Commentary

Derrick Williams is the talk of Tucson

Originally Published: March 2, 2011
By Dana O'Neil | ESPN.com

There are no tiaras in college basketball, no crowns bestowed upon the chosen ones.

There are princes, though; kids anointed before they've sprouted their first pimple or suffered the first crack in their voice.

And with them come the entourages, the parents and coaches and cousins and godbrothers, the people whose sole job it is to remind the prepubescent prodigies just how wonderful they are.

[+] EnlargeDerrick Williams
Gary A. Vasquez/US PresswireArizona's Derrick Williams waited patiently while others owned the limelight. Now, it's his turn.

The sense of entitlement mixed with a parental willful ignorance of reality is, most college basketball coaches will tell you, among the biggest problems assaulting the game right now.

Which is why the words tumbling out of Rhoma Moore's mouth seem so foreign, so unexpected.

"I never wanted him to get too far ahead of himself,'' she says about her son. "I told him, 'You're good and someday you could be great, but remember someone is always better than you.''

Hers is an alien language, a dissenting voice of reason in a world clouded over by hyperbole.

More stunning that Moore's rationale approach -- her son actually took her advice.

Rather than feeling he was owed something, Derrick Williams went out and earned his respect. He waited patiently while others sought and owned the limelight, believing it was better to deserve something than be handed it.

"I always believed that my chance would come,'' Williams said.

It has come in bunches.

Williams is on a trajectory that plenty of others have climbed, but few have reached the summit quite so quickly.

In just two collegiate seasons, he has gone from the best player no one had heard of to one of the best players in college basketball.

There may still be someone better than Williams, as Moore always warned, but right now you'd be hard-pressed to line up a big group of them.

Williams is shooting up most NBA draft boards, is on the short list for Pac-10 player of the year honors and has Arizona, despite a lost weekend in Los Angeles, very much in both the conference and national pictures.

And almost no one saw any of this coming.

"In the recruiting process, we tend to locate kids early and then follow them along the way,'' said Joel Francisco, the West Coast-based recruiting coordinator for ESPN.com. "That wasn't the case with Derrick. I watched him a considerable amount of time since his sophomore year [of high school], but I questioned whether he was too undersized to play at the high-major level. I thought he could be good, but I never thought he'd be this good.''


For a long time, Rhoma Moore was right. There always was someone better than her son.

Two years ago, the state of California had 12 players on ESPNU's Top 100. All but two of them -- Roberto Nelson, now at Oregon State, and Darius Morris, now at Michigan -- were ranked ahead of Williams.

The future king of California was Renardo Sidney, a West Coaster by way of Mississippi whom Sonny Vaccaro thought so highly of, he offered him an invite to his prestigious ABCD Camp when Sidney was only 15.

In between Sidney (ranked seventh) and Williams (ranked 72nd) stood a host of who's who, including Jordan Hamilton (now at Texas), the Wear twins, David and Travis, Tyler Honeycutt (UCLA) and Kawhi Leonard (San Diego State).

Derrick Williams was just another gangly 215-pound kid with big feet who was too good to be a mid-major player but not quite a surefire big-time player.

His game and his notoriety sprouted a little bit in the summer before his senior year, enough for USC to offer him a scholarship. Williams quickly accepted, content that the process of choosing a college was behind him.

[+] EnlargeDerrick Williams
Chris Morrison/US PresswireWilliams, left, was unheralded out of high school, ranking below teammate Solomon Hill (No. 44) in the ESPNU Top 100 recruiting class two seasons ago.

We all know what happened next.

The Trojans were snared in the NCAA crosshairs; Tim Floyd was out as coach and the recruits were released from their letters of intent.

That was in June, only months before Williams was set to enroll at Southern Cal.

"I was real concerned,'' he said. "For a whole year, I knew where I was going to school and you're that close, a few weeks away, and then you have to start the whole process over again. I was really kind of scared.''

Williams did what he's always done, relied on the good sense of his mother.

And she in turn did what she's always done, what hardly anyone does anymore. She stayed out of it.

"I left the decision up to Derrick,'' Moore said. "I gave him advice, but it's his school, his life. He was the one who needed to be happy.''


Rare is the program-changing player that lands unexpectedly on a coach's doorstep. The recruiting process is too lengthy and too involved for that.

When it happens, it is because of something like the USC situation -- kids scrambling amid the nuclear fallout of NCAA trouble. Scottie Reynolds came to Villanova amid the Kelvin Sampson debacle at Oklahoma and Jordan Crawford transferred to Xavier after Sampson imploded at Indiana.

Reynolds arrived as a McDonald's All-American, Crawford as the kid who had dunked on LeBron.

