Saturday, October 6, 2012

Terrence Williams, It's Time to Get Started.

Terrence Williams, It's Time to Get Started.

Forgive me, dearest basketball media consumer, while I reference the pseudo-sport of ultimate frisbee.

I played intercollegiate ultimate frisbee (yes, such a thing exists) at a school that had multiple intercollegiate ultimate frisbee teams (yes, such schools exist).  One team was laden with athletic stalwarts and high profile frisbee recruits (yes, such recruits exist).  I did not play for that team.  Instead, I chose the counter-cultural ultimate frisbee option (yes, such options exist), where we donned hawaiian shirts, drank concoctions that skillfully mixed "girly" drinks with the dregs of a plastic handle of vodka, and came up with irreverent cheers that make me cringe when repeated out loud today.

But lest you think we were a bunch of fatties who couldn't run for seconds at the Old Country Buffet, let alone run around in the fastest growing once-beach-barbecue-activity-now-second-tier-sport this side of Kubb, I will have you know that we were, on the whole, a fit group of motherfuckers.  Those who were not fit at the beginning of the year certainly were by the end; a mixture of track, weight, and pylometric workouts.  And those were not naturally gifted athletes (watch me take a bow) had to work doubly hard to keep up with the stallions who made that shit look simple.

A veteran player told me at some point during my sophomore year that, "it's way easier to teach a tall, fast person how to throw the disc than it is to teach a short, fat thrower how to be tall and fast."  These were true words; the best players were physically gifted, and athletically inclined in such a way where throwing a 175 gram piece of plastic became a wholly surmountable feat. As such, most of my frisbee preparation focused on me becoming taller and faster; two things that I, a stout black Jew with a distinctive pigeon-toed waddle, struggled mightily to achieve.  I envied their bodies; chisled machines that could accomplish whatever, whenever and however in a variety of ways. If only I -- the byproduct of round Eastern European Jewish immigrants and round African-Americans -- were so lucky.

But then players like Terrence Williams -- T-Will for short -- made me feel like I was being too hard on the thoroughbreds.  In the imperfect picture that is T-Will, we are confronted with the outspoken athlete; a compelling, yet frustrating player.


It is possible that "athleticism", and all the terms that come with it -- "unbelievable upside", "freakish hops", "vertical off the charts", and all the likes -- subconsciously portray a typecasted player.
Athleticism isn't always used in a positive fashion.  Often times, players who are portrayed as "athletic" are implied to be missing something else, like "basketball I.Q.", "maturity" or "refinement".  More often than not, we end up shaking our heads and lamenting the misfortune of an athlete who couldn't get it all together.  Someone like Stromile Swift, or Darius Miles, or Amir Johnson, or Tyrus Thomas; a guy who routinely appears in highlights, but never seems to harness that ability for a greater good.  Their talents unrealized, and their development unachieved, they fade into lesser leagues, or become bar trivia answers.  Pour one out for the athlete, and all the sorrow they sow.

Yet, T-Will's athleticism looks different than Stro's or JR's, or even LeBron (the guy who he feels he plays the most like).  T-Will's athleticism is sleepy sharp; a quiet fury that surprises and soothes.  T-Will can do a bit of everything.  He's quick, can jump, and can guard both guard and forward positions.  He plays a bit like Chris Paul trapped in Evan Turner's body, bringing the ball up court, directing the offense, and taking the shot when he either deems things broken or not worth managing anymore.  
I first heard about T-Will from an unlikely individual: Katie McCandless, my former resident assistant from college. Katie had arrived in Northfield, Minnesota by way of Louisville, Kentucky.  Like every Louisvillian I've had the pleasure of knowing, she knew her college ball.  Like, really knew her college ball, and in that Louisville way: innocent, childlike, yet informed in a way that was sort of intimidating.  Made sense; the entire state of Kentucky is a college basketball hotspot.  There are two great colleges in the state, the University of Kentucky and the University of Louisville, that consistently produce professionals worthy of our attention and praise.
She advised me to check out T-Will.  And I really liked what I saw.  And I still do.

I don't watch a ton of college ball.  I didn't know this type of player existed in the college game; a triple-double threat each night with freakish hops and deep range.  Moreover, I didn't know this type of player stayed for four years in college.  T-Will looked to be one of those guys that made David Stern's age requirement rule look cruel and unforgiving for those of us who lusted after able young bodies, and their tantalizing abilities.  T-Will looked ready to ball.  I was excited about him -- hell, I was excited about everyone in that 2009 draft.  He presented a grabbag skillset; someone who seemingly was good at just about everything, and had the college resume and stage presence (he had played in a national championship game), and intangibles that were off the charts.  His draft position fluctuated, but he was never projected to fall below 11 or 12 in the first round.  True to form, he ended up going 11th to the New Jersey Nets.  Folks were excited, offering suggestions that lowballed him as a poor-man's Andre Iguodala, and highballed him at a poor-man's Scottie Pippen.

