Williams reflects on Illinois career



Utah Jazz and former Illini guard Deron Williams shoots as Houston Rockets forward Chuck Hayes, right, defends during the third quarter in Game 1 of their first-round series Saturday in Houston. Williams has improved his play over his three seasons, drawi David J. Phillip, The Associated Press

By Meghan Montemurro

It was arguably one of the greatest comebacks in Illinois history, maybe even NCAA tournament history. For most Illini fans, only the numbers 15 and 4 need to be mentioned when referring to the 90-89 overtime comeback win against the Arizona Wildcats in the 2005 Elite Eight.

Deron Williams’ performance in that game – 22 points, 10 assists – fully introduced him to the nation on one of the largest stages in NCAA basketball, cementing himself as an Illinois great. Illinois head coach Bruce Weber called Williams “the foundation of our team” and as a playmaker “has a great feel for the game” following the Elite Eight win.

The native of The Colony, Texas, tallied 18 of his 22 points in the second half and overtime and hit five three-pointers in the game to tie his career high. His double-double when donning the Orange and Blue was a blueprint for his now nightly average as a starter for the Utah Jazz. Now in his third season in the NBA, the starting point guard is averaging 18.8 points and 10.5 assists per game.

One of the leaders for an Illinois squad that finished the season with a 37-2 record, tying the then-NCAA wins record and good enough for a runner-up finish in the NCAA tournament, Williams chose to leave the University a year early to pursue a career in the NBA – a move that has undoubtedly paid off.

As the third pick of the 2005 NBA Draft, Williams came packaged with high expectations. However, the guard put up respectable numbers during his rookie campaign, posting averages of 10.8 points and 4.5 assists a night. He credits his former Illinois coaches for his development and preparation for the NBA, and answered The Daily Illini’s questions through a Jazz representative.

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“I improved so much while I was at Illinois from my freshman to my junior year,” Williams said in an interview via e-mail. “I have to thank Coach Self for that, as well as Coach Weber. Especially Coach Weber. He took my game to another level once he got there. I flourished in his offense. I just played in a lot of big games while I was there, and I think it helped me prepare for this, the biggest level there is.”

During the course of his three NBA seasons, Williams’ game and statistics have continued to improve, drawing comparisons to former Jazz great John Stockton, with his ability to run the point and pick and roll. Williams’ 212 assists in March were the most in a month since Stockton in 1992.

ESPN’s Jemele Hill has both covered and watched Williams develop from his time at Illinois to Utah, first as a reporter at The Detroit Free Press and now at ESPN.

“Deron has the potential to be the next Jason Kidd,” Hill said in an interview via e-mail. “He’s big, strong, and is a much better shooter than Kidd ever does. Now he doesn’t run the break like Kidd, but less than 1 percent of point guards can.”

At the 2008 All-Star game, Williams was able to showcase his overall skills, winning the NBA All-Star PlayStation Skills Challenge, topping Kidd, Dwyane Wade and Chris Paul, who was drafted right after Williams as the fourth pick in the 2005 by the now-New Orleans Hornets. Williams and Paul have continuously been compared since the draft.

“In head-to-head matchups this year, Deron has outplayed Chris Paul, but those two are as different as Steve Nash and Jason Kidd,” Hill said. “But to be honest, I think people expected a lot more out of Deron this season because of the way he played in the playoffs. His numbers were still terrific, of course, but the team success should have been better. Winning head-to-head matchups is one thing, but Paul had a dominant, MVP season. One of these days, that’s going to be Deron.”

For Williams, his time at Illinois prepared him for the grand stage of the NBA and playoffs with the Jazz in the hunt for the team’s first NBA title.

“It’s just a whole different level,” Williams said. “The NCAA tournament is definitely a blast, but the playoffs are the biggest stage in the world. It’s the NBA, you’re competing for an NBA championship that not many guys get to compete for.”

For the second year in a row, Utah is facing the Houston Rockets in the first round, providing Williams with another chance to battle against former Illini teammate Luther Head. While Head has not necessarily had the same individual success in the NBA as Williams, the Chicago native has started 17 games and averaged 7.6 points this season.

“Luther has got to get stronger, and prove that he’s more than just a spot-up shooter,” Hill said. “He’s got to show he can handle the ball consistently and live in the lane.”

While the Jazz are up 1-0 in the first round against the Rockets, and hope to go up another game Monday night, Williams’ thoughts aren’t too far away from an Illinois basketball program that helped build the foundation for his bright, up-and-coming NBA career.

“(Illinois) had a down year this year,” Williams said. “It’s definitely a rebuilding year, and a lot of teams do that after winning the national championships – they have down years. I think we are definitely headed in the right direction. I think we have some good recruiting classes coming in the next couple of years, and then we’ll be back on top.”

Even in the midst of an NBA starter’s hectic everyday schedule, Williams cannot help but check up on his former team. “I definitely watch, I definitely follow them. I try watching as many games as possible,” Williams said. “I think they’re heading in the right direction. I think they will definitely be a contender for the championship.”

Deron Williams’ career numbers

NBA Illinois

Points per game 15.3 11.0

Rebounds per game 2.9 3.3

Assists per game 8.1 5.9

Three-point percentage 37.4 37.4

Free-throw percentage 77.4 68.5