A Leap Of Faith
Latavious Williams could change the future of the NBA Development League.
Let’s get one thing straight right away — Latavious Williams isn’t Brandon Jennings.
You will hear the comparisons. Talented high school star amidst academic questions opts to pass on scholarship offer to prestigious basketball program to spend a year playing professionally in hopes of being a lottery pick in the next NBA Draft. The similarities end there.
Williams made history last Friday night by becoming the first player to make the jump from high school to the NBA Development League when the Tulsa 66ers selected him 16th overall out of the Christian Life Center Academy in Houston. The event has gone largely overlooked in the national media despite the fact that if everything goes as the 6-8 power forward and his circle of adviser’s plan, it could change the future of the NBA as we know it. But don’t get this confused with the move that Jennings made a year ago, jumping to Europe and spending a year playing with Lottomatica Roma in the Italian Serie A, a move that so far has paid off given his torrid start with the Milwaukee Bucks. The difference between Jennings and Williams stems from options: Williams had them, Jennings didn’t.
It was only after he had been ruled academically ineligible by the NCAA that Jennings passed on his scholarship offer to play at Arizona. Williams — who had qualified academically to play at Memphis — was faced with the possibility that he would have to wait until December or January to be cleared by the NCAA Clearinghouse due to questions surrounding the enormous amount of credits he made up in his one year of prep school. According to his AAU coach Valerian “Scooter” Owens, Williams took 14 credits worth of core classes that he had failed to complete at his old high school, a fact that drew the attention of NCAA officials. Having already made up his mind that he would be bolting for the NBA Draft after one season with the Tigers, he opted to skip college altogether in order to do what was most important for his future: play.
“To tell you the truth, I liked college and I think I did a good thing by signing with Memphis,” Williams says. “It was the NCAA in the long run. I had classes I needed to take and I got them finished in one year and I had a 710 on my SAT, but the NCAA was going to take a long time to get me cleared. Money wasn’t an issue, I just wanted to go somewhere to play ball and get to the NBA.”
And money is where the proverbial line in the sand is drawn for cases like Jennings and Williams. While the former signed a contract and endorsement deal that netted him more than $3.5 million in total, Williams is holding a B-level non-guaranteed contract for $19,000 from the 66ers. This, despite the interest he received from a handful of teams in Europe and China, all of whom were ready and waiting with six-figure deals.
After careful consideration, a close examination of the rules and consulting with his family, Owens and his agent Tony Dutt, Williams made the choice to be a trailblazer by entering the D-League Draft. Dutt, who was originally contacted to provide advice to the youngster on his options, initially pushed for Williams to spend a year at Memphis before trying his hand at the pro game. But after spending time with the forward and seeing his determination to develop his skills, the agent quickly realized the NBDL was the perfect learning environment.
“I thought the D-League was the place he could get the most coaching and publicity,” Dutt says. “I had him go to one tryout session with an NBDL team and the feedback was that they felt he was the best player in the entire camp.”
“This is what the D-League is supposed to be, a minor league system for kids coming out of high school who have that option. There’s still a long way to go, but I think the table is set for him to have an opportunity to get better and get professional coaching. He is in a position where hopefully he can become a lottery pick in the NBA. That’s the bottom line for where this is going.”
Where this is going is still unknown — both for Williams and the entire system. A successful year for the former blue chip recruit could open the door for more players to make the same jump and transform the Development League into it what is was always supposed to be — a developmental system for the NBA. In its relatively short existence the NBDL has served as beacon of second chances more than a league meant for developing future talent. The rosters are loaded with college players and veterans not quite good enough to stick on an NBA roster for more than a few months if at all. The arrival of Williams stands to change how we look at the league and the drafting process; perhaps even more so, it stands to change the fortunes of the D-League.