But even Scottie Pippen couldn't have done anything with the 2009-2010 New Jersey Nets.  What an unmitigated disaster.  That team started off 0-18 (the worst start by an NBA team ever), and finished 12-70.  The team was in the middle of being sold, the GM-turned-coach all but had a firing clock chained to his neck, and the losses were lopsided and demoralizing.  And in the middle of it was T-Will, lost in a locker room that featured a "who's who" dossier of B-list NBA retreads.  Trenton Hassell as "Veteran Presence".  Bobby Simmons as "Highest Paid Flop".  Devin Harris as "Good Player Who Hates His Team".  Kiki Vandeweghe as "Terrible GM-Demoted-to-Coach-pre-Firing".  
These teams are sad.  They are not places to thrive.  They are not places to learn.

By and large, T-Will did not thrive.  And T-Will certainly did not learn.  Coach Kiki Vandeweghe made T-Will the team's sixth man, and T-Will struggled.  Yes, the athleticism was still there, but nothing was coming together.  On the worst team in the league -- nay, one of the worst teams in NBA history -- T-Will was statistically one of the team's wost players.  He averaged 8 points, 4 boards and 3 assists off the bench, on only 40% shooting (30% from deep).   His efficiency numbers were inexcusable, even for a rookie.  He did not shoot the ball well, nor did he shoot it smartly (though to be fair, no one on his team really did, save Brook Lopez .  His 11.4 PER coupled with a negative win share of -0.03 tell a tale that's more sad than satisfying. 
The writing was on the wall for T-Will: talented but a knucklehead.  Pre-bust status.

Seasons two and three weren't great.  In 2010-2011, Avery Johnson brought T-Will's brand new doghouse with him, pre-built and ready for use.  T-Will had a hard time making meetings and practices on time, and the Li'l General didn't take kindly.  He sent him to the bench, then to the D-League, and finally to the Rockets in a trade to get a first-round draft pick.  Though there was initial excitement about his arrival in Houston, that quickly faded when he failed to crack then-coach Rick Adelman's rotation.  He remained a Rocket throughout the long locked-out offseason of 2011, but barely saw the court in 2012.  He also showed some of the same problems he had had in New Jersey: missed practices and team meetings, and an uneasy relationship with his coach.  The Rockets released him at the trade deadline to make room for newly-acquired Marcus Camby, but also "for [him] to get court time in a contract year."  Before long, he was signed by the Sacramento Kings; a veritable halfway house for NBA never-launched's to have one last chance at financial salvation.

T-Will played in 18 games in Sacto.  He got time during every game; no less than ten minutes in any given contest.  He was able to showcase his talents in Keith Smart's wide open offense, where the emphasis was on ball movement and making the extra pass.  T-Will put up solid numbers off the bench -- 8 points, 4 boards and 3 assists per game, at a slightly more respectable 43% shooting clip.  He had only one monster game (a 21 point effort against the Rockets, his old team), but delivered nine double-digit efforts, and a 16.5 per (above the league average).  He nearly averaged a steal, so one could argue there was defensive improvement.  Nevertheless, the numbers were strong for what Keith Smart used him as: a backup small forward.

But what we saw out of T-Will in Sacto, his performances on the stage, were the most compelling aspect about him.  With a slightly more talented cast (and perhaps the strange motivation that comes in a contract year), T-Will showed how valuable a positional revolutionary could be, and that wild athleticism can take many different forms.

There were two versions of T-Will in Sacto: the quality contributor and the pseudo-star.  More often than not, we saw the quality contributor.  The first version can be seen in the above video, which chronicles T-Will's efforts in a March 30th 104-103 victory for the Kings over the Jazz.  This version of T-Will did a little bit of everything: get rebounds, run the offense, find the open man, and hit a few shots.  This is the T-Will we see in the per-game stats, one that uses his court time to its fullest extent, and helps the team in nearly every way imaginable.  He looks far more the point guard than Jimmer Freddette (decidedly not a Diss player), and does an excellent job finding open shooters time and time again (though said shooters rarely hit the shot). However, his 3-7 night from the field (including 0-1 from deep) highlights his weaknesses.  One doesn't like the contested runners he hoisted up more often than not, and wishes he picked his spots a bit better.  But the numbers are good, and the win is achieved.  When you score 8 points, grab 6 boards, get 4 assists, in all of 22 minutes, that's a great investment.

It's the slightly better version of T-Will -- the one depicted in the above video -- that really makes our lips moisten, and palms to sweat.  In this video, which depicts a 109-100 loss for the Kings against the Suns, we see "quality contributor" T-Will post power-up mushroom consumption.  His penetration is more deliberate, his passes more forceful.  He drives to the rim with not-quite-reckless abandon; surveying the floor for viable offensive options, and relying on his shot only if it makes absolute sense.  That, there, becomes the difference -- T-Will looks for the open 18 foot jumper, and does a good job hitting it.  That floater is still there, but it's falling in this case, and looks like a viable weapon against smaller ones and twos who invariably match up against T-Will.  And we even see a bit of defense in the form of a block against Suns' center Marcin Gortat.

