From This Point Forward

March 16, 2009
March 16, 2009

Table of Contents
March 16, 2009

SI Bonus Section: Golf Plus
  • Why isn't the best player on the team with the best record in the best conference better known? Maybe it's because Louisville's Terrence Williams plays the most underappreciated position in the game

  • For years Nate Robinson was seen as little more than the Knicks' 5'9" slam-dunk novelty act. But after his recent string of 30-point games, height is no longer his defining measure

Mykal Riley

From This Point Forward

Why isn't the best player on the team with the best record in the best conference better known? Maybe it's because Louisville's Terrence Williams plays the most underappreciated position in the game

FOURTEENLOUISVILLE CARDINALS, all in a row, stand as the national anthem plays.Thirteen are minding the words of Francis Scott Key, or at least pretending to.Terrence Williams is reciting the words of Terrence Williams. The monologue heruns through before every game begins with the same line: "We are heretoday for another beauty of work." Beauty, rather than body of work,because T-Will, as he's called down Derby way, wants to find beauty in the wayhe plays basketball. He is a 6'6", 220-pound senior who rebounds at such arate (8.5 per game through Sunday) that some schools might have pigeonholed himas a post player; he slashes and scores well enough (12.8 points per game) thatothers might have made him a wing. But for fifth-ranked Louisville, Williamsfills the rarest role in college hoops—that of point forward, which means heorchestrates the offense from the small-forward position, leading his team inassists at 5.1 per game, with a 2.2-to-1 assist-to-turnover ratio.

This is an article from the March 16, 2009 issue

There is beauty inwhat Williams has done this season, leading the Cards (25--5, 16--2) to the BigEast regular-season title with grace and ebullience. Louisville coach RickPitino knows that the two logical candidates to run the offense, 5'10"senior Andre McGee and 6'1" junior Edgar Sosa, "would rather score thanassist, whereas T-Will would rather assist than score," and that Williams'scourt vision is second to none on Louisville's roster. At his height he can seeover perimeter defenders; he can rebound and start fast breaks without thedelay of an outlet pass; he can take ball-handling pressure off the guards orsimply slide over from the wing and initiate offensive sets.

A handful of othercollege forwards can do this—most notably, Tennessee's Tyler Smith and LSU'sGarrett Temple—but none do it as well as T-Will. It is the role that fits himand fulfills him because, he says, "the feeling I get when I make a passfor an assist is like the one you'd get if you had a baby brother and everytime he tried to walk, he fell down, until one time, he finally walked and youwere there to see it. That's the kind of happiness I get from seeing other guysscore."

The last line ofWilliams's pregame monologue is a request for all his dead relatives—hisfather, Edgar; his grandparents Mary Jackson and Bobby Perkins; and twocousins—to "watch over me as I have fun." Their names are tattooed onhis left arm and concealed by a compression sleeve that he says he wears tokeep connected to them, spiritually. Williams may well be the only player towear a sleeve solely for that reason, but he has always been sartoriallyidiosyncratic. He often wears custom-made photo T-shirts as tributes toteammates and coaches (his Pitino shirt has a shot of his coach playing pointguard at UMass in the early '70s), and he sometimes shows up for practicewearing two different-colored shoes. At Seattle's Rainier Beach High he wouldwear socks emblazoned with childhood icons (from Barney to Big Bird toSpongeBob) during games and carry his books in a Barbie backpack, just to bedifferent. He wore a rotation of Mitchell & Ness throwback basketballjerseys that were in vogue then, but he would add his own curious touch byprinting a picture of the player from the Internet and Scotch-taping it overthe number on the front.

One of Williams'sfavorite throwbacks was a Magic Johnson model, honoring the oversized Lakerspoint guard who was the inspiration for Williams's passing passion. "Myuncles used to show me old tapes of Magic," Williams says, "and I'd seethe passes he'd make and think, 'That looks tight.'"

The true forebearof the point forward position, though, was far less famous than Magic. Mitchell& Ness never created a throwback for him, and Williams never saw him play.But he was cutting down the nets in the NBA the year before Magic even joinedthe Lakers, helping bring the one and only major league title to T-Will'shometown.

JOHN JOHNSON isseated on a ledge across from the home team locker room at Stanford's MaplesPavilion, resting his beaten-up knees—a badge of honor from playing 942 gamesover a 12-year NBA career. He is scanning a box score from the Cardinal'sjust-finished 85--50 rout of Cal State--Bakersfield, finding the number ofassists (20) against turnovers (seven) to his liking. "They moved the ballwell," the 61-year-old Johnson says to first-year Stanford coach JohnnyDawkins, who nods and says, "When we don't, we get stagnant on offense, andteams just lock down on us."

Johnson is waitingto talk to his son, Mitch, a 6'1" senior point guard, who had four assistsand didn't turn the ball over in 21 minutes. During his junior year at O'DeaHigh, Mitch was named the MVP of the Class 3A state tournament after scoring 27points in a double-overtime win over rival Rainier Beach and its star,Williams, in the title game.

John Johnson'srole as a point forward began as an experiment in December 1977, after theSonics lost 17 of their first 22 games and coach Bob Hopkins was fired. LennyWilkens, who had been the club's director of player personnel, took over ascoach believing that Seattle had all the right pieces but was playing them inthe wrong places. In the first week of the season he had sent two second-roundpicks to the Houston Rockets to acquire the 6'7", 200-pound Johnson, whomWilkens, a Hall of Fame point guard, had played alongside in Portland two yearsearlier. Before Wilkens's second game as coach—a road date in Boston—heoverhauled the lineup, benching every starter but center Marvin Webster. RookieJack Sikma, the team's No. 1 draft pick, was inserted at power forward; twoyoung scorers, Gus Williams and Dennis Johnson, took over the guard spots; andJohn Johnson started at small forward, with instructions to help distribute theball on offense. "I knew JJ had a great understanding of the game,"Wilkens says, "and so, after he'd rebound, I'd tell our guards, Just takeoff, and he'll find you."

