A Shared History
While the Lakers and Knicks are polar opposites, two players share a common story
Start with the stars who lead their teams and it's the ring-laden veteran guard Kobe Bryant versus the extremely athletic, yet mostly unaccomplished big man in Amare Stoudemire. Make your way to the sidelines and you have Phil Jackson and his precise triangle against Mike D'Antoni and his free-wheeling, seven-seconds-or-less system (which Jackson described as actually "five or six seconds" on Friday). There is even a noticeable difference in their respective signature fans -- Spike Lee in his Yankees cap and Jack Nicholson in his shades.
Despite all that, a glance at each bench on Sunday when Los Angeles hosts New York at Staples Center will show two men with a lot in common.
Caracter is the 22-year-old rookie, a 6-foot-9, 275-pound center who was drafted No. 58 by L.A., the third to last pick, after once being considered the No. 1 high school prospect in the country before ballooning in weight and not cutting it at Louisville playing for coach Rick Pitino.
Williams is the 24-year-old fourth-year forward, a 6-9, 225-pound swingman who was drafted No. 17 by Indiana in 2006, just a couple of picks out of the lottery, but was out of the league by 2009 after a string of off-court incidents.
The two came together at IMG Basketball Academy in Bradenton, Fla., in April, both looking to resuscitate their once-promising careers. It was a two-pronged reclamation project -- first their bodies and then their minds.
"He looked more like an offensive lineman," said Dan Barto, IMG's pro/college training coordinator, describing Caracter when he first arrived. "You know how college offensive linemen are; you can see how muscular they are up top and how V-shaped they are, almost to where his traps [trapezius muscles] were going through his neck. He was big."
He was 315 pounds big, having put on 10 to 15 pounds of excess weight in a couple of weeks from the time his season ended at University of Texas El Paso.
"I really busted my tail this past summer for a certain image," Caracter said. "I wanted to make sure I looked good, my body would perform well on the court."
Williams showed up after being away from organized basketball for almost 10 months, missing the entire 2009-10 NBA season because of legal troubles.
"His body was a little bit more pear-shaped than V-shaped," Barto said.
The two went to work with Barto and Corey Stenstrup, who started them on what he calls layered hybrid training.
"We have year-round dialogue on how to continue to push the training element into the forefront of players' minds," Stenstrup said in a recent e-mail. "Increased productivity, decreased prevalence of injury, increase career length."
For nearly 10 weeks the two of them spent three hours a day on the court. When they weren't playing, they were lifting. When they weren't lifting, they were stretching. When they weren't stretching, they were doing yoga. When they weren't doing yoga, they were watching what they ate. When they weren't eating, they were playing. And so it went.
With neither player guaranteed any NBA future, Barto said the daily focus was to look toward a chance at summer league in Las Vegas, where they could showcase their play.
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"That's where you're either going to get your contract guaranteed or you're going to earn the respect of your coaches and your teammates who are watching before you go into training camp," Barto said.
As the days went on, the pounds came off and the mental development was put into place.
Barto would talk to both of them as a coach when running them through on-court drills, but then guide them through their dreams and aspirations off of it.
"Instead of telling them [what to do] like a coach would tell them, I'm more of a partner in helping them create their vision," Barto said.
Barto would speak to Caracter and Williams and then Williams would talk to Caracter on his own. Back when Caracter was a high-profile high school recruit, Williams hosted him during his recruiting visit at the University of Memphis, where Williams played for John Calipari's Tigers. Down in Florida, Williams was showing Caracter a path to follow.
"Shawne really was good for him because on days that he would get frustrated or would come back after a workout was canceled or there would be something negative in the media, Shawne would grab him and be like, 'Look dude, there are not 300-some players better than you. You got to trust me on this, you are so good,'" Barto said.
Eventually Caracter started to believe him. He played well for the Lakers' summer league team, registering three double-doubles in his first three games and finishing with averages of 15.4 points, 8.6 rebounds and 1.4 blocks while competing against lottery picks like Detroit's Greg Monroe and Sacramento's DeMarcus Cousins.
Williams, who retooled how he "loads his legs" before his shot release that was already "near perfect," according to Barto, latched on to the Charlotte Bobcats' summer league squad. He averaged a modest 5.5 points per game, but made a couple of 3-pointers against real NBA-caliber players again -- an achievement in itself.
A few months later, Caracter went to training camp with the Lakers and Williams went with the Knicks. Neither had a guarantee to make the team, but both made it with Caracter meeting his weight clause by coming in at less than 275 pounds and Williams beating out fan favorite Patrick Ewing Jr. for the final roster spot.
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Caracter has filled in at backup center for the Lakers this year and was leaned on when Andrew Bynum and Theo Ratliff were both out with knee injuries. He expects an assignment down to the D-League soon, but he has already accomplished what Barto calls "building institutional currency" with a team, if you hear how his coach talks about him.
"He's a worker," said Phil Jackson. "We like that. He comes to work early and often. Every day he works on his skills. This is a guy that I think is going to have a future in the game."
Williams has been featured more prominently for the Knicks, averaging 6.4 points and 14.9 minutes per game, while shooting a ridiculous 56.8 percent on 3-pointers (25-for-44) when he went only 1-of-17 on 3s in his last season, 2008-09, with Dallas.
Although attempts to contact Williams went unanswered, Caracter said Williams' success comes from his determination.
"Shawne's always been a great talent and like most people say, if Shawne puts his mind to it and Shawne wants to do it, he'll do it," Caracter said.
"I'm learning what it takes to be a true professional," he said.
Williams and Caracter shared promise, then troubles, then good, old-fashioned pain and sweat in the past. Now they share a refocused future.
"They have a plan," Barto said. "Derrick has a plan to be a starter in Year 3 of the NBA. Shawne has a plan to be a 25-minutes-a-game guy somewhere. As long as they incrementally move close to them and have the support, there's really no saying that they can't reach those goals."
Dave McMenamin covers the Lakers for ESPNLosAngeles.com. Follow him on Twitter. http://twitter.com/mcten.