderson (40.1%)
1999-00 BULLS Randy Brown (37.5%) Ron Artest (39.8%)
1998-99 HAWKS Mookie Blaylock (37.9%) Steve Smith (40.2%)
1996-97 GRIZZLIES Greg Anthony (39.3%) Anthony Peeler (39.8%)
1998-99 NUGGETS Nick Van Exel (39.8%) Chauncey Billups (38.6%)
1998-99 HEAT Tim Hardaway (40.0%) Dan Majerle (39.6%)
1998-99 RAPTORS Alvin Williams (40.1%) Doug Christie (38.8%)

"I'm just out there letting it go," Williams says. "Lots of
times I'll make a play that doesn't turn out right and I'll
think, Why did I do that?"