Williams? He was actually ranked below classmate and now teammate Solomon Hill (rated 54th) when he arrived in Arizona coach Sean Miller's world.

"I didn't even start him our first two games,'' Miller said.

Miller finally inserted Williams into the starting rotation while the Wildcats were playing in Maui. The opponent was Wisconsin, and for a second, Miller wondered if he'd made a mistake. Tossing a freshman into the teeth of the Badgers' physical style of play might, he fretted, set Williams back rather than propel him forward.

Williams wound up with 25 points, cashing in on 13 of 21 trips to the free-throw line for most of them, and pulled down eight rebounds.

Neither Miller nor Williams has looked back since.

Arizona's streak of 25 consecutive NCAA tournament berths ended last season, a painful finish to an impressive string. In a way, though, the end of the line officially closed the door on the Lute Olson chapter at Arizona and ushered in the Miller era.

And in the process, the new era was given a face.

It belonged to Williams, the Pac-10 freshman of the year and a player Miller knew he could build a program around.

[+] EnlargeSean Miller
Jason O. Watson/US PresswireCoach Sean Miller says Williams has a gift for getting better.

"A kid like this doesn't come along very often,'' Miller admitted. "He was very unheralded leaving high school and in college he goes from being a blend-in role kind of guy to really the team's best player. Now all of a sudden, he's one of the best players in college basketball. He has a gift for getting better.''

Genetics helped Williams get there. Like a puppy, he eventually grew into his oversized feet, and he had the good fortune to be born with long arms, "good length," as they say in the recruiting world.

Good genes, though, can only carry a person so far.

Imbued by his mother's not-so-subtle messages, Williams continues to grow as a player because he still works like the kid no one paid any attention to.

Rather than rest on his freshman hardware, Williams attacked the weight room this past summer and finessed both his free throw and outside shooting.

His one-time scrawny, 215-pound frame is now a brawny 240 . The extra weight has given Williams an extra boost -- so much so that Miller is constantly asked if Williams grew. For the record, he hasn't.

Scouts regularly have parked themselves courtside at Arizona games. They love Williams' offensive game and see him as a future pick-and-pop player in the league, a guy with a decent shooting range and whom many think could stretch that range out to the NBA 3-point line.

Williams took just 16 3-pointers as a freshman, making four of them. This season, he's launched 45, connecting on 28.

It is that incremental improvement that has scouts agog.

The NBA is all about upside and potential, and the fact that Williams got going in only the past two seasons actually makes him more appealing to those doing the drafting.

"He has room for physical growth and basketball growth,'' one scout said. "Now a lot of it is up to him. Will he be the kind of guy who goes in the gym and gets 500 shots up a day? You can't handicap that stuff, but he has a really high offensive skill set.''

Of those 10 guys ranked ahead of him in the ESPNU 100, none can match his numbers -- 19.1 ppg and 8.1 rpg -- nor are any picked right now to be drafted ahead of him.

The kid no one talked about now is the talk of Tucson.

He can't leave the McKale Center without students and fans chanting, 'one more year,' in his direction.

"It's um, it's a little weird, I guess,'' Williams said. "When I came in, I wasn't even the main guy on the team. Now whenever I do an interview, that's all I hear in the background, over and over.''


The broken-record questioning of what will his future hold is wearing a little bit on Williams. He understands why everyone wants to know if he'll go pro, but he wishes they could concentrate on the here and now.

He's never had the luxury of looking ahead, and so he's a little uncomfortable doing it now, especially with so much still to do.

It has been five years since Arizona won either a regular-season or conference tournament title.

The Wildcats' disastrous run through Los Angeles -- an inexplicable loss to USC followed by an non-competitive loss to UCLA -- left Arizona tied with the Bruins in the Pac-10 standings.

The Bruins definitely have the tougher finish -- at Washington and at Washington State versus the Wildcats' home dates with Oregon and Oregon State.

"We talk about that all the time, about being the team that restarts the tradition,'' Williams said. "We want to create our own legacy.''

If, in the process, Williams creates his own legacy, so be it.

He will not be rushed.

Plenty of his basketball-playing peers may have one foot on campus and the other at the tailor, picking out a suit for the NBA draft.

Not Williams.

He said he and his mother haven't discussed his future, and his mother affirms that position.

"The NBA will come when it's time,'' Moore said. "There's no rush. It will happen when it's meant to happen.''

The woman who raised a son to believe all good things come to those who wait isn't about to change now.

Dana O'Neil covers college basketball for ESPN.com and can be reached at espnoneil@live.com. Follow Dana on Twitter: @dgoneil1.

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