In these videos, T-Will looks like he's a good fit.  He doesn't look like a fish out of water, a boy playing a man's game, or any other silly sports euphemism.  No, he looks like a valuable cog in a machine; an offensive grab bag that coaches happily take trinkets from, employing their uses in a myriad of scenarios.  T-Will looks like a dynamic game changer, someone who can just as easily be brought off the bench as a backup point guard as he could as a starting two or three.  And people look like they like playing with him.  Coaches seem unafraid to play him.  It's almost as if he's a professional.  It's almost as if he's home.

Which is too bad, because home is fleeting.  The Kings, with committed money to Francisco Garcia and John Salmons, and having drafted Thomas Robinson, had no need for T-Will.

Once again, T-Will was looking for a place to fit in.

Fitting in is important.  Especially for the outspoken athlete.

One could point to Gerald Green -- a bonafide Diss player since 2011 -- as a modern prototype for how important fitting in is.  Green, originally the Celtics' 18th overall pick in 2005, is (pardon the phrase) a freakish athlete who has won multiple dunk contests, and has perhaps one of the greatest in-game dunks of all time. He just recently signed a one-year deal with the Indiana Pacers.  His most notable accolades are based upon his athletic gifts of hops and creativity around the rim.  This is how he has become something close to a household name.

But Green has had to shed many skins to get to this point in his career.  Like T-Will, he, too, has lived and died by his athleticism and potential.  Jonathan Abrams of Grantland detailed Green's own professional game of chutes and ladders, which has casted him alternatively as a young, potential franchise cornerstone to a waiver-wire player in the Euroleague, and required him to actually learn from mistakes, and take stock in unlikely life experiences.  His first two seasons on the Celtics were promising enough to convince Kevin McHale to take him in the KG trade.  But things didn't go well with Randy Wittman, and soon, much like T-Will, Green was looking for work while trying to shed both "locker room cancer" and "athlete" labels.  Much like T-Will, Green got short term NBA jobs, but never stuck around.  It took two seasons in Russia, a short-stint in China, success in the D-League, two-ten day contracts, and one unbelievable dunk to make sure Green stuck around.

And stick around he did.  And stick around he will.  While playing a ten-day with the Nets, a terrible team long out of playoff contention, Green did everything he was supposed to do with his athleticism, averaging 13 points and 3.5 boards.  He still flew high, swatting shots and dunking dunks, but he played within himself, and used D-Will to maximize his talents.

Shedding the "athlete" label didn't mean becoming unathletic.  Far from it.  Instead, Green found ways to contribute, having picked up some tricks in a multitude of stops, and having found perspective from life events that showed him how good NBA life could be.  It took age, experience, and some unexpected turns to bring Green to where he is today.  And he's in a good spot -- his contract with the Pacers is good for three years, and he has a chance to be a big contributor on a playoff team.  But it wasn't perfect from the start.  It doesn't always have to be for things to work out in the end.

Luckily for him, and for us, T-Will was given another chance to reinvent himsef, and harness his outspoken athleticism.

On September 20th, T-Will signed a minimum, non-guaranteed contract with the Detroit Pistons.  T-Will (alongside Jonny Flynn, another pariah from the 2009 draft) are the 16th and 17th players on a 15 man roster -- in other words, if the season started today, both of those guys would be looking for new jobs elsewhere.

But there are some positive signs.  T-Will is back with Lawrence Frank, the coach whom he spent sixteen awful games with, but also ran his first ever NBA training camp.  Frank has ideas to reinvent T-Will.  According to the Pistons' coach, T-Will has been "miscast" as a small forward, and he sees him as essentially a point guard.  And based on what we saw with the Kings (especially playing alongside that tree stump Jimmer Fredette), Frank may very well be right.

At the beginning of this longwinded missive, I argued that, in ultimate frisbee, it's far easier to teach athletes how to be smart and skilled than it is to teach smart people how to be athletic.  As a short fattie who could throw and see the field, I was always going to be at a disadvantage to the varsity athlete who couldn't throw, didn't know how to play, but had all the time in the world.  Their shortcomings were going to be rectified through practice and experience, and on the whole, easier to resolve.  Mine were only going to be addressed through exercise and conditioning, and even then, my genetic makeup would only allow for so much improvement.  This made things easier, on the whole, for the athletes.

The same thing exists in professional basketball, to an extent. It is far easier to tell an athletic knucklehead to grow up, make better decisions on the court, and acquire skills that will help their team win games than it is to tell a less-talented, more mature, more skilled player to become more athletic.  Jared Dudley, for all his civic strengths, and improvements on the court, will not become an All-Star.  He won't.  It's a cruel world where 6'7'' and a 30 inch vertical just isn't enough, but this is the world that he lives in.  Jared Dudley has reached his apex.

T-Will has not.  T-Will needs to grow up, make better decisions on the court, and acquire skills that will help his team win games.  If it happens with the Pistons as a point guard, wonderful.  If it happens in Europe or Asia -- like it did for Green -- that's good too.  But as we saw briefly in Sacramento, T-Will has all the tools to be a dynamic, game changing player.  He can make it happen.  He should make it happen.

Simply put: it's time to get started.

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