It’s September 25, 2000, a timestamp of great underestimation from the entire league of what a young Paul Pierce was capable of becoming.
In 2008 you could have made a credible argument that the only player in the NBA you would trade Deron Williams for was LeBron James.
Williams was 24, coming off a trip to the Western Conference Finals, seemingly set for superstardom.
Every night he was a lock for 20 points and 10 assists on 50 per cent shooting from the floor and 40 per cent shooting from three.
With Baron Davis’ size and strength, John Stockton’s vision, a quick first step, and elite shooting ability, Williams was the complete package.
While the casual NBA fan was more partial to Williams’ flashier rival Chris Paul, there was a quiet consensus around the league that thanks to his size and durability, there was a strong chance Williams would have a better career than Paul.
Williams is now 30 years old. At an age where he should be in his prime, the man they call D-Will has never looked worse. His quick first step is gone, his shooting is painfully average and his Baron Davis size and strength have disintegrated into Baron Davis flab.
Williams might blame his downfall on his ankle problems, and while they have unquestionably played a role, his issues run deeper than that. A strange on-court passivity has always stalled Williams’ game, and without the athleticism to obscure it, it has come to define him. The bigger the moment gets, the smaller D-Will becomes.
In his halcyon Utah days, his annual playoff match-ups with the Lakers were begging for him to take over. The lone advantage the Jazz had over LA was at point guard, with Williams versus a defensively challenged Derek Fisher. In the 2010 series in particular, the only chance the Jazz had of winning was Williams destroying Fisher one-on-one and living in the paint.
Instead, Williams settled for 6 threes a game and shot 38.7 per cent from the floor for the series, as his team got swept.
The following year, with a weaker supporting cast than D-Will’s, Chris Paul took the Lakers to six games effectively by himself, only taking 3 threes a game and shooting 54.5 per cent overall on the series.
Until a couple of months ago the nadir of Williams’ career was losing Game 7 at home to a Bulls team whose second-best player was Nate Robinson. However, last season Williams created stunning new depths of mediocrity, embarrassing himself in the Nets’ second-round series against the Heat.
His scoreless Game 2 in Miami was a debacle, and in the final ten minutes of the decisive Game 5 Williams didn’t take a single shot.
This was D-Will’s darkest moment. With the season on the line, Williams was relegated to the fifth option on offence, taking a backseat to Shaun Livingston post-ups and broken-down old man Kevin Garnett fadeaways.
Series averages of 11.2 points on 36.7 per cent shooting are bad enough, but the most savage statistical indictment of Williams is the fact he took four free throws for the entire series. He shot less free throws than there were games in the series, illustrating exactly how passive he was, afraid to drive the lane and get fouled.
As has been discussed ad nauseam, the Nets are at a crossroads. The team is back to square one with its Williams-Joe Johnson-Brook Lopez nucleus. The ceiling of that nucleus is a second round exit in the abominable Eastern Conference. With limited flexibility to make any substantial moves, the Nets’ best hope for success is improvement from within. Or rather, improvement from Williams.
The one thing for Nets fans to cling onto is Williams’ post-All Star break two-month tear to end the 2012-13 season, where he was consistently putting up 20-plus points and 8 or more assists a night on good shooting percentages. That’s a legitimate sample size and a genuine reason for hope.
Two years ago I saw Deron Williams play in person at Madison Square Garden against a woefully dysfunctional Knicks. In the first half Williams was sublime; his full arsenal on display. The hesitation crossovers, the subtle use of misdirection around screens, the no-look bullet passes leading to layups… It was all there.
The Nets were up at halftime. In the second half though, everything changed.
A kid named Jeremy Lin came off the bench and 25 points and 7 assists later, Linsanity was born. The rest is history.
Deron Williams and his inability to stop a benchwarmer from driving past him time and time again led to a global phenomenon. People seem to forget this. No one remembers that Williams helped create Linsanity, and unless he sorts himself out real fast, no one is going to remember Deron Williams period.