The NBDL has operated in relative obscurity due to a lack of star power. Yes, a great deal of the current players were stars or at least above average performers in college, but they are second-tier talent compared to those from their class good enough to land an NBA contract. Imagine seeing some of the top high school players each year playing a season at the “minor league” level and what that would do for the popularity of the league and its teams. Rather than watching John Wall and Derrick Favors play half of their games this season against inferior non-conference talent that won’t prove much of a challenge, imagine seeing these elite pro prospects spend a year pitting their game against other former elite college players. Owens sees the greatest advantage of this scenario as the elimination of conflicting interests between college coaches and players.
“College coaches help kids out as far as individual work, but they have a job and they want to keep that job,” Owens says. “They are expected to win. A lot of coaches will say to a kid, you can come and be a one-and-done, but then he sits on the bench. They will hold the player back just enough so that he will come back another year.”
Whether or not this practice occurs has been debated without much clarification. What isn’t up for debate though is how the future of this practice of jumping directly to the D-League will largely be determined by how Williams fairs in the long run.
Unlike Jennings, Williams won’t be able to avoid the spotlight by playing overseas in games that are largely ignored by the American media. Every move he makes will be documented. Every small victory will bring praise and every defeat criticism. It will be a litmus test for the entire Development League as a system for cultivating future talent.
Williams isn’t oblivious to the challenges he will face initially as he adjusts to playing against bigger, stronger and more experienced talent. As a 6-8 jumping jack with superior athleticism he has the kind of frame that NBA scouts could crave if he can develop his overall game, which at this point is best classified as raw. His 205-pound build is going to take its early lumps playing grown men, but the hope is that individual workouts with the 66ers coaching staff — workouts he has already started in addition to team practices — will put him on the path to being physically equipped to make the jump to the next level by June of 2010.
The team’s management staff is aware of the potential pitfalls for Williams as well, having already assigned a chaperon to be by his side during all media availability periods to help the youngster field the slew of questions he will face throughout the season. This level of exposure has the potential to either boost Williams’ stock tremendously or turn him into yet another argument for making players spend time in college.
“Everyone is going to see as much of him as they want by the time the draft comes around,” Dutt says. “He is going to be highly exposed in either a good or a bad way when it’s all said and done.”
“I think when the NBDL was put together, one of the concepts was to make this a developmental process for kids like Latavious and this is going to be the first time we see that in action. It’s going to be important that he develops to the level that he can and show a high level of success because a lot of kids are going to be looking at this. They are going to look and say, well Brandon Jennings went to Europe and was a top pick and Latavious Williams stayed here and was a top pick too. Or, you have the downside of, well he stayed here and they didn’t really develop him. So I think there is a high level of interest to see what the NBA does to help kids develop. It’s going to be a case study of how can they get kids better in the long run as opposed to the current mindset of what can you do for me today.”
Owens echoes Dutt’s sentiment that Williams’ experiences in the upcoming season will be of great interest to the basketball community, but noted that his pupil isn’t entirely unfamiliar with the dedication it takes to be a pro. The President of Brandon Bass Elite — Williams’ AAU team — Owens has spent each of the last several summers training the youngster, often in conjunction with Bass who would put the high school student through NBA-level workouts. It was these summers in the gym, coupled with the dedication Williams showed during his year of academic purgatory at Christian Life Center Academy that assured Owens his star player was ready to take on the challenges of being a groundbreaking trendsetter.
“Showing the ability to do all that he has in the last year told me that he was mentally ready for this kind of a process,” Owens states. “He was competing at the same level as a pro because there’s nothing like training with a pro, which he did with Brandon. This is going to be a learning year for him more than anything — I’m not expecting the big stats. I’m looking for him to learn and take everything in to help him.”
For Williams’ part he has said that he plans on entering the June draft — that is the end result he wants from this process. While reluctant, he did say he would consider another season in the D-League to develop if his advisers felt it was for the best, but for now he has his sights set on 2010. As for how he feels about the potential wave of scrutiny he is about to endure in the upcoming months, the teenager couldn’t be more at ease.
“I think I’m going to be fine, it’s just basketball,” Williams says.
We’ll be waiting.