The Sonics beatthe Celtics that night and won 42 of their final 60 games, reaching the NBAFinals before losing in seven to the Washington Bullets. Johnson averaged 2.7assists that season; it wasn't until the following year that he truly became apoint forward, leading Seattle in assists at 4.4 per game, while Williams andDennis Johnson upped their scoring. They finished 52--30 and, in a rematch withthe Bullets, won the finals in five games.

Recognition of JJfor pioneering the point forward position would have to wait, though. Sevenyears after Wilkens's experiment, The New York Times credited another coachwith the innovation, saying that Paul Pressey, a 6'5" jack-of-all-trades,was "playing a newly created position that Don Nelson, the Milwaukee Bucks'coach, has termed a 'point forward.'" The Bucks were off to a surprising22--11 start, on their way to winning the Central Division and Pressey wouldlead them in assists at 6.8 per game. Nelson told the Times, "We did it toget the maximum out of Press's skills. It allows us to release our guards, whoare not real quick, earlier, and alleviates some of the pressure on them andgives me a chance to play two nonballhandling guards, like Kevin Grevey andSidney Moncrief, together."

(The etymology ofpoint forward remains a question. Former Bucks star Marques Johnson says thathe came up with the name when he played a similar role to Pressey's for Nelsona few seasons earlier. "Nellie was going through every play with us inpractice, and I said to him, 'So instead of a point guard, I'm a pointforward,'" says Marques, who's now a color analyst for Fox Sports Net."And Nellie said, 'I like that. You're my point forward.'")

John Johnson,though, is adamant that Wilkens not only invented the position but also calledit a point forward. "Lenny coined that phrase," John insists.

There is nodebate, at least, that Nelson is the coach most associated with using pointforwards; they've been staples of his teams in Milwaukee, Dallas and GoldenState, where he now deploys 6'8" Stephen Jackson in the role. Nellie has afew rules for a point forward: He has to be a leader, has to rebound well, hasto defend, has to have an assist-to-turnover ratio of at least 2 to 1 and hasto be 6'5" or taller. Nelson wasn't familiar with Terrence Williams's gamewhen asked, but his interest was piqued. "I'll remember Louisville,"Nellie says. "How tall is he?"

NBA SCOUTS havehad four years to catch on to T-Will, whose stock has only improved with age.He has jumped from a probable second-round pick at the season's outset to alikely first-rounder now. But Williams feels that his low point totals on abalanced team—forward Earl Clark scores 13.6 points per game to lead theCardinals, followed by Williams and forward Samardo Samuels (11.8)—keep himfrom getting his full due.

What else explainswhy the best player on the team with the best record in the nation's bestconference isn't expected to be a first-team All-America? "Every day I hearsomeone on TV say, 'It's not about points.' But then, when they're talkingabout the premier players, it is about points," Williams says. "If Imade a stat sheet and took off everyone's names—to take out the hype[factor]—and just looked at assists, assist-to-turnover ratio, rebounds perminute, steals, blocks and how many points you created for others, then guyswho you thought were premier players would be somewhere in the middle of thepack."

During SeniorNight at Freedom Hall on March 4, Williams gave a demonstration of what he'stalking about with 14 points, 12 rebounds and eight assists in a 95--78 winover Seton Hall. "When we look at film on the day after a game," Pitinosays, "he wants me to say, 'T-Will did a great job of making his teammatesbetter.' He wants that kind of approval badly. I think that came from him notgetting it all of the time growing up."

Williams's fatherwas murdered when he was six; Terrence alternated between living with hismother, Sherry Jackson, and with the family of friend Marcus Williams (norelation), who starred at Arizona and now plays in the NBDL. Terrence had areputation in Seattle for obnoxious antics: He and a few friends at RainierBeach were called the Mean Guys—there was a rival group of girls called theMean Girls, after the movie of the same name—and, he says, "we'd do stufflike come up to you in the cafeteria, knock your sandwich out of your hand andsay, 'You've gotta come strong to your mouth!'"

But Williams hascome to know better in four years at Louisville, heeding Pitino's advice toimagine that he's always doing commercials on himself in public. Williams is nolonger a Mean Guy but rather a bounding mass of infectiously positive energy,intent on beautifying the college basketball landscape and making the most ofhis final NCAA tournament. During the Senior Night festivities Louisvillefeatured him in an actual commercial—a spoof of Guitar Hero's Risky Businessad—that aired on its scoreboard as a pregame tribute. The Band of Cardinalscovered Old Time Rock & Roll, with Clark on bass, senior guard Will Scotton drums and McGee on guitar. T-Will was in the only role he knows: up front,on the mike, running the show.

Nellie's POINT FORWARD rules: He must be a leader,rebound, defend, have an assist-to-turnover ratio better than 2-to-1 and be atleast 6'5".



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PHOTOPhotograph by Fred VuichON THE BALL Williams (1) has an intuitive feel for the game at both ends of the floor, leading the Cardinals in assists and steals.PHOTORICHARD MACKSON PROGENITORS John Johnson (far left) defined the point forward position inSeattle, and Nelson (center) later used it with Paul Pressey inMilwaukee.TWO PHOTOSHEINZ KLUETMEIER[See caption above]PHOTOFRED VUICHLISTEN UP Freshman Terrence Jennings (23) gets a word of advice from Williams, who relishes his role as an orchestrator.