We already know the runaway winner of this year’s MVP voting, but through the first few days of the NBA playoffs, the crown for unofficial postseason MVP is still being decided. And right now, Deron Williams is as much a competitor as anybody. Through the first two games of the Nuggets/Jazz series, Deron is averaging 29.5 points and 12.5 assists, shooting 51 percent from the field, 50 percent from three, and 80 percent at the line.
And if Deron wasn’t the best overall point guard in the League during the regular season — when he put up 18.7 points and 10.5 dimes a night — he was a close second to Steve Nash or Rajon Rondo. In Dime #56, available on newsstands now, D-Will was the subject of his third full-length feature in the magazine, but his first as a certified star:
THE TOTAL PACKAGE
Ball in hand, his body lurches forward as if flooring the gas pedal on an unstoppable charge toward the rim — and then, just as sudden, he steps back and drops a jumper. Later, on an actual sprint to the bucket, he turns his head and body to the right before flipping a pass behind his back to the left, creating an easy deuce for a teammate. The next time, he crosses over right-to-left, sets his feet in preparation for another pull-up jumper, then brings the ball hard back to the right on his way in for a layup.
For a man whose craft depends largely on his ability to conspire and deceive — a professional salesman trained to operate in fakes, feints and misdirection — Deron Williams is bluntly honest when he’s not at work.
In this age of the diplomatic athlete, the one who has been trained to say the right things since the eighth grade, we have birthed a generation of NBA players whose favorite phrase is “It doesn’t matter.” (Often followed by “It is what it is.”)
Not Deron. Going into his fifth year as a pro, the Utah Jazz point guard was widely considered the best player in the NBA without an All-Star Game selection under his belt, and he never hid the fact that it bothered him. Never mind that he’d won an Olympic gold medal in 2008, chosen for Team USA as one of the 12 best players in the country and a key contributor on the best team in the world. Never mind that he’d led the Jazz to the Western Conference Finals in ’07, and that since becoming a full-time starter in his second year, had never missed the playoffs. Never mind that, in a healthy number of barbershops and street corners from New York to Northern California, he was considered the best point guard in basketball. Deron still had that big zero hanging over his head — zero All-Star appearances.
How could you say Deron was the best PG in the game when he hadn’t even been officially named one of the best 24 players in the League in a particular season? How could you rank him ahead of perennial All-Stars Chris Paul, Steve Nash and Chauncey Billups? The path to becoming the next Jason Kidd was going to run into quite a rough patch if Deron couldn’t shake the stigma of being the next Rod Strickland. And Deron, admittedly, cares about his legacy.
So forget about the diplomacy and false apathy. This All-Star thing mattered to him.
As his name was again floating around in All-Star talk a couple months into the season but certainly not a lock, we caught up with Deron after a Utah practice.
“That’s the coaches. That’s the coaches that don’t feel I’m an All-Star,” Williams said. “I don’t know what else to do. Last year I was hurt, so I kind of figured I wouldn’t make it because I missed so many games. The year before, I definitely thought I was going to make it. But, you know, hopefully this will be the year.”
It was. In late January, Deron was named to the West All-Star squad alongside CP and Nash, and ahead of Billups and Kidd (both were later included as alternates), Tony Parker, Monta Ellis and Aaron Brooks. Playing in front of his hometown crowd of more than 108,000 people in Cowboys Stadium near Dallas, Deron notched 14 points, six assists and a team-high four steals.
Not that this season was all that different from the rest. As this issue went to press, Deron was averaging 18.6 points, 10.1 assists (third in the NBA) and a career-high 4.1 rebounds per game, his third straight year putting up at least 18 points and 10 dimes. In a typically close Western Conference playoff race, he had Utah in fourth place. It wasn’t that he was so much better this time; it’s that he could no longer be denied.
Maybe it was supposed to happen this way. The years of previous snubs helped build Deron into the player he is now. For a man who’s felt underappreciated since his days at The Colony (Texas) High School — where he was consistently ranked about 30-40 spots behind teammate Bracey Wright by national scouting services — it was the primary fuel that kept him going after he’d already earned the money (a reported four-year, $70 million contract extension signed in ’08) and the fame that drives so many others. He still needed that sign of respect.
“I think being overlooked and overshadowed helped me,” Deron said during All-Star Weekend. “It made me work harder. It made me play harder and get better.”
