• Steve Rivera

High Flying, Yet Grounded

To say Arizona’s Derrick Williams has had a meteoric rise in becoming one of the best players in college would be a major understatement. But how he has gotten here, there and just about everywhere would hardly be a surprise … to some.


He has had a knack for great timing and a work ethic to go with it, helping him go from an unheralded freshman to a potential NBA lottery pick. It’s been that type of season and career for Williams, a 6-foot-8, 240-pound power forward for Arizona, a program once-known for churning out NBA types like it was an every-season occurrence.


He’s likely to be the next, but more on that later.


However, Williams is not your ordinary star in the making. He’s humble, rather than flashy, about all his successes. And there have been plenty in the two seemingly short seasons he has been on Arizona’s campus in the Old Pueblo.


“Derrick is as nice a kid as you’ll find in college basketball,’’ said Arizona coach Sean Miller. “If he weren’t a college-basketball player he’d be a very popular person just as he is.’’


As affable and articulate off the court as he is accurate on it. And he’s just a simple, fun-loving big guy; someone who feels as comfortable in a competition of paintball or a stroll at the beach or a day of shopping on Melrose Place as he does near the basket. Fittingly, he’s Southern California cool – having gone to La Mirada High in Los Angeles – yet he doesn’t have the arrogance.


“I like meeting people and just hanging out, doing the same things normal young people do,’’ Williams said.


Yet, he’s no normal young person. It’s hard to be when you’re 6-8 and one of college basketball’s best players.


Miller attributes Williams being grounded to his mom, Rhoma, and older sister, Latoni. His mom calls him “Just a big, goofy kid.’’


“For him growing up, it was all about taking care of business,’’ said Rhoma. “It was about: Just do your thing and everything will come to you. It’s just how we were raised.”

It has help shape him on who he’s become. He calls it “being respectful and kind to everyone because if I don’t make it in basketball, you never know who you will meet, and it could be a CEO of a company.”


Besides, as Williams put it, every athlete has sports role models, but he has his family. And he’s been affected by superstar athletes being, well, jerks. And, he doesn’t want to be one.

“There have been people who I have wanted to meet my entire life and sometimes (it doesn’t turn out like one would think),” he said, not going into details. “I guess it happens. People are busy … but it has happened a couple of times.”


It won’t happen to him, he says, although life has changed dramatically since arriving on Arizona’s campus the fall of 2009. It came just months after changing his commitment from USC to Arizona after Miller took the job and Tim Floyd left his at USC. He wasn’t alone with the switch, joining Solomon Hill and Lamont “MoMo’’ Jones in the change. Of all the freshmen at the time, Williams was the lowest rated player, coming in at 95 by scout.com. He can laugh about it now.


“I don’t think I should have been rated that low,” he said. “But people have their opinions. All it does is fuel my fire to be one of those top players.”


Honestly, who was to argue back then? Just two years ago, he was this lanky kid who thought there was a possibility of being redshirted.


“There were a lot of questions about him,’’ Miller said. “All this has happened so fast and faster than anyone anticipated. He came in a pretty skilled player, but he had to work on his strength and conditioning. He’s gained some considerable weight and it’s turned into muscle. That’s a credit to him, because he’s worked hard on the court and in the weight room.’’

Miller says William’s improvement is due in part because “his priorities are in the right place” and Williams comes in “with no hidden agendas.’’


Opponents are finding that real quickly. Six games into his career, he set his career high for points in a game with 28 against UNLV. It was just three games after establishing a school record for free-throw attempts in a game with 21. He eventually finished his first season on the Pacific 10 Conference’s all-conference team and as its freshman of the year.


He entered his sophomore year as arguably the odds-on-favorite to win conference player of the year. He hasn’t disappointed – so much so Fox Sports columnist Jeff Goodman placed him on his college-basketball dream team midway through the season.


He’s such a versatile player on the offensive end – especially now that he’s expanded his range and is comfortable making shots from beyond the arc,” Goodman wrote. “Williams can score inside and out, can put it on the floor and is a match-up nightmare.”


Need proof?


Two games into the season, after scoring 27 points in a win against New Mexico State, Aggies head coach Marvin Menzies called Williams an “NBA player. What can I say?”

Two weeks later, Kansas coach Bill Self said, “He’s a pro. … He’s terrific. I don’t think anybody would argue the point he was the best player on the floor.”


Williams had 27 points and eight rebounds in a loss to Kansas, which features the Morris twins.


A month later, Williams was re-establishing career highs in points, raising the bar with every shot, dribble and power move. He had 31 points against California and against Arizona State – both wins.


