College basketball: Derrick Williams -- the outlier who skirted the grassroots basketball hype machine and still made it
Arizona forward Derrick Williams (above) is perhaps the best player in college basketball. He's as strong as a power forward, as versatile as a guard. The 6-foot-8, 241-pound sophomore is averaging 19.5 points and 8.4 rebounds and shooting 60% from the floor. There's not many like him, if any at all.
On Saturday night, Williams, this season's Pacific 10 Conference player of the year, will lead the fifth-seeded Wildcats against third-seeded Connecticut in the NCAA West Regional final in Anaheim's Honda Center.
This puts Williams just 40 minutes from a Final Four, and he'll be playing in front of many family and friends in a place that's about 15 minutes from where he grew up in La Mirada.
After this season should he decide to leave, Williams will become a millionaire many times over. He will be a lottery pick. Material objects once thought unobtainable will not be any more.
This is the back end of the traditional rise-to-basketball-stardom narrative. That story arc is a familiar one. It has been around for some time. In past decades, it has taken a new form, which is as follows:
-Star for a household name AAU team that travels the nation, performs in front of large crowds and numerous NBA scouts and college coaches, and also happens to be bankrolled by a big-name shoe company that also happens to help bankroll several big-name college basketball programs that thereby all but guarantee a coach from one of the said big-name college basketball programs will see you in person.
-After having been hyped to the point that your name has several stars by it and a few well-watched YouTube highlight videos showcasing all your strengths but none of your weaknesses in turn causes respectable print publications and television news stations to fawn over your talents and produce "puff pieces" showcasing them, it's time to accept a scholarship, probably from one of those coaches who wears the same brand of sneakers you did on that AAU team, which would mean you fell into the pipeline.
-And, once at that college, you must develop to become the NBA player you were supposed to become. It was foretold that way. If you should get into trouble and stray from your predetermined destiny, things become shaky. But if you don't, you will prove the so-called experts right. You will become a lottery pick. You will become a millionaire many times over. Once unobtainable material objects won't be anymore.
That last step partly applies to Williams, though few if anyone ever said he might one day be an NBA pick back at La Mirada High. But none of the previous three steps have anything to do with him. He is not the product of the grassroots basketball hype machine. He is an extreme exception, an outlier. Here is why:
Williams attended La Mirada High, a school an hour and a half or so southeast of Downtown Los Angeles that's known for Brianna Glenn, a track star; Jennie Finch, an Olympic gold medalist softball pitcher; and not much else. It hadn't produced any Division I basketball players in more than a decade, but Williams didn't transfer elsewhere.
"You don’t need to go to a powerhouse school," his mother, Rhoma Moore, told him. "If you’re good enough, they’ll come find you."
Even though Williams was good enough, college coaches still weren't coming to find him. They were preoccupied by the other players in the Southland, which at the time was uber-rich with talent. There was Fairfax High’s Renardo Sidney (now at Mississippi State), Compton Dominguez High’s Jordan Hamilton (now at Texas), Sylmar High’s Tyler Honeycutt and Santa Ana Mater Dei’s Wear twins, David and Travis (all now at UCLA), among others.
It wasn't until Williams' sophomore year at La Mirada that he gained any notice, and even that came by accident when Tim Floyd, then USC's coach, came to a game to watch one of his recruits, Compton High's DeMar DeRozan, and came away impressed with Williams.
"Honestly, I didn’t know anybody was at this school," Williams said Floyd told him, "and then I saw you."
When Williams did join an AAU team, it was a renowned one: Team Odom. But, at that time, Team Odom had several top-100 players, including Hamilton, who shot it whenever he touched the ball.
"Everybody knows how Jordan is," Williams said recently. "Every shot is a good shot for him. That’s just his mentality. He’s a great player. I just had to use other aspects of my game so I could score and show what I could do. That’s basically what I did. If he shot, I just wanted to get the rebound and get a put-back. If I’m not going to get that many shots, I’ll just get more rebounds."
Needless to say, after being "the man" at La Mirada High, as he said, Williams was relocated to the background and didn't get much attention on Team Odom, the principal reason most players join an AAU team. Still, he was able to become more efficient, which is what he's known for today.
"He refuses to take bad shots, especially after playing with Jordan," said his childhood friend and La Mirada assistant coach Charlie Torres.
In terms of the lack of attention while playing with Team Odom, it didn’t help that early in high school Williams was, as Arizona Coach Sean Miller said, "a very thin, long, gangly young player."
But that frame was a result of a gigantic growth spurt. Williams was 5 foot 9 around the end of eighth grade when his ankles and knees began hurting day and night. Moore said it was a similar spurt to when he was about five years old and the pain was so severe “he would go to bed and he would cry.”
By the end of ninth grade, he was 6-5 and had changed shoe sizes six times in about a year. He would grow to be about 6-8. He's a little over 6 foot 9 with shoes now.
Despite his growth, both as a person and a player, it was slim pickings when it came time to pick a college. The unheralded recruit eventually signed with USC after receiving interest from University of Nevada, Reno and a couple other schools.
But he ended up at Arizona after then-USC coach Tim Floyd abruptly resigned amid an NCAA investigation that ultimately found former USC star O.J. Mayo had received improper benefits while in college.
Following Floyd's resignation, Williams asked to be released from his commitment and he was. Arizona, which needed players, scooped him up, not knowing he'd be great but finding out soon enough.
Now to that last part, about working hard to develop into an NBA player, that's why Williams is where he is today, with NBA scouts drooling at his feet.
"I would never tell you he was going to be a top-five pick in the NBA, but I’m not surprised. I think it’s just a byproduct of his hard work," said Steve Schuster, La Mirada High's head coach who was an assistant when Derrick played there.
Part of his work ethic was instilled by Torres, who spent hundreds of late-night hours with him in the La Mirada High gym, working out and going through various drills, and took him Williams to pickup games across Los Angeles County — at Amelia Mayberry Park in Whittier, Lord's Gym near Echo Park and in Compton, Downey and elsewhere.
"He knew I wasn't going to score, was going to get banged up a lot, wasn't going to get any fouls," Williams said.
Another part of his drive was instilled by his mother.
"Never stop working," Moore said she told him. "There’s always room for improvement. There’s always somebody better than somebody."
Yet in the seedy underbelly of grassroots basketball, there are always people who come along with intentions that are less than pure. Moore, aside from just instilling a work ethic in Williams, told her son to be wary of such people.
"She just told me to just stay away from people that caused a lot of trouble and be my own person...and don’t let the wrong people influence you to do stuff you normally wouldn’t do," Williams said.
Add all these factors up, and Williams took one of the most unusual paths when compared with what is now considered "normal." He is not a product of the grassroots basketball hype machine.
He is an outlier.
"It’s kind of crazy, just going from where I was before to where I am now," Williams said.
When compared with what's now considered normal, that's putting it lightly.
-- Baxter Holmes
Photo credit: Lucy Nicholson / Reuters