“It’s about damn time,” Kobe Bryant was quoted in the Salt Lake Tribune. “That’s always been a mystery to me. It really makes no damn sense. … It shouldn’t be (his first time). It makes no sense. He should have been in for a while. He’s one of the two best point guards in the world, period.”
Whether he is in the top five, the top two, or No. 1 overall, Deron has succeeded because of his versatility and complete repertoire. There isn’t one facet of the game where he is necessarily the best among NBA point guards: Nash is a better shooter, Billups is stronger, Parker is faster, Kidd is a better pure passer, Paul is known to protect the ball better, Rajon Rondo is a better ball-hawk on defense, Derrick Rose is a superior athlete … But Williams excels in all of those areas.
“With Deron, he’s got the total package,” Kidd says. “He plays on the offensive and defensive side. He loves to be involved in the big plays: Making the right pass, making the game-winner. He doesn’t mind that stage, so he definitely is one of the best at what he does.”
“He can do it all out there,” adds Baron Davis. “Dribble, post-up, shoot. And he has one of the sickest crossovers in the League. He’s a tough defender who takes a difficult challenge every night.”
While his athleticism is on par with somebody like Davis — and he’s got a handful of highlight-reel dunks to prove it — Deron is most often compared to Kidd, the NBA’s active leader in career triple-doubles.
“Yeah, I see the similarities,” Kidd says. “He can score and fill up the assists. He fills up the stat sheet. He can rebound. He’s a bigger guard, so he likes to post up. He can shoot the ball. So there are some similarities and he understands what it takes to win.”
Now that he’s earned the individual recognition, the next great motivator is winning a championship. Deron was close once, when the Jazz fell to the eventual NBA champion San Antonio Spurs in the ’07 conference finals. The next year, Utah was iced in the second round by the Lakers, and in ’09, in the first round by L.A. In total, each of Deron’s three playoff eliminations have come at the hands of the eventual Western Conference champion, and twice by the eventual NBA champion. He is beginning to build a resume similar to Cleveland’s Mark Price, who routinely had his championship hopes dashed by Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls.
As this season’s schedule hit the playoff home stretch, the Jazz were considered a solid contender, but still a notch below the Lakers and slightly behind the Denver Nuggets and Dallas Mavericks. And if the Jazz don’t win a championship now, the future is even more uncertain. All-Star power forward (and Deron’s Olympic teammate) Carlos Boozer will be a free agent this summer, along with key reserve Kyle Korver. Although the Jazz will have a 2010 Lottery pick courtesy the New York Knicks (potentially a Top-5 selection), odds are they won’t be as championship-ready next year as they are this year. Not to mention, Hall of Fame coach Jerry Sloan can’t stick around forever.
“I hope we can win a championship here,” says Deron. “That’s why I signed the extension. I felt we had the right pieces to the puzzle to win a championship.”
Deron is the one constant. Just 25 years old and under contract at least through 2012, he is the player the Jazz are building around. In crunch time, he has become Utah’s go-to scorer, trusted to take his pull-up jumper or drive and create an opportunity for someone else at his whim. Sloan, a notorious stickler who gave Deron a rough rookie initiation by limiting his playing time despite Deron being the No. 3 pick in the Draft, today often doesn’t even call a set play in crucial moments. Deron has the freedom to decide the game.
“He’s our leader and we follow him,” says forward Paul Millsap. “And we have to follow him because of his track record.”
“I think that the things Jerry values, Deron brings every night,” says fellow Hall of Fame coach Larry Brown of the Charlotte Bobcats. “I always look at the great players and not so much the guys who get stats. Guys who make people around him better, and he does that. He’s as good as anybody in our league at that position.”
While any superstar player in Utah has to answer questions of whether he’ll stick around long-term in the NBA’s smallest small-town type locale, Deron has put down roots here. His wife and kids like it in Salt Lake City — his oldest daughter has taken to skiing. And he is the off-court leader among the Jazz’s younger players, bringing the group together for marathon Xbox 360 sessions at his house and prank battles. While he wants the success and the spotlight that comes with it, he’s not really a big-city guy at the core.
“I’m okay playing in a small market. If you win, people will notice you,” Deron says. “I’m going to continue to work hard in this league. Having new guys come in that get a lot of hype, it’s good for the game and good for competition. It pushes me for more reasons to be motivated.”
“The sky is the limit for him,” says Kidd. “He gets better each year. The biggest thing for him is trying to help his team win the championship, and that’s easier said than done. Sometimes you just have to be patient. I think if he keeps working on his game, he’s going to be the best.”