Arizona State coach Herb Sendek said Williams is playing at a different level than most players.


“I have great respect for him as a player and I know that he’s a quality young man,” said Sendek. “He’s clearly one of the very best players in college basketball. He’s a difference maker. He has an amazing knack for getting to the free-throw line. He’s tough and he just goes through you like you’re tissue paper. He gets fouled, and then it’s like he’s Rick Barry at the foul line now.”


Midway through the season, Williams was hitting 77 percent from the free-throw line, after shooting 68 percent the year before. The biggest number of improvement, however, has been from the 3-point line. Yes, Williams shoots from distance, making as astonishing 70 percent of his shots. Through mid-January he’s taken 24 treys, hitting 17.

“I’ve worked hard on everything; coach (Miller) pushed me to work hard,’’ Williams said. “I worked on my jump shot because I think a lot of people think of me as a drive-first guy. I want to be the guy who is able to hit the open shot. In the off-season, I shot and shot and worked on it over and over.”


Miller has seen this type of improvement and progression before. The former Xavier coach compares Williams favorably to David West, the former Xavier All-American turned NBA All-Star, and to Derrick Brown, another Xavier player who worked his way into being an NBA player.


“If Derrick can keep developing, that is a great comparison and, hopefully one day he can certainly be that type of player,” Miller said. “I will also tell you that David West is probably the greatest competitor that I ever coached. When the stakes were at the highest, he was at his best. And that is something that as a young player, Derrick hasn’t been there that many times. When he gets that, I think we are going to have – not that we don’t have that now – a great Arizona player.”


Williams has had that type of impact on the program. What Miller would like to see more of is the heart of the two former Xavier players.


Miller wants to see a consistent grit and determination. As Miller has said a number of times – although it continues to improve – Williams’ defensive game doesn’t match his offensive game.


“But he’s a much better defensive player than he was as a freshman,” Miller said. “It’s gone from fair to good. He’s got to understand it matters every day and in every play. That will help him take his game to the next level.


“What will allow him to have a great career beyond Arizona is that competitive fire and continued work ethic that separates players or gives them a chance to have an NBA career. He’s improved that but if he continues to grow with that, Derrick Williams will be the total package.”


Former Arizona coach Lute Olson, a Hall of Famer who has coached more than his share of All-Americans and future NBA players, said Williams reminds him most of former Arizona player Andre Iguodala, who was in a Wildcats uniform for just two years. Olson said what makes Williams so special is that he’s athletic, quick, has great hands, can jump with the best of them and can shoot from distance.


“He’s patient enough where he’s not going to take bad shots,” Olson said. “And his teammates are patient enough to know he’s the guy who has to have the ball. At the same stage of their careers, he’s a better shooter than Andre was.”


Iguodala bolted for the NBA after his second season at Arizona, eventually becoming a lottery pick who was picked ninth overall by the Philadelphia 76ers. HoopsHype.com projects Williams to go fifth overall in the NBA’s June draft. Time will tell if Williams stays or goes. An NBA lockout could help Arizona’s chances in keeping Williams, but that, too, won’t be determined until later.


“I have no thoughts of leaving – really,” he said. “I just want to try to get Arizona to where it was. Hopefully, I can. Then people will follow me and try to do the same.

“Everybody wants to make it to the NBA and wants to be in the top 10. People find it hard to turn down. But I like it here. I like the atmosphere and I like playing here. I wouldn’t trade it.”

Miller said he has no vote in the say. And he won’t ask for one, either. Having arrived at Arizona in 2009, Miller knew what he was getting into when he took the job, given the history of the program and its NBA past. Thirty-three Arizona players have been taken in the first or second rounds, many of whom have become eventual stars. Guys like Mike Bibby, Jerryd Bayless and Gilbert Arenas have all left early.


“We knew we’d have a number of players who might be in Derrick’s shoes one day,’’ Miller said. “We will meet and see what the best course is for Derrick. But right now, it’s about moving forward and making sure he has the best sophomore year he can have as he helps the team win. We don’t need to put too much in front of him. We have to make sure he enjoys school and enjoys the season and then see what’s best for Derrick. He’s a bona fide first-round pick (at some point), and that’s what this is about, and although it will hurt us in the long term, people like Derrick will help us in the long run. He’s a special player. We all know that.”

Now everyone does. But two years ago, no one would have predicted this. Even Williams.

“It’s been real fun,’’ he said. “I didn’t expect it to be like this, (but) it’s been pretty good.”