The independent student newspaper at the University of Illinois since 1871

The Daily Illini

The independent student newspaper at the University of Illinois since 1871

The Daily Illini

The independent student newspaper at the University of Illinois since 1871

The Daily Illini

    Illini of the Decade: #5 Deron Williams

    Walk into a typical freshman athlete’s dorm, and you’ll most likely see clothes strewn about, empty Gatorade bottles on the floor and shoes laying everywhere. But if you walked into Deron Williams’ apartment during his college days, picked up a magazine and put it down in the wrong place, he would be looming behind you, just waiting to put it back in its correct spot.

    Editor’s note: Continuing today and two to three times a week into March, The Daily Illini sports staff presents one of its biggest and most ambitious projects ever-an opinionated look at the Top 20 Illini Athletes of the decade, from 2000-2009. Enjoy reading, talking and arguing about what made the top Illini athletes of the past 10 years so great.

    Before basketball games, Williams’ shoes have to be tied the right way, his socks have to be on correctly and his jersey has to be tucked in the way he likes it.

    And when he was on the court as an Illini from 2002-05, that perfectionist mentality, along with an endlessly competitive spirit, kept him striving to become the best at everything he did.

    “He always got better,” Illinois assistant basketball coach Jerrance Howard said. “He made a commitment to himself and to the team that he wasn’t going to settle for average. He has a drive. And I’m not patting myself on the back when I say this, but I hate to lose. I’m one of the most competitive guys you’ll ever meet. But I’ve never met a guy that’s more competitive than Deron.”

      Sign up for our newsletter!

      Howard was Williams’ teammate during his own playing days and also an eventual roommate after Williams struggled with homesickness his freshman year, as he’s a native of The Colony, Texas, where he had a young daughter.

      The first day Howard saw Williams step onto the court at Ubben Basketball Complex to play 2-on-2 with himself, Luther Head and Dee Brown, he knew Williams was going to be something special.

      Howard couldn’t believe how Williams competed at such a high level right out of the gate in a pickup game before offseason workouts had even started.

      Current associate head coach Wayne McClain recalled the feeling he got when he saw Williams on campus.

      “You felt like you got a steal,” McClain said. “He was so cerebral. Just a guy that was very intelligent basketball-wise. He could do a lot of things. I don’t think that was a big secret for us. We had a lot of other guys that had a higher bang in terms of notoriety, but when he got here in the gym, he was the one that was actually making the plays.”

      Williams was known for being a coach on the floor, and McClain said it wasn’t rare for Williams to speak his mind in huddles during timeouts. This input would directly influence how the coaching staff made decisions about the game. The trust coaches put in him stemmed from the mutual respect between Williams and the staff.

      One example of this trust occurred in Williams’ junior year, when McClain was in charge of giving out the defensive assignments.

      “When we played Louisville in the semifinal game (of the NCAA Tournament), I was going to put someone else on (Francisco) Garcia, who was the best player in the country, and Deron personally came to me and said he wanted to guard him,” McClain said of a 72-57 win in which Garcia scored just four points. “And the rest is history. That’s why we beat them. He not only did it on the offensive end, but also the defensive end, which is a throwback. Guys that are great like that don’t want to guard. Deron was a complete player.”

      The completeness of Williams’ game garnered him plenty of accolades, starting his freshman year when he was named to the All-Freshman Team. They continued his sophomore and junior years, when he was a First Team All-Big Ten selection. Maybe most impressively, he was the first player in Big Ten history to lead the conference in assists in Big Ten games in his first three years.

      But what Williams and his teammates will be remembered for most while they were sporting the orange and blue was their storied run to the national title game in 2005, when they lost to North Carolina. During the tournament, Williams became Illinois’ all-time assists leader in NCAA Tournament play with 78. He physically asserted himself each of those games and won over Illini fans everywhere. However, shortly thereafter, Williams declared himself for the NBA Draft. Howard remembers the sentiment surrounding Illinois basketball when people found out about his decision.

      “I think a lot of people were disappointed,” Howard said. “We would have loved to have him back for another year. At the same time, I think the program, the fans and people in the community were also happy because he took us to the national championship game. He took advantage of everything he could while he was here, and he brought us to the national level.”

      Williams still cherishes his time at Illinois to this day, saying “the atmosphere” of the Assembly Hall is what he misses most.

      “I definitely loved my time at Illinois and I would’ve liked to come back. With the situation I was in, being guaranteed to be a top-five pick, I just couldn’t risk that,” he said.

      Williams certainly left his mark on head coach Bruce Weber during his time as an Illini. The two have remained in contact as the years have gone on, and Weber always has nice things to say about Williams as he leads his Utah Jazz team on a course to another playoff berth.

      “He just has some loyalty,” Weber said. “That’s the biggest thing. And he doesn’t have to. A lot of guys don’t. You can’t ask for a better representative for our program. He cares. He still cares about us, he cares about the University and he cares about the community. I’ve said many times, he gets it.”

      More to Discover